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Learning to Create Luck
by Sam Braids
Poker enthusiasts have long debated the role of luck in poker. Clearly poker involves both luck and skill. If the game did not require skill you would not see consistent life-long winners. Luck alone cannot explain multiple World Series bracelets for players such as Doyle Brunson, Phil Helmuth, and Johnny Chan. But, skill alone cannot explain players such as Chris Moneymaker who parlayed a $40 entry into an online satellite tournament to a $2.5 million payout as the 2003 World Series of Poker Champion. How much of poker is luck and how much is skill? The luck versus skill in poker question is not solely philosophical because powerful politicians and law enforcement agencies have worked to ban poker on the grounds that it is entirely luck and should be subject to gambling laws.
But the crusade against poker makes me wonder why law enforcement has not gone after the organizers of chess tournaments? As in a poker tournament, each participant in a chess tournament must pay an entry fee on registration. The pool of money collected is used to pay for the cost of event, to pay the organizers for their work, and to form a prize pool to award to the winners. For decades chess tournaments that are open to players of all ages have been funded in this manner. When I was as young as 14, I saved money from my allowance to play in chess tournaments and on more than one occasion returned home with a substantial cash prize.
The stock answer to my seemingly absurd question is that chess is not gambling because it depends on skill. No random element exists in chess. All information about the position is exposed on the chessboard for each player to see. Each player freely makes his or her decisions with full knowledge of the position. As a result, an amateur chess player, if given a thousand tries, would not win even a single game against a grandmaster. In contrast, if the cards fell just right, an amateur poker player could on occasion beat a professional. All of this is true and as a result the importance of skill in chess presents a huge problem for chess tournament organizers. An adequately funded tournament with an attractive prize pool needs a large number of players willing to pay the entry fee. Masses of average chess players are not going to contribute their money to prize pools that they have no chance of winning. After all it is known before play begins that the handful of masters who show up will be the only ones competing for the top spots.
The chess organizer’s solution to this problem originated decades ago and it involves introducing elements of luck into the awarding of prizes. Introducing luck into an outcome based on skill is actually easy. It is an obvious but little mentioned truth about any contest that involves skill—when the competitors have similar abilities the outcome is not predictable. The reason is that when competitors have comparable skills chance events often prove decisive.
Consider the example of baseball, a sport that requires near superhuman skill to play at the professional level. In the major leagues the difference between a first place team and last place team is the difference between winning six out of every ten games as opposed to winning four out of every ten games. That means the predicted outcome of any major league baseball game is very close to that of a coin flip. Chance events, such as bad bounces, dropped fly balls, or questionable strike calls, are often decisive. As a result the statistically best team does not always win the World Series. But the role of chance in baseball is not a problem. In fact the unpredictability is desirable because participants and spectators have little interest in competitions with known outcomes. Fans would not pay to see a major league team take on local high school teams.
So chess tournament organizers generate substantial prize pools with a performance rating system that groups chess players into classes with comparable abilities. Cash prizes are awarded in each class. As a result, all participants feel that they have a chance of winning money and willingly contribute to the prize pool. Anyone can win because when skills are about equal, momentary lapses of attention, sudden flashes of inspiration, or unexpected moves, in other words—chance events determine the prizewinners. As players improve they move into higher classes and are forced to compete for prize money with higher skilled players.
Predictability is regarded as bad thing in many competitive activities, not just chess. Organizers of golf and bowling leagues, with the consent of the contestants, devise methods to reduce the role skill in awarding prizes. Raw scores are “handicapped” so that it is possible for a novice player having a good day to “win” against a professional player having a bad day. Handicap systems allow novices and average players to set realistic goals for improvement rather than be discouraged by the fact that playing at a professional level is not obtainable unless a player actually becomes a professional.
However, as players improve a funny thing happens—they become luckier. In chess, strong players save more apparently hopeless positions and have opponents who make more mistakes when playing against them. As a novice I began to think I needed to be lucky to win, but as I experienced the role of luck of chess I learned a lesson that has served me well in life— strong players know how to create luck. They know how to keep up unrelenting pressure so that any lapse in attention by their opponent is decisive. No matter how dire the situation, strong players keep looking for opportunities, keep setting traps, and keep making the game as difficult as possible for their opponents. They learn to find moves that might not be the “best move,” but are moves that they know will be psychologically unsettling for their opponents and induce mistakes.
The ability to create luck is useful in chess but it is the critical skill in poker. Uncertainty is built into the game of poker so no handicap system is necessary. A poker player must study the cards looking for opportunities. A poker player does not expect to win every hand, or come out ahead in every playing session anymore than a baseball player expects a hit in every game. But the idea of poker is to keep looking for favorable chances. Most betting opportunities are unfavorable and should be avoided, but players who keep in the game, and stay focused and alert, find betting situations that are worth the risk. Not every worthwhile bet will pay, but if enough favorable bets are placed, over time the mathematical laws governing chance dictate that a profit will accrue.
We live in a culture that is increasingly risk-averse. Elaborate laws have developed to protect us from the vagaries of chance. Consenting adults are arrested for risking their own money in a poker game because they might suffer financial harm if they lose. Never mind the financial harm from the arrest or government seizure of funds. The government snoops into our bank accounts, questioning the entities we do business with and how much we spend. To protect us from risk the government insists that it is necessary that we give up personal privacy, free choice, and freedom of association.
In fact, politicians, government officials and law enforcement agencies are extremely disingenuous when they claim that citizens need to be protected from financial harm caused by poker. In public cardrooms and online, the games dealt are honest. The wide variety of available limits allows players with just about any budget to play responsibly. Contrast the poker industry with the financial services industry. Over the past decade massive collusion and fraud in stocks, mortgages, and banking has resulted in financial ruin for millions of people and cost billions of dollars. But the government response to events such as the subprime mortgage crisis is to say the homebuyers should have better understood the risks and made more responsible choices. Only after the collapse of large banks and investment firms does law enforcement question business practices. Then the officials are shocked, just shocked to discover dishonesty and outright fraud.
My goal in writing about poker is to help readers understand the risks of poker and make responsible choices. I hope that no one with a gambling problem is reading my book or visiting the book’s Website. This book is intended for adults interested in the game of poker and who want to learn more about it. Poker is fun and enjoyable and even if you lose money it can be controlled so that the cost is no greater than any other form of recreation or entertainment.
The combination of luck and skill present in poker models many kinds of situations in life. Examine the life of any successful person and you will find that the success required difficult to acquire skills that took years of practice to hone. You will also find that those skills would have amounted to little without some “lucky break.” Every successful person has a right-place right-time kind of story to tell. We learn that in life, just as in poker, success requires both skill and luck. And if you ask a successful person to recount all the efforts along the way to success you will discover that failures occurred. Success happened because of repeated attempts, even after failures. In other words that person learned how to create luck.
Sam Braids, physicist and author of The Intelligent Guide to Texas Hold'em Poker, has for decades studied, researched, and played poker and chess. His poker experience is widespread, including time in West Coast cardrooms, Mississippi riverboats, and Atlantic City casinos. He holds a doctorate in physics and teaches advanced physics and mathematics. His technical proficiency includes a great deal of expertise with computers and the Internet.
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