Matter of Opinion

          Numerous times I've written about how I consider video poker to be more than a game of luck.  Twenty plus years ago, my father wrote about a court case in which a judge determined that video poker is a game of luck, despite my father's testimony to the contrary.  This topic was the center of a conversation I had earlier today with some very knowledgeable people in the industry. 


            There seemed to be two trains of thought.  The first was that a game of skill requires some form of physical skill and mental acuity is simply not considered skill.  I didn't have much of a response to this one.  If this is the definition of a game of skill, than all traditional games in the casino don't qualify.  To be clear, I most certainly do not agree with this definition and even less so that using one's brain is not a 'skill'.  There's a lot more I could say on this subject, but I'll leave that to my personal Facebook page.  Suffice it to say, I believe that perhaps we should put MORE emphasis on brain power than we currently do as a society.


            The second train of thought goes to the degree to which skill plays a part vs. luck.  If the game must simply have any amount of skill, than any game with a strategy becomes a game of skill.  This leaves out only a handful of games - slots, Big Wheel, Keno, etc...  I'm not really sure where this leaves Roulette and Craps.  These games don't have strategy per se.  There are wagers within them to avoid more than others.  In Craps, you can increase your payback by taking Odds.  So, does this become a game of skill?


            With the exception perhaps of the Poker room, nothing in the casino, in my opinion, approaches the point of being more skill than luck.  But, I don't think a game must be 51% skill to be a game of skill.  I think, however, that this train of thought is a more accurate description than the need for some physical component.  Casino games were not meant to be physical.  While there are many components of physics in sports, what happened in Revenge of the Nerds was more farcical than real.


            So, how much strategy is required to make a game into one that can be considered to be one of skill.  I think there are two components to this.  The first is the amount of strategy and the second is the impact of not following this strategy.  They are usually tied together, but not always.  Let's start with the game that has one of the simplest strategies in the casino, Three Card Poker.  There is one rule for the strategy - Play Q-6-4 or higher.  What happens if you forgo any strategy and never Fold?  From what I recall, this will nearly double the house advantage from 2% to nearly 4%.  This is a significant increase, but how devastating is it?  In percentage terms it increase the house advantage by roughly 100%.  So, we have a game in which the strategy is VERY simple to follow and if you choose to ignore it the house advantage doubles.  Yet, I have a tough time calling Three Card Poker a game of skill.  One aspect of my determination is also how obvious is the strategy.  To someone who never plays casino games, probably not all that obvious.  To someone more familiar with games, but who has never played Three Card Poker, the notion of following the Dealer's lead (i.e. Dealer doesn't qualify with less than Queen High, so maybe I should Fold) is not unusual.  I simply don't think it takes much skill to play.


            Moving on to a game like video poker or blackjack, we find far more complex strategies.  It is much harder to state the absolute impact of not following the strategy because no two people NOT following it will do the same thing.  One Player might not know when to Double on Soft Hands in blackjack, while another might hate splitting altogether.  Then there is the strategy to 'follow the Dealer's lead' which completely backfires in Blackjack.  Hitting until you bust or get to 17 is a very bad strategy.  The house advantage in blackjack (paying 3 to 2) is a mere 0.6%.  Ignoring doubling, refusing to split, not knowing when to hit/stick, can easily change the house advantage to 4-5% (or more).  The net house advantage might be similar to our prior example of Three Card Poker, but as a percent increase, it is more in the 1000% range.  Between the combination of complex strategy and the impact it has on the house advantage, I put this game into the game of skill.  As final confirmation, I don't believe that most people would find the strategy the least bit intuitive.


            All of this is not to imply that luck does not play a significant part in how you do, at least in the short run.  In the long run, a Player will most definitely feel the impact of playing 95% vs 99.4% or even 96% vs. 98%.  The luck aspect will matter less and the skill portion will become dominant as the long-term odds begin to develop.  But, most of us don't keep track of our lifetime gambling ledger.  Some of you might do it on a yearly basis for tax purposes.  Most of you, probably just vaguely remember that you lose most of the time and remember that one big hand you hit.  This is human nature.


            In some cases, even the long-term is affected a bit by luck.  If, over several years, you play a variety of video poker games and at a variety of denominations and sometimes play max-coin and sometimes not, then luck might just play a bigger part of your lifetime ledger.  The math has no idea of what game you are playing.  Hit a Royal when you have 1-4 coins in instead of 5 and you will pay a price, so to speak.  A Royal will show up once every 41,000 hands or so.  Unless you are a very heavy player, you might get through a few cycles every several years.  Hitting the 'right' number of Royals is important, but hitting them when you're playing max-coin quarters instead of max-coin nickels is just pure luck.  As a case in point, this morning I sat down at a 100-play machine, where you get a single deal and play the resulting draw 100 times.  When you play for 1 penny, you are really wagering $1 per hand.  Was nearly down $20 when I was dealt Four 4's (without the kicker).  My draw netted me 25 kickers and 75 non-kickers for a win of about $100.  Hard to win much more playing video poker wagering $1.  I could've just as easily been playing max-coin nickels with a single hand and won only a fraction of what I did. 


            The skill component of this only comes in, in the fact that because I was playing the right strategy, I still had a couple of dollars left on the meter.  If I had played incorrect strategy, I might have run out of money before I ever get to this hand.  This is a part of the impact of skill that is very difficult to measure.  So, is video poker a game of skill?  I think so, but others might have a different opinion.