Wednesday, September 12, 2012

20 thoughts on skill vs. chance in poker, part 7: Tournaments vs. cash games

<-- Part 6: Outcome-based approaches depend on game duration in an impractical way


Some believe that the fundamental differences between tournament poker and cash game poker are enough to put them into separate classification under predominance.

To be sure, on a practical level, the structure of tournaments does go a long way towards solving the issue of cash game poker being measured on the scale of a single hand. Even though tournaments involve at least a slightly different skill set and have their own considerations which can influence chance in the outcomes, when facing an outcome-based measure of predominance, the relative influence of skill over chance should be greater over one tournament than it is over one hand. Alfred Denning wrote an amusing hyperbolic take on the issue of predominance which mused on the potential legal advantages that a poker site would have if it had only offered tournaments. There is an important practical role for this distinction to play, especially since playing poker in a tournament structure almost exactly matches the structure of typical tournament play for other competitive strategy games with random components, all of which are almost universally perceived as being predominantly skill. Drawing comparisons between our game and these other games is a valuable means of conveying some understanding of the issues to laypeople.

However, at least on a purely theoretical level where we might consider bizarrely-structured tournaments, I don't think there's anything universally true about tournament poker in general that separates it from cash game poker in general when it comes to the influence of skill and chance. Last year, I wrote "A logical approach to the skill vs. chance structure of cash games vs. tournaments", which is worth a read or reread and fits in well with this series. In summary, there's nothing inherent to tournament poker relative to cash game poker that shifts the paradigm or order of magnitude of skill and chance in the game. By way of contradiction, if it were the case that all tournaments were predominantly skill and all cash games were predominantly chance, this is generally inconsistent with the structural similarities between a single-table, winner-take-all tournament and a cash game, as I detail in that post.

Certainly, it would be easy to design a tournament structure with small starting stacks or hilariously-large antes to make the outcomes of the tournament arbitrarily close to those of pure chance, and one could design a cash game structure with deep stacks and perhaps some sort of minimum number of hands to play that would have an arbitrarily large amount of skill. For the common approaches to predominance, there are no easy generalizations when it comes to poker.

In practice though, yes, the tournaments that people commonly play do indeed lock in a minimum amount of play before awarding prizes, so this can be important when facing an outcome-based approach to predominance, as it was in Sweden (as discussed in my linked post above). But rather than this meaning that tournaments might be predominantly skill while cash games are not, I see this as more of a logical stepping stone in asserting that both forms of poker are predominantly skill. Demonstrate that tournament poker is a game of a similar structure to tournaments in any other game, and then use something like my old argument to demonstrate how the changes that make a tournament into a cash game generally serve to allow superior players to avoid being eliminated by one unlucky hand, to allow players to compete for shorter spans of time instead of locking them in for hours or days, and to prevent forcing players into taking effective financial risks for many times their initial investment. Start with the clear comparison to the games which are universally accepted, then work through the theory to show how other forms of poker are similar.


Part 8: How are we measuring skill, anyway? -->

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