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Abstract

THE GAME OF POKER has been of interest to researchers in economics1 and artificial intelligence. 2 Its attributes have been compared to striking a bargain in the market and to the clash of war.3 Throughout the study of poker, the question whether performance is due to skill or just to luck has been a topic of much debate.4 In 1986, a professional poker player took on the IRS and won a ruling based on his argument that poker is a skill.5 This past January, a jury in the United Kingdom decided that poker is a game of luck, not skill.6 While it is clear that there has been much speculation about this question, the authors are unaware of any study that has addressed this issue. The aim of our study was to determine conclusively if poker is a game of skill. To do this, some participants were taught strategies based on expert opinion while others were taught no strategies.
GAMING LAW REVIEW
Volume 12, Number 1, 2008
©Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.
DOI: 10.1089/glr.2008.12105
Poker Is a Skill
MICHAEL A. DEDONNO AND DOUGLAS K. DETTERMAN
31
T
HE GAME OF POKER
has been of interest to re-
searchers in economics
1
and artificial intel-
ligence.
2
Its attributes have been compared to
striking a bargain in the market and to the clash
of war.
3
Throughout the study of poker, the question
whether performance is due to skill or just to
luck has been a topic of much debate.
4
In 1986,
a professional poker player took on the IRS and
won a ruling based on his argument that poker
is a skill.
5
This past January, a jury in the United
Kingdom decided that poker is a game of luck,
not skill.
6
While it is clear that there has been
much speculation about this question, the au-
thors are unaware of any study that has ad-
dressed this issue. The aim of our study was to
determine conclusively if poker is a game of
skill. To do this, some participants were taught
strategies based on expert opinion while oth-
ers were taught no strategies.
STUDY 1
In the first study conducted by the authors,
participants played poker with or without in-
struction. Each person played eight games of
25 hands totaling 200 hands of poker. This was
a preliminary study to see how effective in-
struction would be.
Method
Participants
A total of 41 students from a selective pri-
vate midwestern university participated in this
study. There were 29 males and 12 females.
Procedures and materials
The application used for the present study
was Turbo Texas Hold’em for Windows (ver-
sion four, copyright 1997–2000 Wilson Soft-
ware). This is a computerized simulation of a
10-player Hold’em poker game. Players se-
lected one of various options that maximized
earnings while minimizing losses.
The Turbo Texas Hold’em game began with
two cards face down dealt to each simulated
player and two cards facing up for the student.
These first two cards are called pocket cards.
After seeing his or her cards, the student had
the option to fold, call, or raise the bet. If the
Michael DeDonno, M.A., M.B.A., is a Ph.D. candidate in
the Department of Psychology at Case Western Reserve
University in Cleveland. Douglas K. Detterman is a pro-
fessor in the Department of Psychology at Case Western
Reserve University in Cleveland.
The authors would like to thank Abigail Jackson for her
assistance in the collection of data.
1
G
AME
T
HEORY AND
E
CONOMIC
A
NALYSIS
(C. Shmidt, ed.,
1995); T
HE
E
SSENTIAL
J
OHN
N
ASH
(H.W. Kuhn & S. Nasar,
eds., 2002).
2
D. Billings, A. Davidson, J. Schaeffer & D. Szafron, The
Challenge of Poker, 134 A
RTIFICIAL
I
NTELLIGENCE
J. 201–240
(2002).
3
J. McDonald, S
TRATEGY IN
P
OKER
, B
USINESS
& W
AR
(1950).
4
J. McKenna, Luck vs. Skill, P
OKER
P
LAYER
, Dec. 11, 2006,
at 20; James McManus, Mastering the Luck, F
ORBES
.
COM
,
Dec. 12, 2006, http://www.forbes.com/2006/12/16/
james-mcmanus-poker-cx_jm_games06_1215luck.html;
L. Phillips, Z
EN AND THE
A
RT OF
P
OKER
: T
IMELESS
S
ECRETS
TO
T
RANSFORM
Y
OUR
G
AME
80 (1999); J. Scarne, S
CARNE
S
G
UIDE TO
M
ODERN
P
OKER
29 (1980).
5
D. Oehring, Triumphant Reemergence? Players who hope-
fully will get quality TV time at this years WSOP, P
OKER
P
LAYER
, July 10, 2006, at 45–46.
6
Lucy Bannerman, Poker is a Game of Luck Not Skill, Court
Rules, T
IMES
O
NLINE
(London), Jan. 17, 2007, http://
www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-2551244,00.html.
student chose to fold, the hand would end and
the winning hand would be identified. If the
student chose to call or raise, a round of bet-
ting would occur and then three cards facing
up would be dealt and displayed on the center
of the screen that served as community cards.
These cards are used by all players in building
their best hand. The dealing of these cards is
called the flop. The student again had the op-
tion to call, raise, or fold. By staying in the
game, another round of betting occurs and then
a fourth card facing up is dealt to the center of
the screen. This is called the turn card. The op-
tions of call, raise, or fold continued to be avail-
able. If the student chose to play this hand, a
fifth and final card called the river is dealt fac-
ing up, and final betting occurs with a winner
being identified. The player with the best five
cards selected from the player’s own two cards
and any of the five community cards in the cen-
ter of the table wins the hand. If the student
had the best hand, the student won all the
money that was bet by all players during the
hand. If the student did not have the best hand,
the student lost the money bet during the hand.
Before each game, software options were set.
The auto stop point was set, which caused a
stop-playing window to open on the screen af-
ter a preset number of hands were played. The
repeatable deal feature was also used. This fea-
ture allows for the same set of randomly se-
lected hands to be played by all students.
At the start of the experiment, students were
randomly assigned to one of two conditions:
the instructed treatment group or the poker his-
tory control group. Each student then com-
pleted a self-assessment questionnaire. The
questionnaire was designed to gauge the stu-
dent’s knowledge of poker. Specific questions
such as How long have you been playing poker?
and How often do you play? were part of the
questionnaire.
Next, the experimenter distributed general
rules of poker to both groups. Included in this
document was an ordered listing of poker
hands from best hand to worst and specifics to
the functioning of the computer game.
Once the student was comfortable with the
task, he or she began the game by selecting the
deal button with the computer mouse. This
generated two cards face-down for each of the
nine simulated players and two cards face-up
for the student. At this point, the student had
the option to fold, call, or raise the bet.
Throughout each hand, the display showed the
decision each of the simulated players made
with respect to calling, raising, or folding.
Students in Study 1 played a total of eight
games, each consisting of 25 hands, totaling 200
hands of poker. The games were divided into
two sections. The first half contained the first
four games and the second half contained the
final four games. The repeatable deal number
for games 1, 2, 3, and 4 were counterbalanced
as were games 5, 6, 7, and 8. Counterbalancing
ensured all repeatable deal numbers were
played in each ordinal position equally often.
For example, the first student played repeat-
able deal numbers in the order of 1, 2, 3, and
4. The second student played the repeatable
deal numbers 2, 3, 4, 1, in order while the third
student played games 3, 4, 1, 2 in order and so
on. At the end of each round, the total amount
of profit or loss was collected.
After the first four games (100 hands) were
completed, the treatment group received poker
strategy information and the control group re-
ceived information pertaining to the history of
poker. The additional information distributed
to the treatment group included a hand rank-
ing strategy chart that provided quality values
of the pocket cards dealt at the start of each
hand. It also provided information such as the
importance of paying attention to the other
players’ decisions and the concept of playing
fewer hands. The control group received a doc-
ument that discussed the history of poker. Af-
ter reviewing the additional information, the
students completed the final four games.
Results
Data for the analysis were gathered from
the poker questionnaire and the student’s
performance in each of the eight games. Per-
formance was based on total amount of
money won or lost at the end of each game.
An overall mean score of amount won (or
lost) was calculated for games 1, 2 ,3, 4 and
for games 5, 6, 7, 8. This provided a mean
score for before and after treatment for con-
trol and treatment groups.
DEDONNO AND DETTERMAN
32
The primary data of interest were the results
at time 2. This set of games (5, 6, 7, 8) was
played after the treatment group received in-
struction. A univariate analysis of variance was
conducted to test the hypothesis that instruc-
tion would significantly improve students’
poker performance. Specifically, we wanted to
see if the group receiving the strategy docu-
ment showed statistically significant improve-
ment over the control group in poker perfor-
mance.
The analysis indicated that the between-sub-
jects effect of treatment was significant. The
students who received poker instruction out-
performed those who had received only infor-
mation on the history of poker. This can be seen
in figure 1. As illustrated, the two groups per-
formed almost identically on the first four
games (T1). As can been seen at time 2 (T2),
however, both groups improved due to prac-
tice effect. The treatment group yielded addi-
tional improvement through the use of the
strategy document. This analysis provides ev-
idence that individuals who receive instruction
in poker perform better than those who do not.
If poker was entirely a game of luck, instruc-
tion would not result in such improved per-
formance. Another interesting factor found in
figure 1 is that both groups were unable to win
money. In fact, only three participants finished
with positive totals. While the treatment group
approached break-even, additional strategies
could further enhance ability.
Reliability analysis of the eight games shows
moderate reliability. Reliability is the degree to
which measurement can be accurately re-
peated. This suggests the student would have
to play more games in order to generate a more
accurate representation of their poker ability.
In considering the level of perceived luck in
poker, we asked the students their opinions.
Out of 41 students, four (9.8%) felt poker was
10–30% luck, eleven (26.8%) felt it was 30–50%
luck, eighteen (43.9%) felt the game was
50–70% luck, seven (17.1%) felt poker was
70–90% luck, and one student (2.4%) felt it was
90–100% luck. In total, 64% of the students felt
poker was at least 50% luck. Of the total 41 stu-
dents, 25 considered themselves beginners, 15
intermediates, and 1 an advanced player of
poker.
Discussion
The objective of this study was to determine
if instruction would make a difference in poker
performance. Evidence of improved perfor-
mance when given minimal instruction sug-
gests poker is a skill-based activity.
A limitation of this study was the students’
lack of skill in the game of poker. The vast ma-
jority of students were beginners with limited
knowledge of the game. Of the 41 students,
only three finished all eight games with money.
Another potential limiting factor may have
been the lack of motivation to play the game to
the best of their abilities. Poker is a game of
winning and losing. In this lab environment,
however, the students had nothing to gain out-
side of personal satisfaction by playing their
best. These issues were considered in a follow-
up study.
STUDY 2
Study 2 was designed to test the value of
multiple strategies and provide more time to
practice the strategies. In addition, an objective
was to improve reliability. Utilizing Kuder-
Richardson Prophecy formula and data from
study 1, it was estimated that students would
need to play a minimum of 552 hands to ob-
tain a reliability of .90. As a result, students
of Study 2 played a total of 720 hands. In
POKER IS A SKILL 33
T1
($500.00)
($400.00)
($300.00)
($200.00)
($100.00)
$100.00
$0.00
T2
Time
Control
Profit / Loss
Treatment
FIG. 1. Study 1 time-based performance trend.
addition, Study 2 included additional strategy
information and a contest designed to motivate
students to play their best. This study vastly
extended the amount of time playing the game
from two hours to six hours. It also increased
the number of strategy documents from one to
a total of six strategy documents.
Method
Participants
A total of forty-six students from a selective
private midwestern university participated in
this study. Students were recruited from intro-
ductory psychology courses.
Procedure and materials
Within Study 2, general game settings were
the same as Study 1. Modifications to the game
procedures were as follows. This study included
3 two-hour sessions each containing six games
of 40 poker hands totaling 720 hands. The first
session began after the students reviewed basic
poker rules. After the second game, time 1 (T1),
the treatment group received the hand ranking
strategy document while control group received
a poker history document. At the completion of
the fourth game, time 2 (T2), the treatment
group received a strategy document providing
details about the value of position. This docu-
ment discussed the value of being in a position
where one is able to watch other players’ deci-
sions before making one’s own decision. Again,
and in all future strategy periods, the control
group received various poker history docu-
ments. The end of game six, time 3 (T3) marked
the completion of session 1.
The second and third sessions began with a
review of material distributed during the pre-
vious session. Once the participant had time to
review the information, the participant began
playing. At the end of the second game (ses-
sion 2, game 8; session 3, game 14) and fourth
game (session 2, game 10; session 3, game 16)
of the sessions, the treatment group received
additional instruction. At the end of game eight
(T4), the treatment group received strategies
pertaining to the concept of outs. The concept
of outs discussed the probability of getting the
optimum cards for the student’s hand. A prob-
ability chart identifying the percent chance of
getting the needed cards was included. At the
end of game ten (T5), the treatment group re-
ceived strategies relating to playing pre-flop.
This included strategies of folding, calling, and
betting. The end of game twelve (T6) marked
the completion of session 2. Upon completion
of game fourteen (T7), the treatment group re-
ceived information on playing the flop. This in-
cluded strategies of folding, checking, and bet-
ting. At the end of game sixteen (T8), the
treatment group received information on play-
ing the turn and river cards. Similar to the flop,
this included folding, checking, and betting.
The end of game eighteen (T9) marked the com-
pletion of session 3 and the experiment.
As in Study 1, the repeatable deal feature was
utilized. This ensured all students played the
same games. Games 1 through 6, 7 through 12,
and 13 through 18 were counterbalanced.
With the purpose of motivating students to
play their best, a contest was included in this
study. The contest was for an Apple iPod, now
very popular among college students. In hopes
of motivating all students, the contest was de-
signed as a raffle where higher scoring students
received larger numbers of entries.
Results
The primary data of interest were the results
posttreatment. While the treatment group re-
ceived instruction periodically during games 3
through 18, the averages for each of these
games were combined to generate a single
posttreatment result.
A univariate analysis of variance was con-
ducted to test the hypothesis that additional in-
struction would significantly improve stu-
dents’ poker performance. Specifically, we
wanted to see if the group receiving additional
strategy documents showed statistically signif-
icant improvement over the control group in
poker performance.
The analysis indicated that the between-sub-
jects effect of treatment was significant. The
students who received poker instruction out-
performed those who had received only infor-
mation on the history of poker. This improve-
ment continues to provide evidence for the
value of instruction in poker.
DEDONNO AND DETTERMAN
34
The added games within each session pro-
vided data for additional analysis. In session 1,
the treatment group showed significant im-
provement from time 1. The control group did
not show a significant change from time 1 to
time 2, but a trend toward significance from
time 2 to time 3. The distribution of the initial
strategy document seemed to have a more im-
mediate effect on performance while the con-
trol group needed to play more hands before
seeing a trend toward improvement. Figure 2
provides details of the change in performance
based on time points where the treatment
group received instruction and the control
group received poker history documentation.
As illustrated, the treatment group did not
demonstrate significant improvement after ses-
sion 1 even though it continued to receive in-
struction.
Based on the treatment group’s overall per-
formance, the initial strategy document made
the strongest impact on performance. This doc-
ument included the hand ranking strategy
chart, which discussed the value of playing
only the best starting hands. One of the most
common errors made by poker players is play-
ing too many hands.
To investigate the value of playing fewer
hands, a sampling of control and advanced
strategy participants was taken. Within this
sample, every game the participants played
was reviewed from a standpoint of number of
hands played and amount invested per hand.
The primary data of interest were the results
posttreatment. While the treatment group re-
ceived instruction periodically during games 3
through 18, the averages for each of these
games were combined to generate a single post
treatment result.
A univariate analysis of variance was con-
ducted to test the hypothesis that the treat-
ment group would play significantly fewer
hands than the control group. The analysis
indicated that the between-subjects effect of
treatment was significant. The treatment
group that received poker instruction played
significantly fewer hands than the control
group that received poker history documen-
tation. This indicated that education made an
impact on the number of hands played. Fig-
ure 3 provides graphical presentation of num-
ber of hands played from session 1 through
session 3.
These results indicated that playing fewer
hands resulted in improved performance. As
identified earlier, the treatment group’s im-
proved performance was most significant in
session 1 at time 2. As figure 3 illustrates, this
is the time the treatment group made the most
significant reduction in number of hands
played.
Reliability analysis of the 18 games shows an
improved reliability. The increase in games and
hands led to improved reliability. The subjects,
however, were still unable to generate positive
financial results.
POKER IS A SKILL 35
T1 T2 T3 T4 T5 T6 T7 T8 T9
($1,000.00)
($800.00)
($600.00)
($400.00)
($200.00)
$0.00
Time
Control
Profit / Loss
Treatment
FIG. 2. Study 2 time-based performance trend.
Discussion
An objective of Study 2 was to improve reli-
ability by further developing participants’
poker abilities. This study increased the
amount of time and instruction provided to the
participants. In addition, a contest was imple-
mented in hopes of keeping the participants
motivated to do their best. The resulting im-
proved reliability suggests a more accurate
measure of performance. Unfortunately, stu-
dents who earned a profit were still the mi-
nority.
There were three interesting results from this
study. First, as with Study 1, performance was
improved by strategy documentation. This
continues to provide evidence to the value of
instruction in poker. The second interesting re-
sult was the difference in time of improvement
between the control and treatment groups. The
treatment group’s improvement occurred al-
most immediately upon receiving strategy
documentation at time 2. The control group
had to play more hands before a trend in im-
provement was evident at time 3. Finally, as
many poker books suggest, playing fewer
hands does result in improved performance.
After instruction, the treatment group reduced
their number of hands played from an average
of 27 to an average of 15 hands per game, or
37% of hands dealt. While this resulted in im-
proved performance, they still played too
many hands. Most poker professionals recom-
mend playing 15% of hands dealt. The playing
of too many hands could be a cause for the con-
tinued loss of money by the students.
CONCLUSION
The question at the start of this study was Is
poker a game of luck or skill? The unequivocal
finding is that poker is a game of skill. In both
studies, participants who were instructed out-
performed those who were not instructed.
Given that poker is a complex skill, it is some-
what surprising that even elementary instruc-
tions and limited practice had an effect.
The reason that poker appears to be a game
of luck is that the reliability of any short ses-
sion is low. In a casino game of poker, about
25 hands are dealt per hour. In Study 2, par-
ticipants played 720 hands equivalent to about
30 hours of casino play. Study 2 met the psy-
chometric qualification for moderate reliability
of a psychometric task. What this suggests is
that obtaining accurate estimates of poker abil-
ity may not be easy. Luck (random factors) dis-
guises the fact that poker is a game of skill.
However, as these studies show, skill is the de-
termining factor in long-term outcome.
DEDONNO AND DETTERMAN
36
T1 T2 T3 T4 T5 T6 T7 T8 T9
0
35
30
25
20
15
5
10
Time
Control
Number of Hands Played
Treatment
FIG. 3. Study 2 time-based number of hands played.
... As observed (Fiedler & Wilcke, 2012, p. 5), "the answer to this question is especially important from a legal perspective as most jurisdictions legalize games of skill", while they regulate, or forbid, games of chance. Even if this has not always given consistent results, most of these investigations (DeDonno & Detterman 2008;Hannum & Cabot, 2009;Fiedler & Rock 2009;Schiavone, 2010) have shown that for poker games, unlike other 'passive games' in which the outcome depends entirely on chance (like slot machines or lotteries), the skill of the player has some relevance. In other words, for this game the chances of winning, despite being primarily conditioned by the element of luck, seem to increase, in the long term, in relation to the player's possession of knowledge of mathematical, probabilistic and betting-strategy-related concepts. ...
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... Bien que reposant essentiellement sur le hasard, l'issue de ces jeux favorisés par les personnes plus instruites comprend aussi une part d'habileté (Cantinotti, Ladouceur, & Jacques, 2004;DeDonno & Detterman, 2008), ce qui rend possible l'utilisation des connaissances, dont celles en SP, pour améliorer les chances de gains de ses participants (Odlaug, Marsh, Kim, & Grant, 2011). Néanmoins, ces jeux sont considérés comme étant plus risqués que la plupart des jeux sans composante d'habileté (Barrault & Varescon, 2012;Sévigny & Giroux, 2016). ...
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