Saturday, September 15, 2012

20 thoughts on skill vs. chance in poker, part 10: Games of skill vs. "involving skills"

<-- Part 9: Common intuitive proxies for skill and chance in games

Poker is a game of skill.

Poker involves skills to play.

While both are true, the two phrases have different meanings. Various legal standards of predominance sometimes demand that the lines are blurred between the two, but I believe that the former is the stronger statement and the one that should be treated as the social and legal standard for classifying games in an ideal society.

The landmark U.S. vs. DiCristina case, which truly did get a lot correct as far as legal rulings go, stumbled a bit on this nuance. In its summary an argument made by the government (the party aiming to show that IGBA applied to poker), the ruling includes this sentence which highlights the confusion that this can cause:
Similarly, other card games commonly considered gambling, such as blackjack, demand talents similar to those employed in poker, requiring skilled players to take advantage of known odds.
While Weinstein disagrees with this argument, going on to make some observations as to how poker is fundamentally different from blackjack, in the end his reasoning accedes to the "involving skill" perspective laid out in the government's argument:
Expert poker players draw on an array of talents, including facility with
numbers, knowledge of human psychology, and powers of observation and deception.

So, what's wrong with this? Well, every game of skill (predominant or not) will involve skills to play. However, the list of skills might not be very long, and it should not be implied that the degree of skill present in a game is directly related to the number of personal talents necessary to succeed at the game.

Weinstein's list for poker is pretty typical, and even that short list is problematic in that listing powers of observation and deception (or physical tells in general) might lead a layperson to conclude that online poker might not be a game of skill because it doesn't involve that particular skill. The other skills one could list for poker would all fall under the general umbrella of logical deduction and strategic thinking. In pure strategy games such as chess, checkers, and go, strategic thinking might realistically be the only talent or ability one could list as being helpful for the game.

Every symmetric, closed, competitive strategy game will, of course, involve strategic thinking, and I would argue that a reasonably consistent definition of "game of skill" need consider no other skills involved. Strategic interplay between players is the essence of skilled competition, and the undue focus on other talents and abilities that creating a list of "involved skills" necessitates is a diversion from the fundamental strategic structure of a game.

The real issue reason that this seemingly-semantic matter is worth probing into is that many games of chance also "involve skills", despite having no strategic game-theoretic structure. As noted by the government, blackjack and other variable-negative-EV house certainly involve some degree of "facility with numbers" and computing odds. Market-based non-game activities, such as sports betting or stock investing, most certainly involve plenty of skills as well, and most certainly have long-term winners and losers, but that does not make these pursuits into symmetric, closed, competitive strategy games.

Any theoretical asymmetric, noncompetitive house game could be modified so as to involve as much computational thinking as necessary, or any other sort of desired external talent. We could create roulette variants where your probability of winning is decreased even further beyond the default odds unless you can accurately track and perform calculations with some external numbers (Rain Man Roulette), or perhaps unless you can perform a feat of strength (Festivus Roulette), or unless you can answer some trivia questions about the Beatles (Roulette It Be). Appending outlets for various skills to a game of chance doesn't change that the structure of the underlying game, and none of these makes roulette into a bona fide game in the sense of game theory (orthogame).

Essentially, specific skills such as facility with numbers, estimating odds, and powers of observation will be involved in a wide variety of activities in life. Some of those activities might be games of pure chance, some might be games of chance where the degree of the negative expectation depends on player decisions, and some might not be games at all. But only symmetric, closed, competitive strategy games will involve the particular skill of strategic thinking, and this is the only involved skill which necessarily reveals anything about the fundamental structure of the game.

Blurring the line between skills involved and the fundamental presence of strategic interplay in a game can lead to comparisons of categorically dissimilar games and endeavors. In the realm of poker advocacy, many well-intentioned players argue that poker should be treated differently than gambling because poker "involves more skill than other forms of gambling". Part of Weinstein's decision cites a case involving a video poker (not poker) variant called Joker Poker, and Weinstein distinguishes poker and Joker Poker by noting that "Joker Poker involves significantly less skill than the live Texas Hold'em games operated by the defendant". Lines of reasoning such as this, tripping themselves up between the involvement of skill in an activity and the structure of each activity, might sometimes be perceived as implying that poker is, say, essentially a "more advanced" version of casino gambling, rather than something fundamentally different.

At the very least, I think we as a community can pay more attention to the fact that these two phrases carry different meanings, even if we sometimes have to focus on "involving skill" for certain legal standards.

Part 11: Why not blackjack or other casino games? -->

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