Baseball is a skill game, but is video poker?

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Is Video Poker a game of chance or a game of skill? Before we can make this decision, we need to define what each one is. What does it mean to say something is a game of chance? What does it mean to say something is a game of skill? At first glance, these might seem like easy questions, but I think when you start analyzing them, the answers get a bit fuzzy.

The first thing that comes to mind when I try to sort this out is athletes play games of skill. It is kind of hard to argue this. I’m a weekend warrior who’s a darn good softball player (especially for my age), but I’m pretty sure I’d have no chance at hitting a Matt Harvey fastball. Wait a second, did I use the word chance? Does this mean there is an element of luck in a game like baseball?

On July 4, 1985, the Mets played a game in Atlanta. Thanks to some rain delays and extra innings, the game was still going at 3 a.m. (July 5). The Braves had run out of pinch hitters and were forced to let Rick Camp, their pitcher, bat with 2 outs, nobody on and down by one run. Camp had a lifetime batting average of .060 in 9 seasons, which is bad even for a pitcher. With an 0-2 count, he hit a game tying home run, the only one he would ever hit in his career. Was this skill? The Met pitcher threw a fastball. Camp swung. We can’t say there was no skill involved, but I’m going with the notion that as a lifetime 0.060 hitter, it was more luck that his bat happened to hit the ball in the one perfect spot to have it go over the fence.

Obviously, baseball is a game of skill, at least mostly. Some players are better than others. Some have faster reflexes. Some are faster. Some are smarter. Some are more flexible. Some just have a sixth sense that lets them do things better than other players. But, how much does luck play into the game?

I guess the point I’m trying to make is most things, even sports, are a combination of luck and skill. When a basketball player has to sink two free throws or a golfer has to sink a 10 foot putt, this is probably mostly skill. There are very few if any extenuating factors (or defense) trying to stop them. The player is relying on his raw talent to accomplish his goal.

However, a pitcher in baseball might execute exactly the pitch he wanted while the batter is anticipating exactly that pitch and smacks the ball out of the park. Or maybe, he guesses completely wrong, and STILL manages to catch up to the fastball?

When a manager tries to figure out who to send up as a pinch hitter, he is reviewing all the data he has about matchups between the pitcher and potential hitter. He has to take into account the possibility of a pitching change and how that might affect his decision. We frequently call this strategy.

But, nothing is a sure thing. Strategy is a nice way of saying he is playing the odds to maximize his chances of winning. Sound familiar?

Now, let’s get back to video poker. Good players use a strategy, too. There are no guarantees about the outcome. All there is — is playing the odds. Because these odds are extremely mechanical, in that we are talking about absolute probabilities of certain cards appearing, we have a tendency to call this luck. I think this is incorrect. Is a chess player playing against a computer utilizing skill or luck to beat the machine? How is that different than a video poker player, other than chess requires a higher degree of skill to win?

In my opinion, if a player must make decisions that are not obvious in order to increase his likelihood of winning, then the game clearly has an element of skill. There are no decisions to be made with a slot machine. None. Zero. It is a game of pure luck. But, if I can outperform somebody else routinely at video poker, I think it is almost insulting to say I’m merely lucky rather than more skilled than the other guy.

Why is this important? Because if video poker contains a significant element of skill to play it effectively, it means it is worth it to learn how to play the right strategy. Unlike sports, which presumably takes a certain amount of natural talent, video poker requires only that you learn a proven strategy to maximize your chances for winning

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Elliot Frome is a second generation gaming analyst and author. His math credits include Ultimate Texas Hold’em, Mississippi Stud, House Money and many other games. His website is www.gambatria.com. Contact Elliot at [email protected].

About the Author

Elliot Frome

Elliot Frome’s roots run deep into gaming theory and analysis. His father, Lenny, was a pioneer in developing video poker strategy in the 1980s and is credited with raising its popularity to dizzying heights. Elliot is a second generation gaming author and analyst with nearly 20 years of programming experience.

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