Skill versus Luck. What a great court case this would be.
Today US Attorney General Eric Holder spoke at a House Judiciary Committee meeting and was asked some questions about the Southern District of New York’s indictment of the three largest US friendly online poker sites. The part that struck me, I think that Holder really at his core is going to see that poker is a skill game.
While Holder said that he “agreed” that the actions made sense, he wasn’t exactly a great sales person for the prosecution. Firstly, Holder said at the committee meeting today that “We have to enforce the law as it exists and there are laws on the books with regard to Internet gambling that we have to enforce. The case that we brought for instance in the Southern District of New York involved pretty substantial amounts of money and big financial institutions and I think those cases are appropriate.”
I’m reading a little between the lines here, but my basic thought on this quote is that the only reason that they brought the action is because these companies made so much money. While I think that he believes the UIGEA violations occurred by the sites, I don’t think that action would have been taken if the companies were only making a few thousand bucks a year. But because that number was around $40 Billion, well, now you have our attention.
Now don’t get me wrong, I think that the sites are going to have a hell of a time defending themselves from the allegations. In intentionally mis-coding their deposits by saying to the Banks that the transactions were for Pet Supplies, Flowers, or Golf Balls, they showed some pretty damn shady activity. Subsequent charges of Fraud, Money Laundering, and intent to commit these acts will prove to be an interesting battle in court however because to me, it comes down to whether or not the Justice Department is going to consider the transactions for Full Tilt, PokerStars, and Absolute Poker as “Illegal Gambling Operations.”
In short, is the game of online poker considered illegal according to the law?
This is really going to be the key argument if this trial ever sees a courtroom. The issue itself is as Grey as the Asian Elephant that I saw that the L.A. Zoo with my family this weekend. There isn’t a law that specifically says that the game of poker is illegal. If it IS illegal, then I don’t know why they would permit those games in casino’s and card room’s across America in several states, and permit a legalized online poker law in the District of Columbia (Washington D.C. passed a law allowing online poker to residents of D.C. earlier in April). But poker walks a very fine line between gambling and a game of luck, versus being a game of skill.
Proponents of poker will argue vehemently that poker is really a skill set, more akin to Tennis or Golf. Obviously in those types of games, luck can play a roll (a ball can take an odd spin in Tennis off of the line, or hit the top of the net to change directions…or in Golf, a myriad of “lucky” things can happen). When you think of those games, the best players win consistently, which provides evidence that they are games of skill. The same applies in poker where there are a number of people (i.e. Phil Ivey, Daniel Negreanu, Erik Seidel, Jason Mercier, Vanessa Selbst, just to name a few) that just seem to win, and keep winning, year after year, tournament after tournament, and are considered favorites every time they take a seat at the table. Why is that? Are these players just luckier than the rest of the world? Or are they the best in the game?
That question was asked today at the hearing by Senator Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee) who asked ““Do you think Phil Ivey is just lucky, or he is the world’s greatest poker player?”
Holder side stepped the question saying “I am not sure I know who Phil Ivey is, but I am sure there is some degree of skill that is involved, some degree, I am not a poker player myself.” Well if the DOJ wants to do their homework on skill versus luck, they’re going to have to get very familiar with who Phil Ivey is, as well as several thousand other excellent poker pro’s who have made their living playing this game all over the U.S. and other areas of the globe. It will be interesting to see how the prosecution for the US Department of Justice will attempt to defend this argument when they’re put up against the results of some of the best players in the game.
To make a comparison, I think Tiger Woods would beat me in match play every time that we play a game of golf, and I believe that Rafael Nadal would clean my clock in every game of tennis that we play. But if I sat down with either of those guys at the poker table, I think that I have an edge because I’m a more experienced player than either of them, and I don’t consider myself that good of a player. Put them up against the best in the world (maybe heads-up No Limit Hold’em over 4 tables versus isildur1 or Pot Limit Omaha versus Durrrr), and I don’t think that Nadal or Woods would stand a chance.
Holder went on to explain that it’s up to Congress to clarify the laws on online poker, but added that the Justice Department will enforce the law as it currently exists. He said the Justice Department’s criminal division in Washington D.C. did coordinate with the prosecutors in Manhattan who brought the recent action against the online poker industry’s biggest websites.
The bottom line is, Poker is a skill game. You can’t get around that fact. But it will be up to the courts to decide what happens here, and I for one, hope that this sees a courtroom so that we can once and for all, get a decision on the books that gives all of its opponents the truth, and hopefully brings our game back to us.