Poker and the Law

Last month poker pro Ola “Odd_Oddsen” Amundsgard defeated Norwegian politician Erlend Wiborg in a heads-up Pot Limit Omaha match. Amundsgard offered a 1 million kroner ($170,000) “freeroll” to any member of Norwegian parliament who would take him on in a match. If the member of parliament won, he would get 1 million, but if he lost, he wouldn’t have to pay anything.

In Norway, as in the United States, poker’s designation as a game of skill or game of chance is central to the laws governing it. It is perfectly legal to play games of skill for rewards (as in, for example, the prize for winning a chess tournament), but games of chance are considered gambling and fall under more restrictive legislation. Thus, those wishing to loosen the regulations around poker seek to define it as a game of skill, while those wishing to tighten the regulations define it as a game of chance.

The whole debate is based on a misunderstanding of the relationship between skill and chance. It is simply not true that a game is either a game of skill or a game of chance. In fact, there is not even any relationship between the two. More of one does not imply less of the other. It’s easy to think of games with all sorts of combinations between skill and chance: a lot of both (backgammon), a lot of skill and a little chance (chess), a lot of chance and a little skill (yahtzee), not much of either (tic-tac-toe).

As is the case with so many topics, the public debate has become a cynical rehashing of semantics, while the core issues go unexamined. The whole luck-skill thing is a red herring. The real issue, to my mind, is whether adults can do what they like with their own money. It’s ironic that the United States now restricts online poker more severely than many other countries. Poker was created in America and is, along with baseball, football, and basketball, one of the games we use to define ourselves. Yet alongside our frontier tradition of freedom and rebellion, we have an equally strong Puritanical tradition of repression and prudery. Attempts to legislate the lifestyles of our fellow citizens are nothing new.

Wiborg, Amundsgard’s opponent in the match, comes from the side that wants poker legalized. As such, his competitive interest in the match was divided (not that it would have made any difference). The match was primarily a PR event, of course. It is telling, however, that no politicians on the other side jumped at the opportunity to compete. If they really believed what they say, they would have had a 50/50 chance at 1 million kroner. I doubt the members of Norwegian parliament are so rich that they could casually turn that down.

I don’t think the politicians who want to outlaw poker are particularly interested in luck or skill; they just find poker unsavory. The poker players, for their part, mostly understand that this whole luck-skill thing is pretty silly, but feel they have to play the hand they’re dealt. The role of luck and skill of poker can be summed up quite easily: anyone can win a lucky hand, but in the long run skillful players will tend to win. There’s not much more to be said about it, but the public debate has been mired on this issue for years.

Something happened to me recently that I feel is related to all this somehow. I had been meeting with a chess student at the library for a few weeks, but at the end of one lesson, the librarian told me they have a policy against playing games and I would have to put my chess board away. Indeed, rule 11 of the Ann Arbor District Library Rules of Behavior “prohibits board games, gambling, card playing, or other games of chance or skill on Library property, except patrons may play board games when such games are provided by the Library as part of an organized activity.” At the very moment I was warned about my chess board, a crazy guy was ranting about how he’d like to kill Obama. You can’t make this stuff up. Naturally, he wasn’t asked to leave. But the guy with the chess board — that’s something that has to be dealt with right away.

Apart from the general weirdness of outlawing chess in a library, the phrase “games of chance or skill” strikes me as particularly odd. Does that leave any games out? Why not just say, simply, “games”? I suppose the rules were drafted with the help of lawyers and they advised throwing that in there.

In the case of poker, at least, it seems as though the law was drafted by people with no particular knowledge of the subject. With poker and many other subjects, if we frame the debate in the terms of the law, we risk coming to some very silly conclusions.



One thought on “Poker and the Law

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