By Craig Gross
Wijk aan Zee, Netherlands 1999… Garry Kasparov plays 24. Rxd4, which is chess notation for rook captures pawn on the board coordinate of d4, or the fourth square in front of the white queen. It’s a sacrifice of a major piece that offers so many complications that not even Kasparov is able to see all the lines. He makes the move based on his skill, and intuition of years of experience that tells him it’s the correct decision.
Chess is considered by many to be the quintessential game of skill, but what defines skill? Is skill something that requires 99 percent raw ability over 1 percent luck? Can we define the parameters by simply saying all we need is 51 percent skill vs. 49 percent luck? This is an important question for poker players. Right now, in a court somewhere in America, the Poker Players Alliance with some members of Congress is trying to pass one bill or another to define poker as a skill game. So how do we quantify skill?
Chess has a mathematical equation that determines the strength of each chess player, known as a chess rating, the bigger the number, the stronger the player. The greater the difference between players’ ratings, the greater the percentage of times the stronger player will win. Kasparov was rated 2,812 in the above game. To show the level of skill required for this rating, only five players in history have broken the 2,800 barrier.
The vast majority of chess players in the world are amateurs, such as me. In 1999, I was rated around 1,800, a thousand points worse than Kasparov. Simply put, Kasparov’s skill level will assure him a near 100 percent success rate against someone of my rating. Note I don’t guarantee him a 100 percent status because luck still plays a factor. Say he doesn’t feel well the day we play, and he simply can’t concentrate. He misses a simple tactic, and I’m able to pull out the win. Sure, it may take a thousand games for that to happen, but it could happen.
Luck is everywhere and it’s part of poker. How do we debate skill in poker? What’s its true percentage vs. luck? We’ve heard the prevailing arguments. Poker is a game one can study, improve and maintain a solid track record, but where is the underlying proof? The problem is nobody’s willing to share their cash game financial records with the public, which is a primary track record in poker.
Many use tournaments as a way to show skill, but this is a questionable choice, as anybody can win a tournament. Do the names Chris Moneymaker, Joe Cada or Darvin Moon ring a bell? Moneymaker and Moon admitted openly they were not poker pros by any stretch of the imagination. Moon even said he was simply on the run of his life. Cada is best remembered for shoving all-in preflop at the WSOP final table with weaker hands (3-3 vs. J-J and 2-2 vs. Q-Q), and hitting his mathematically inferior hands each of those times to build a stack large enough to make a run to first place. To argue with a judge that Cada’s play that day represents skill would be a weak argument.
I find tournament poker to be a fragile excuse for skill within poker. Tournament skill exists, but it’s not as involved as cash-game skill. I can bring up many examples, such as the simple all-in move when your stack has fewer than 15 big blinds and thus go on endlessly to show holes in this side of the argument, but I’d rather concentrate the debate on the cash-game side. The cash game better represents the skill of poker.
Where do we begin? Can we ask Doyle Brunson, David Sklansky and Mike Caro for their financial records for say the past 10 years? What would we look for? Should we compare their financial success or failure to that of a Fortune 500 company over the same time frame? The prevailing argument is poker is a business; you’re the company, CEO and sole employee. How you manage your gains, losses and expenses represents your ability within the poker world.
Though asking pros to open their financial records may not be realistic, we should be able to quantify a mathematical success rate for any level one says they can earn a living. What is the hourly rate required, along with number of hours put in during a 12-month period of any level? Is $20 per hour over at least 600 hours played at just $1-$2 no-limit sufficient? Maybe it’s $30 per hour, or is the time frame too short? Each level (limit, no limit, small stakes, high stakes) we should be able to quantify. But everyone has different living requirements. Someone with limited expenses requires a lot less per year to live comfortably than someone with a mortgage and a family. So we should quantify each level with a mathematical scale.
My aunt says poker is a gambling game, no different than playing a slot machine or roulette. She feels strongly that all my money should be invested within the stock market. According to her, the stock market is a secure money-making environment. Really? I’m not going to spend a lot of time on how the stock market is as much a risk as poker. That’s not the point. The question is how do we quantify the overall skill level required to earn a steady living? How can one present a logical argument with someone who views poker as a game of pure luck?
Anybody can walk into a poker room, play for a few hours, put all their chips into a pot with the worst of it and walk away a winner. This is the short-term luck anyone can have. Skill is best represented over time, so something that explains the consistency of earnings over time will, in my opinion, best show the true underlying skill required for poker.
Kasparov went on to win his game against Veselin Topalov. It’s considered one of his greatest games ever played. He’s considered one of the strongest chess players in history and was the highest-rated player in the world for nearly 20 years. He was also world champion for 15 of those years. There’s no argument about his skill. Even those who don’t follow chess have heard of him, and know of his great, uncompromising ability in the game.
We can’t compare poker with chess. I use chess only to show there’s a clear mathematical computation that identifies one chess player over another. When we look back over a career such as Kasparov’s we can see a defining level of ability that’s without question. What method can we use to prove poker to be a skill game?