DU professor says poker is about skill, not luck

After a billion hands of poker, University of Denver professor Robert Hannum knows when to hold 'em

As various forms of legalized gambling swept the country, Hannum started fielding calls from reporters who were looking for a "math guy" to run down the odds behind the games. Hannum explained that, in certain forms of video poker or with a traditional game of blackjack using a single deck, a player pursuing an optimal strategy might have a reasonable expectation of almost breaking even. He was less encouraging about slot machines. In fact, he once testified in a tax case that a man who claimed to be a professional slot-machine player was aspiring to a profession that didn't exist, since there was no mathematical expectation of making a profit by playing slots.

That's not to say that strange things don't happen in casinos. Like Ludwig's roulette run. Or the $9 million a player at another casino won at blackjack, a windfall that Hannum was asked to analyze. (His verdict: unusual but not all that suspicious, given the size of the bets the player was making.) Or the case of Patricia Demauro, which makes Ludwig's hot hand seem positively tepid. In 2009, Demauro walked into an Atlantic City casino and proceeded to throw the dice at a craps table for four hours and eighteen minutes, 154 rolls in all, without crapping out. It was a world record, a one-in-1.56 trillion event — and only her second time playing craps. Call it beginner's luck.

From a purely mathematical perspective, of course, there's no such thing as luck, just the complexities of probability. Yet people's myths and superstitions about slots, roulette and other games that strongly favor the house are hard to break — for example, the notion, known as the gambler's fallacy, that a particular one-armed bandit is "overdue" for a big jackpot or that a particular number will come up soon on the roulette wheel because it hasn't shown up in dozens of spins.

Slot machines do not run hot and cold, according to the professor.
Anthony Camera
Slot machines do not run hot and cold, according to the professor.
Robert Hannum occasionally visits Colorado's casinos "for research purposes."
Anthony Camera
Robert Hannum occasionally visits Colorado's casinos "for research purposes."

"People think that the spins are not independent and that slot machines run hot and cold," Hannum says. "It's one of the most common mistakes made in thinking about gambling and the mathematics involved."

Even the sharpies who run the joint, Hannum discovered, sometimes make errors in their math. A few years ago, the operators of an Illinois riverboat casino figured they would offer payoffs of 2-1 on natural blackjacks one slow day of the week, instead of the customary 3-2 return — a bonehead move that effectively wiped out the house's slight edge and gave the players a 2 percent advantage. The place ended up losing $200,000 in one day on the promotion. Other innovative side bets and promotions have backfired, too, prompting casinos to consult with Hannum or other math professionals before embarking on such ventures.

"You might be surprised how many people there are in the industry who aren't well-versed in the mathematics," Hannum says. "They usually know the numbers for the traditional games, but there are a lot of new games and new machines out there."

He's developed a keen appreciation for the kind of calibrations that Pileggi wrote about. New variations of casino games and slot machines have to be sufficiently attractive in payouts to keep customers playing yet still afford the house a reliable return on investment. The trick is how to design a game that allows most players to lose slowly while a few might actually win.

"They can grind you into the dust, as long as they don't do it too quickly," he notes. "If people get crushed, they're not going to come back. The game developers have to play a balancing act between making money and not making the edge too big."

Perhaps because he knows the numbers all too well, Hannum doesn't consider himself much of a gambler. He prefers to spend his free time shooting hoops or coaching youth soccer or baseball. When he does venture into the green felt jungle, he'll occasionally check out new casino games — "I guess you can say, wink wink, I do play occasionally for research purposes," he says — but the odds are better of finding him in the poker room.

Poker fascinates Hannum. There's no house edge; casinos simply take a cut of the pot for hosting the game. But there are layers and layers of strategy involved, from knowing the odds of drawing certain cards to the psychology of bluffing, the elaborate considerations that go into betting decisions, and the art of reading other hands — and other players. And, of course, each variation of the game has its own dynamics and hazards.

"I like Texas Hold 'Em," Hannum says, "but I also like Seven-Card Stud. Unfortunately, that tends to be an East Coast game. It's harder to find in Las Vegas."

The huge rise in popularity of poker in the past decade — not just in casinos but in bars and basement rec rooms across the land — is generally attributed to the increasing television coverage of high-stakes Texas Hold 'Em tournaments. In particular, the 2003 $2.5 million victory at the World Series of Poker by the aptly named Chris Moneymaker, an accountant who won a seat at the Main Event by battling his way up from a $39 online satellite tournament, seemed to galvanize legions of back-room players into dreaming that they, too, had the stuff to go all the way. But with the explosion of poker tournaments and online play came a slew of prosecutions; in most states, poker operations for profit are lumped with other "games of chance" and are considered illegal outside of licensed casinos or card rooms.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
jenny john
jenny john

Ya i am also agree with them that poker is all about skill and chance not depend on luck, casino is a one of the best option for enjoyment and earning money. I this blog post i found really a useful stuff about the casino gaming. slots


Ya i am agree with this sentence that poker is all about skill but i think luck is also does matters in casino gaming. Without skill and knowledge we can not give our best performance casino gaming is might be risky. online slots

Terry Terril
Terry Terril

Very interesting article. The gambling games can be analyzed top to bottom, but they are only games. Different rules, different instruments, luck or skill, maybe even a little cheating. But all- in-all they are only games, played by people. Poker, roulette, craps, 21, the big wheel, keno, bingo and hundreds of others have been around for years. What's the big deal?

The big deal is m-o-n-e-y. If a big game of Texas Hold'em was held in Central Park NYC, and was played for fun, and the winner received a rousting applause, no one would give a hoot. But when money is introduced into the game as a fee for playing, or as a prize for good play,many people especially the government guru's get their shorts in a knot.

Nobody really cares if a game is mostly luck or if its all skill. The people who are most concerned about the activity are interested in the money. Who's getting the money? Will the players get money? Will the provider of the games get money? Will they give their honest share to the government? Will government employees and their cronies get money? Where does the money go?

If the numbers on where the money goes are analyzed a whole different perspective will be revealed. Bet on it.