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    Poker Still Needs the Skill Game Argument

    Posted by Mike Stein August 20, 2013

    Last week, QuadJacks.com’s Marco Valerio wrote a column discussing the changing role of the argument that poker is a skill game. I agree that the current political environment is a great fit for economic arguments like the ones that Tom Breitling discussed in his Bloomberg interview, and that those talking points should now be at the forefront. However, I think that completely ditching the skill game argument is unwarranted and may prove to be a potentially foolish strategy down the road.

    Yes, most of America neither cares about nor truly understands the distinction of poker as a skill game. I can appreciate the collective frustration of the poker community at this point. But are we truly sick and tired of the skill game argument, or only sick and tired of it not achieving its goals as quickly as we’d like? Preconceptions about gambling are deeply rooted in our culture, and social changes take time. A public’s apathy and misunderstanding of a factual concept are terrible reasons to completely abandon efforts to spread awareness of it, particularly when it’s as important as this.

    I think it is clear that both the new and the old talking points have always been inherently valid and relevant, at least in a perfect world where the general public is willing to accept them. For American poker to truly succeed and thrive, we may need the country to eventually understand both. Even as we pique the country’s interest with the broader economic arguments that also apply to casino gambling, we should keep the “poker is different” message within the public consciousness, at least in the background. The primary messaging of revenue and consumer protection should be the quickest means of achieving partial progress towards online poker rights, but spreading awareness of poker’s uniqueness as a set of secondary talking points can help to achieve some crucial longer-term goals.

    As PokerXanadu noted in his comment on Marco’s article, while unlikely, there is still the possibility of a federal online gambling prohibition with a poker carve-out. Awareness of poker’s uniqueness could potentially mean the difference between a poker exemption and a complete prohibition. Similarly, the prospects of a non-prohibitionary federal poker-only bill benefit from continued media focus on poker being meaningfully distinct from other gambling, as do the prospects of a federal bill enabling interstate pooling between intrastate poker markets. Federal action is a long shot right now, and the skill argument would be far from the biggest factor behind anything passing, but if nothing else it can serve as an important political excuse for votes from some politicians.

    Any of these federal options would involve state opt-outs, and that’s the real battleground where the skill argument could have a more direct impact. States which are historically less gambling-friendly may be more inclined to participate in a federal or state-pooled poker scheme if the skill argument is made loudly enough (after the primary allure of revenue). For the same reasons, even if a federal bill never passes, new intrastate poker-only bills could become more likely when lawmakers understand that poker is structurally identical to dozens of other already-legal strategy games. Even if we accept that the skill argument has a low probability of success in any given state, with many states potentially on the fence about poker, the skill argument making the difference regarding even a single state’s participation would easily be worth our efforts.

    Incorporating the skill argument into our talking points could be done with a careful eye towards accessibility by the general public. Rather than trying to imply that poker isn’t gambling, perhaps instead we explain that poker, as a peer-to-peer strategy game, is unique among gambling. It’s not that poker deserves no oversight or regulation at all. It’s that poker deserves distinct, special attention. This can tie in nicely to the revenue and consumer protection angles of the primary talking points.

    Let’s keep the right balance of pragmatism and idealism. We should take advantage of the opportunity to give the economic arguments the spotlight they deserve for now, but we shouldn’t ditch the skill argument entirely. We’re going to need it someday.

    QuadJacks – August 20, 2013

    About Mike Stein

    Mike Stein (@QuantPoker) is a mathematician and lifelong enthusiast of competitive strategy games. He writes about practical and theoretical applications of applied probability within and around poker at www.QuantitativePoker.com.

    View all post by Mike Stein Visit author's website

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