Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.
I’ve been in Goa for the last ten days or so, grinding out poker tournaments and cash games. There are a bunch of other regulars following a similar routine in a busy month for poker, and all of them would be a bit befuddled by the title of economist Steven Levitt’s newest paper: ‘The Role of Skill Versus Luck in Poker: Evidence From the World Series of Poker’. To us, the answer is self-evident, as obvious as a question about whether skill really helps in playing cricket or whether Roger Federer’s achievements are a fluke. Nevertheless, in somewhat harrowed times for poker players, Levitt’s excellent paper, written with Thomas Miles, is hugely welcome.
As of April 15 this year, which the pokerverse refers to as Black Friday, US players were effectively barred from playing online poker at three online sites, including the two biggest in the world, Pokerstars and Full Tilt. This completed a series of actions that began in 2006, when the senate majority leader, Bill Frist, was scrambling furiously to get online poker banned in America. Since a bill to this effect was unlikely to pass on its own merits, he tacked on the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) onto legislation about protecting the ports of the country, and got it through at the fag end of a session before the senate went on recess. The bill didn’t ban online gambling per se, but prohibited the use of US banks and credit cards for depositing money into those sites.
While that hurt online gaming, Americans continued to play poker at sites like Pokerstars and Full Tilt, as the sites presumably used a variety of methods to get around the issue of accepting and giving payments. They were indicted on Black Friday, though, as the legality of some of these methods came into question, and American players have been barred from playing at these sites. This has hugely affected the livelihood of many online grinders, who played poker for a living. Besides that, it is also an infringement on the rights and freedoms of Americans from their own government, which is depressing, considering that in other aspects, like freedom of speech, America sets an example to the rest of the world.
This will get sorted out. Sooner or later it will be legally settled, once and for all, that poker is a game of skill and not luck. The UIGEA will cease to apply to it, and the debate will be moot. Levitt and Miles’s new paper might well play an important part in that. It’s something most Americans understand anyway: poker is a quintessential American game, and it can even be argued that its history would be different without it. Richard Nixon funded his first political campaign through his poker winnings, and Barack Obama, according to David Remnick in The Bridge, used poker sessions with local bigwigs as a networking opportunity during his formative political years in Chicago. (By all accounts, he is tight-aggressive: cautious when it comes to entering a hand but, as his recent play in Abbottabad shows, not afraid of putting all his chips in the middle if he feels the situation demanded it.)
Given the legal status of gambling in India, a US ruling about poker being a game of skill would also help the game grow in India. At the moment, poker tournaments and cash games are legal only in the offshore casinos in Goa. An underground scene thrives in every city—and that’s understating it—but it’s all a bit precarious. Once it is as legal as, say, Bridge, I predict a poker explosion in India that will make it, within five years, the second most popular sport in India, after cricket. You’ll have the whole gamut of entertainment options: televised tournaments, high stakes cash games with hole cameras, poker celebrities as instantly recognisable as Gautam Gambhir. All stoked by the illusion that we all get the same cards, and any of us could be up there in the spotlight. It will happen; remember that you read it here first.
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I’ve written in the past about why poker is a game of skill, so rather than go over old territory, let me direct you to some old Viewfinder columns on this subject:
You can also check out my bi-monthly column for Cardplayer India, Pocket Quads.
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At one level, the argument about whether poker is a game of skill or not should be irrelevent in a legal sense, because it is my contention that even games of chance should not be banned. There are two reasons for this: One, as I’ve argued before, practically everything we do in our lives, from investing in the stock market, selecting a job or choosing a spouse is a gamble of some sort, in the sense that we make an estimate of the odds of our investment leading to a good return, and act accordingly. In many of these matters, we are sometimes too optimistic—but that’s life.
The second reason is more fundamental. What I do with my time and money is my business alone, as long as I do not infringe on anyone’s rights. This right of mine, over my life and my property, is something that the government is supposed to protect. For it to actually curtail and infringe these rights defeats the purpose of government itself. Governments exist to serve us, not the other way around. And yet, we the rulers allow ourselves to become the ruled. On a matter or principle, thus, all laws against gambling are wrong.
That said, from a poker player’s perspective, proving that it is a game of skill is lower-hanging fruit. Let’s get there first.
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Since we’re talking poker, I’ll end by telling you about a sick call I made the other day. I’m at the button in a five-handed game, with the blinds at 100-200, and stacks ranging from 30k to 100k. It’s five in the morning, and the game has become very loose and aggressive. Everyone limps to me, and I look down at red pocket 8s. I raise to 1000, and everyone calls. The small blind, who has been very frisky and seems to be tilting, announces “check in dark.”
The flop is Ac2sAc. (Two aces, two clubs.) I’m ready to give up the hand if someone bets, as one of the callers could easily have an ace, but the action checks to me, and I choose not to build the pot by betting: I check. Before the turn opens, the frisky small blind announces, “Bet in dark. Four thousand.” (Into a pot of five.) The turn is the king of clubs; there are now three clubs on the board. I’m ready to fold if someone calls or raises him, but the action folds to me. My read is that he does not have an ace, which he is trying to represent, because from what I know of him, he wouldn’t play it like this. I call.
The river is the ten of clubs. There are four clubs on the board, and also two aces, one king and one ten. Any of them beat me. Frisky boy bets 16 thousand into a pot of 13. You’d think this is where I fold, but wait, not so fast. I tank, and think through what he might have. His range, in my view, is very polarised. Either he has the nuts or he has nothing. I can’t see him betting a random club here because he has showdown value. Ditto a king or a ten. He wouldn’t bet trips here because there’s a flush on the board. He wouldn’t bet a flush because there’s a repeat ace on the board, my preflop raising range has many hands with an ace in it, I did call his turn bet, and I’m capable of slowplaying a full house. In my estimate, either he has some sort of full house, and is overbetting the pot to get value from a flush, in case I have one, or he has nothing.
I talk to him. He talks back, smiles sheepishly. The physical tells I’m getting are of weakness, so I call. He mucks his hand, and I take down the pot with two red eights on a board with four clubs, two aces and two other overcards. I don’t show emotion much at a poker table, but I’m overjoyed at my analysis and my reads turning out to be right, and I punch the air. “Come to Papa,” I exclaim. Poker is a game of luck, you say? My ass it is.
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