If you don’t care much about the push to legalize gambling, the debate over how much skill it takes to play poker probably seems somewhat esoteric—like discussing whether bass fishing is a real sport or if soccer players are better athletes than basketball players. But that question has been central to the argument made by people who want states—or the federal government—to legalize poker. Persuade lawmakers that poker takes skill, the thinking goes, and they’ll have to exempt it from prohibitions on gambling.
So the Poker Players Alliance was beside itself when a federal appeals court ruled that the skill needed to play cards was irrelevant in determining whether a poker business run from the back room of a Staten Island electric-bicycle business counted as illegal gambling. (The three-judge panel ruled that the card games were, in fact, against the law.)
“Ample academic studies and judicial rulings at the state and federal level have concluded that poker is indeed a game of skill. Period,” argued John Pappas, executive director of the pro-poker group. “The PPA will continue to advocate for a clear, federal definition of gambling as a game predominated by chance, thus preserving the right of Americans to play this great game of skill.”
But maybe this is no longer the fight to be having, counters Marco Valerio, an advocate for legalized poker. He points to a Bloomberg TV interview with Tom Breitling, who runs Ultimate Gaming, the only legal online gambling business in the U.S., in which the case for legalized gambling is made through dull talking points—an increase in tax revenue for states, say—without bothering to argue on behalf of the intellectual acuity required to play poker.
No one cares whether poker is impressive, Valerio wrote in an article on the poker website QuadJacks, so long as its filling the state’s coffers. The piece reflects the increasing confidence of advocates for legalized gambling, who contend that the stigma is wearing off to allow economic arguments to carry the day.
Not everyone is so bullish. In a response on the same website, Mike Stein wrote that skeptics were still going to need a moral argument to swallow their objections:
“Rather than trying to imply that poker isn’t gambling, perhaps instead we explain that poker, as a peer-to-peer strategy game, is unique among gambling. It’s not that poker deserves no oversight or regulation at all. It’s that poker deserves distinct, special attention. This can tie in nicely to the revenue and consumer protection angles of the primary talking points.”
Poker players aren’t the only gamblers relying on this distinction. The legality of daily fantasy sports—games that are as close to legalized gambling as you can get outside of Nevada—rests largely on the assurance that they are games of skill. While there are practical reasons for these arguments, you can’t help but think that there’s a psychological one as well: Poker players and fantasy sports enthusiasts want to make sure you know that they’re good at what they do. Any idiot can pull the lever on a slot machine.