Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Washington Post Features

September 19, 2012

Poker pro: Don't criminalize my livelihood


Wall Street traders assess a company's stock price and determine whether it's overvalued or undervalued. A poker player looks at his hand and assesses its value compared with the amount of money in the pot. Price is everything. Just as a stock may be a poor investment at $100 but a steal at $80, a poker hand may be worthless in a small pot but a high-value play in a big one.

Professional traders and professional poker players get paid to analyze risk and reward. In both arenas, good investments routinely turn sour. Losing money is part of the game. This situation is acceptable on Wall Street but not, for some reason, at the poker table.

How can legislators question the element of skill in poker? If the existence of thousands of professional players weren't evidence enough, one need only observe the game. Every hand is a series of decisions. Some decisions are more profitable than others, and those of us who have spent thousands of hours studying the game are better at making those decisions. Hence, skill.

If you don't believe me, look at any study that has examined the issue. "Freakonomics" author Steven Levitt published "The Role of Skill Versus Luck in Poker: Evidence From the World Series of Poker" last year with fellow economist Thomas J. Miles. Before the 2010 WSOP, the authors identified a group of players as highly skilled, based on past performance and/or world ranking. They then followed those players' results in the tournament, finding that the highly skilled group earned a return of 30 percent on their investments, while the rest of the player pool suffered a 15 percent loss.

Could this be a coincidence? The odds against it are astronomical.

Having a court decide whether poker is a game of skill is bizarre to most professionals. Are judges asked whether investment bankers' jobs are legitimate? Of course not, nor should they be. And neither should players rejoice at a very small piece of bureaucratic validation.

Our government disdains a risk-reward game that millions of Americans play, then bails out Wall Street sharks who bet unfathomable sums. I can only conclude that this contradictory stance has little to do with the skills required for each pursuit. No, for some reason, lawmakers just don't like poker.


Matt Matros, a three-time World Series of Poker winner, is the author of "The Making of a Poker Player."

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