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Games of Chance and Contests of Skill

In order to understand why serious players tend to play unembellished poker games with each other and why you and your friends should too, we must first understand what differentiates the more pure forms of poker from gambling in general. All gambling involves chance. But the role of chance varies from one form of gambling to another.

For example, if Venus Williams walked into a casino and bet $100,000 on one hand of blackjack, that would certainly be called "gambling." But what if she walked into a tennis club and bet $100,000 that she could beat any player who is up for the challenge? Even Venus Williams has bad days, and many amateur players could have a reasonable chance of winning a game or two. It follows that these players would have some chance of actually winning a set and, thus, a chance at the match. So the factor of chance is still present in Venus's bet, as it is in every aspect of human life. Nonetheless, the heart of a tennis match is the contest of skill between the players. That's why if Venus bet on Blackjack, she would be a sucker. But if she could get an amateur player to put up money against her in a tennis match, she would be a genius.

The difference lies in the fact that blackjack is not a contest between two opponents, but a game of chance that merely presents the player with certain options for dealing with those chances. Is it possible to be skilled at the game? Yes, but that skill is never matched against another person as it is in tennis; it is matched against a probability-driven game.

As every gambler knows, that game is designed to slowly bankrupt the player over the long run. Many of us enjoyed reading about the crack squad of MIT students who beat casino blackjack with elaborate operations more reminiscent of a Mission Impossible episode than gambling, and card counting can yield occasional statistical advantages to a player. But when a person plays blackjack or any other table game the way the house allows him to, the best he can hope to do is hold down the house's advantage by playing perfectly.

Of course, playing perfectly is something that the house doesn't need to worry about. Its strategy is fixed by the rules, and employees have no discretion to mix things up with players. A blackjack dealer in Vegas must hit on 16, even if he knows the deck is rich in cards that will bust him; if you are playing craps, the pit boss can't pick and chose which of your bets he will accept. In fact, employees would have no reason to do that, since every bet you are allowed to make favors the house. The rules of these games, not the decisions of the casino employees running them, are what fill the cages with cash. This is why casinos never compete against players in contests of skill and prefer to confront players with games of chance that give a built-in edge to the house.

Poker is fundamentally different. It is not a game of chance in which players play against the house. Poker is a game of skill where competitors play against each other on equal terms. Chance is obviously an important element of every poker hand, but that chance simply creates the environment in which players match their skills. Good players will win money from poor players, giving the winners the ability to profit from the game over the long run. Gamblers call this a "positive expectation of results," and it is something you will never experience at a craps, roulette, Pai Gow, Caribbean Stud, or Let-It-Ride table. Of course, the only way you can actually experience a positive expectation at a poker table is to outplay your opponents. Naturally, therefore, the importance of skill (and the financial rewards that come with it) is what draws serious players to the game of poker.

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