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

"There are multiple skills in poker, but they're all manifested in betting decisions," Hannum says. "Do you bet or do you fold? Skilled players fold when they see that will minimize their losses, and they'll extract more money from the other players when they have a good hand. Weak players can have great cards, too, but they can't do that as well."

Raley felt he had a strong case that his friendly little game involved "bona fide social relationships" — but having Hannum testify that poker was mostly a game of skill didn't hurt. "I believe it was pretty instrumental in what happened," he says. "The prosecution didn't have much of a case, and the jury found me not guilty."

Although they couldn't contest Raley's acquittal, Weld County prosecutors appealed the case, contending that Hannum shouldn't have been allowed to testify because existing case law in Colorado already defined poker as a game of chance. A district court judge agreed.

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."

"Some states analyze the issue from the question of whether skill prevails or if chance does," Taylor explains. "But the district court in this case said it's not a question of predominance; poker relies to some extent on chance, so under Colorado law, it's gambling."

Raley appealed that decision, but the Colorado Supreme Court declined to review the case. These days he plays poker at casinos or at a friend's house, but he's hopeful that some day the state's antiquated approach to the game will change. "It's like pushing a snowball uphill," he says. "It's just a matter of time to get enough cases to get it over the top."

Hannum has been pushing the snowball in other courtrooms over the past two years. In South Carolina, his testimony helped to persuade a judge that poker is primarily a game of skill, but the judge ruled there, too, that the predominance test didn't apply; the case is on appeal. He's also testified in trials in Kansas and Pennsylvania, with mixed results. His appearances are often paid for by the Poker Players Alliance. "They put their resources behind these cases, and one of their resources happens to be me," he says.

According to Cabot, scientific evidence about poker as a game of skill has now been presented in more than a dozen cases across the nation. "Poker has been found to be a game of skill in five or six of those cases," he says. "In a couple of cases, the courts decided it was equal chance and skill. It's a difficult issue. There are so many types of games, and the way they're played can have an impact on their legality."

John Pappas, executive director of the PPA, expects the issue will ultimately be resolved through legislation rather than the courts. "There is legislation pending in a few states, based on the re-evaluation poker is receiving," he says. "It's only in the last few years that we've been able to get hard data that poker is a game of skill."

In his view, Hannum's efforts have been invaluable in making that case. "He's very convincing," Pappas says. "He doesn't come across as a pointy-head scholar, but as a down-to-earth academic who has a firm grasp of the facts."

In recent months, the PPA's energies have focused less on state cases and more on the federal government's efforts to protect American citizens from the depravity of online poker. The Black Friday shutdown stemmed from a 2006 law, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act. The UIGEA didn't outlaw the foreign-based poker sites, but it made it illegal for American banks to process financial transactions with them. The recent indictments allege that site executives attempted to disguise fund transfers and engaged in other activity to circumvent the law. But outrage over Black Friday has put pressure on lawmakers to repeal the UIGEA and come up with a workable framework for regulating and taxing the lucrative online business.

"This has been the awakening of a sleeping giant," Pappas says. "A lot of poker players were apathetic about getting involved politically because they were playing online. Now that the largest sites have been taken away from them, they're starting to recognize why state and federal regulation is so important."

And, of course, companies with a stake in traditional gaming outlets are trying to figure out how to get a piece of the action, too. "The brick-and-mortar casinos, the tribes — they all view this as a real opportunity for them," he adds. "Instead of facing opposition from antique gaming interests, we're seeing those interests wanting to get in on this."

Ironically, much of the hard data that could end up changing state and federal laws about poker is now coming from Internet poker sites. That includes Hannum's latest research project, a collaboration with two other DU professors, Terry Dalton and Matt Rutherford. Not yet published, their research draws on a well of information never available before: more than a billion hands of actual online poker games. Although he's reluctant to discuss the data in detail at this point, Hannum says they were able to view the hands in "God mode" — meaning they could see all the hole cards, whether the players folded or not.

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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.