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

Yet many state laws also hold that a game that is "predominantly" a contest of skill is exempted from the ban. To poker devotees, the game's reliance on skilled decisions seems obvious. But when Hannum first started looking into the relative roles of skill and chance in poker a decade ago, he found a surprising lack of data on the subject.

Hannum credits his friend and collaborator, gaming attorney Tony Cabot, with urging him to get into the skill question — a critical question, in many jurisdictions, as to whether the game was legal or not. But how, Hannum wondered, do you go about proving that poker is a game of skill? How do you approach the question, and what sort of hard statistical evidence would persuade a court of law?

"It was immensely difficult," he says now. "And it continues to be difficult."

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."


The way Kevin Raley saw it, he and his friends were doing everything right. When the owners of a Greeley bar asked him and a small group of fellow poker enthusiasts if they'd like to organize a tournament, they gave considerable thought to how to keep the game legit under Colorado's gambling laws.

Raley's group charged a twenty-dollar entrance fee to players, just to make sure people would have "some skin in the game" and not play stupidly. But all of the money went back to the players in the form of prizes. And a newcomer had to be invited to play by one of the established regulars, who could vouch for the fresh face. Colorado's prohibition against gambling excludes games among players who have a "bona fide social relationship," and Raley believed his group met that criteria.

"We had a whole set of rules and bylaws set up," he says now. "You had to know someone who was in the game. You couldn't just walk in and start playing. But unscrupulous people in the group ended up inviting an undercover agent. That's what brought on the bust."

In 2008, state liquor authorities were looking into a licensing issue at the bar when they learned about the poker game. An undercover agent paid his entrance fee, played a few hands, and then the cops swooped in. Raley and his friends were charged with operating a professional gambling enterprise.

The group hired attorneys and refused to be stampeded into plea bargains. Raley was the first to go trial. On the day of trial, the prosecutor knocked the charge down to a petty offense, subject to no more than a $100 fine. Todd Taylor, Raley's attorney, wanted a jury trial just the same.

"It's the only time in my career that I've tried a petty offense," recalls Taylor, now a district court judge in Greeley. "The judge allowed me to have a jury of six, a two-day trial and an expert witness."

The star expert for the defense was Hannum. Raley had contacted the Poker Players Alliance, a grassroots advocacy group with more than a million members, for assistance — "looking specifically for an expert to testify that poker is a contest of skill," he says. The PPA informed him that one of the leading researchers on the subject lived an hour away from him; the organization also arranged to pay for Hannum's appearance. It was the beginning of the professor's tour of courtrooms in several states as a crusader in the poker wars.

By the time he testified for Raley, Hannum had read widely in the literature of poker mathematics and co-authored with Cabot a couple of key studies on the skill-versus-chance debate. Along with other forms of analysis, he ran computer simulations tracking the outcomes of a million hands of Seven-Card Stud and Texas Hold 'Em, inserting different player profiles in order to demonstrate the role that skill played in earnings. When all of the players were equally skilled, the individual earnings were quite similar. But insert one or more "unskilled" players, making random decisions rather than following a consistent strategy, and the results changed dramatically. The unskilled players lost big. The skilled players dominated the game.

Another simulation involved a billion hands of Texas Hold 'Em, with one skilled player facing off with one unskilled. The skilled player followed a very elementary but aggressive strategy: Always raise when allowed; otherwise, call. The unskilled player called, raised or folded in an utterly random fashion. The skilled player won 97 percent of the hands.

The results confirmed a fundamental truth of poker: Skill beats luck. Not every time, certainly, and not in every version of poker, but in the long run, a player making intelligent decisions in a game such as Hold 'Em or Stud will pound a novice into the ground. At a professional level, it's not about winning the most hands, but making the right decisions, based on the cards and the tells and the pot, and ultimately making the most of what you've got. That's why publications can rank with a fair degree of accuracy the top poker players in the world, the people who consistently land in the money at high-stakes tournaments. There are no lists of top players in roulette.

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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.