Poker: Luck or Skill?

Michael A. DeDonno, a doctoral student from Case Western Reserve University, recently set out to answer the hottest poker question of recent years: Is poker a game of chance or skill?

 The question has been around for just as long as the game, but in recent years it became more crucial, and it might even have practical world-wide implications. As legislators recently moved in on online gambling and gambling related activities, many poker professionals and enthusiasts have been arguing that poker should not be blindly tossed into the ‘luck games’ category. This has wide legal implications for the popular game: Skilled games, such as chess, are not considered gambling. Therefore playing them for money over the internet does not violate any current law. Many, including DeDonno himself, think that poker should also fall under the ‘skilled games’ category. But while all others have to go by is a hunch or their strong convictions, DeDonno holds hard scientific proof.

Using undergrad students at the university, Michael DeDonno and Douglas K. Detterman, whose names both appear on the paper, conducted two separate studies. The first was made up of 41 students playing a total of 200 hands. The game played was Texas Hold’em, with each student playing alone against a computer simulation of a 10-hand game. All players were dealt the same series of random hands by the computer, so their performances could be compared against each other.

Most of the students had little poker experience coming into the game. In the middle of the experiment - after the first 100 hands, students were asked to stop playing. They were then randomly divided into two groups: the first group was given a short lesson about the history of poker, while the second group was given a list of starting hands (two-card combinations), ordered by their strength at a typical 10-player Hold’em game. Students from the second group were also told that professional players typically play only 15% of their hands.

The results were straight-forward: The students improved after being taught some basic strategy. They also did better than the students who weren’t taught anything but poker history, even though they were all being dealt the same hands.

In order to statistically verify his findings, DeDonno and Detterman now tested a second group of students. Again, after playing half of their hands they were divided into two groups. One was asked to attend a history lesson, while the other focused on some basic strategy. This time they were each to play a total of 720 hands. Although over time the performance of both groups improved with practice, the ‘skilled’ group preformed better overall, proving that poker is, in fact, a game of skill rather than luck.

Another byproduct of the research was scientific verification that playing fewer starting hands is, in fact, a winning poker strategy. Over time, the ‘skilled’ students dropped the number of starting hands they played from 27% to 15%. This is why they did better than the other group, which verifies the old poker wisdom: Throw away starting hands that you’re not comfortable with.

Michael DeDonno describes himself as ‘interested in poker’, which is why he set out to conduct his experiment in the first place. He believes that poker strategies can be positively applied to many real-life situations where only partial information is available, such as financial investments and real-estate transactions. It seems as though DeDonno will not be short of research ideas for is Doctorate.

Case Western Reserve is a private research university which is based in Cleveland, Ohio, United States. Its undergraduate program is currently ranked #1 in Ohio and #41 among national universities.

Read the online version of the research paper here.