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Poker Players Push 'Game of Skill' to Lawmakers

5/24/09 - Miami Herald - View Source

By Michael Vasquez

Forget for a moment that poker games often take place in casinos, or that poker pots containing hundreds of dollars (or more) can be awarded based on the simple turn of a card.

If you buy the counter argument made by the game's biggest boosters, then poker is, in fact, a game of skill -- not a game of chance.

Should lawmakers in state capitals and Congress agree, it could mean a major expansion of online poker, and games of live poker could take place in dozens of states where poker is outlawed.

In states such as Florida, where poker is already legal, Internet poker players would still benefit from increased gambling options. If the federal government deems poker a skill game, it would be exempt from the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act that passed Congress in 2006.

The law cast a cloud over the legality of Internet gaming, and prompted some websites to no longer accept U.S. players.

Poker advocates now feel their skill message is gaining steam. The Florida Legislature this month approved higher-stakes poker at the state's Indian casinos and parimutuels. During the legislative session, skill was mentioned as one reason lawmakers should allow higher stakes -- with the idea that more chips in players' hands allow for skill to play a larger role.

The state must still reach a final gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe before the new poker rules take effect.


Adding to the momentum are court cases involving poker in Colorado, Pennsylvania and South Carolina, where judges ruled that poker was predominantly skill-based.

The Washington-based lobbying group Poker Players Alliance is making the case for poker as a skill game and lent support in all three court cases.

''Poker's only a gamble when you don't know what you're doing,'' said John Pappas, the alliance's executive director.

The three court decisions did not change the legal status in their respective states, but poker supporters are citing the cases in their lobbying of state lawmakers and are hoping to take the matter to state supreme courts.


Aside from their recent court successes, Pappas and other poker supporters have been encouraged by two academic studies that also found skill to be the deciding factor in poker.

Instead of computer models, both studies analyzed actual hands of poker played on the Internet -- the widespread popularity of online poker provided a massive data pool.

Perhaps the key finding came from a study coauthored by Sean McCulloch, an associate professor of Mathematics and Computer Science at Ohio Wesleyan University.

The study examined 103 million hands of Texas Hold 'Em poker played on the PokerStars website. It found the winner -- more than three out of four times -- was determined solely by betting with no player seeing their opponent's cards.

Betting is ''the thing that you have complete control over, nothing ever makes you bet,'' said well-known Las Vegas poker pro Howard ''The Professor'' Lederer. He has helped the poker alliance craft its poker-as-skill campaign.

''Winning this argument of ideas in courts and in the court of public opinion is going to be very important,'' Lederer said.

Gambling opponents, however, find the debate laughable at best.

John Stemberger of the Florida Family Policy Council called it ''hilarious'' that the poker community is trying to separate itself from the gambling label. Stemberger said he somewhat respected the seriousness with which poker boosters are analyzing their game, but he also said that energy would be better spent analyzing gambling's overall negative consequences.


Those consequences include divorce, addiction, suicide and bankruptcy, Stemberger said.

''All gambling is either unhealthy, unproductive or destructive,'' Stemberger said.

Though poker players may think of their pastime as more skill-based than, say, a slot machine, the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling fields calls from both poker and slots addicts.

Poker addicts, in fact, tend to be more than $10,000 deeper in debt than the slots players who call.

Pat Fowler, executive director of the gambling council, doesn't dispute poker has skill elements, but says highly-skilled players that can make a living from poker are the exception, not the rule.

Most poker players aren't quite that good, she said, and most ultimately lose money.

''Often poker players do get in over their head more quickly and for greater amounts because they believe that they have more skill than they do,'' Fowler said.

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