Adelson is smart, but so wrong about poker

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Part I

Sheldon Adelson is an extremely successful businessman and generous philanthropist. We grew up in the same neighborhood of Boston. He was several years younger than I. As I recall, Sheldon was a hard-working, serious-minded preteen who got along well with the other kids.

During that depression era, we accepted the fact that our families were poor; and we worked hard to become successful in life. Adelson succeeded well beyond anyone’s imagination. His accomplishments are incredible! But none of us are perfect – not even Sheldon.

As reported by Brian Pempus in the Oct. 12, 2016 issue of Card Player magazine, Adelson regards the game of poker as gambling, relying primarily on good luck to win. He was outspoken in his disagreement with poker players who maintain winning is largely a matter of skill.

Adelson explained: “They say that poker is a game of skill… I don’t know how skill can apply to some body shuffling a deck of cards and randomly giving them out to you. You don’t have any control over it. Can somebody bluff and can somebody plan bets better than somebody else? Yes, but that doesn’t make poker a game of skill.”

Adelson accepts that skill plays a role, but only a “negligible role,” he says. That is where we differ.

Yes, there is both skill and luck (chance) involved in playing the game of poker. On that, Adelson and I do agree; but skill plays a major – not a negligible – role. You must acquire the necessary expertise to be a winner when you compete against others less skilled. With skill, luck becomes less important.

To Adelson, and those who agree with him, I would point out that skill is important for success in all endeavors – sports, practicing medicine or dentistry, writing, acting, teaching, drilling for oil, investing in real estate, operating a business, as well as playing poker. The greater the acquired essential skills, the bigger the success. That’s why successful people strive to obtain appropriate educations and continue to practice and learn throughout their lives – increasing their skill levels. Think about it.

To Adelson, I would ask: Are you aware of Mark Twain’s newspaper report of a jury trial against a group of men who had been arrested for playing a card game akin to poker? That was back in 1870 in Kentucky. A special jury was selected, including highly respected churchmen who (like Adelson) came into the courtroom convinced the game was one of chance – and not a game of “science” – i.e. skill. Before the trial ended, the special jury was unanimous in declaring it a game of skill. I agree.

And, more recently, as reported in the Card Player article, in 2012 a federal court likewise declared poker is a game of skill. That conclusion was fortified by the fact that a person can make a living from poker – unlike other casino games where the odds are skewed in favor of the house. The federal court’s decision, based on an analysis of millions of online poker hands: “Skill can predominate over the element of chance.”

To convince people like Adelson, it is important to explain why poker is, in fact, a game of skill. The more skilled you are, the more likely you will be a winner. Poker skills can be developed. In the next two issues, I will expand on this thesis, including a math model, relating luck and skill; and the strategies and tactics a savvy (highly skilled) poker player must develop to ensure success over the long haul – just as does a successful businessman like Sheldon Adelson.

About the Author

George Epstein

A retired engineer, George Epstein is the author of “The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!” and “Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision.” He teaches poker courses and conducts a unique Poker Lab at the Claude Pepper Senior Center under the auspices of the City of Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks and at West Los Angeles College.

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