Up until recent years, poker was often categorized as gambling. This meant that the game was lumped in with pure forms of gambling like slot machines, baccarat, and roulette.
But the poker boom of the mid 2000s brought more attention to poker’s skill elements. Countless successful pros show that poker is indeed a skill based game for those who understand strategy.
I see no distinct argument that can prove poker is strictly gambling. It’s actually for that reason that so many people are drawn to the game; it presents an opportunity to win long term profits.
But on the other hand, poker does represent a heavy risk for unskilled players. In fact, the large majority of poker players will end up losing money.
I’m going to play devil’s advocate and discuss 10 reasons why poker is and isn’t a standard form of gambling.
House banked casino games give the casino a long-term advantage. For example, American roulette features a 5.26% house edge on almost every wager.
Gambling is exciting because you can win money in any given session. But the house edge ensures that the average player will lose over the long run.
This is why almost every casino game is considered gambling. Going further, casino games with a house edge have negative expected value.
Poker is different, though, because it offers the chance for positive expected value (+EV).
This isn’t to say that the average person will win in poker. But those who work hard enough at improving their game have a chance to win long term profits.
Poker is one of the few forms of gambling where you actually control your destiny. Studying available strategy resources helps you become a better player and boosts your chances of earning money.
Contrast this to American roulette, where there’s nothing that you can do to improve your odds of winning. You lose $5.26 for every $100 you wager on average.
Continuing off the last point, another unique thing about poker is that you’re playing against human opponents rather than a house edge.
This is critical because you can work to become more skilled than other players. Compare this to how the casino maintains an advantage no matter how much strategy you know.
Blackjack is a good example of this because it features complex strategy. But you’ll still face between a 0.5% and 2.0% house edge (depending on table rules) even when using perfect strategy.
In contrast, being the best player at the poker table can mean big profits. And you can boost your winnings by consistently playing against less skilled competition.
As for casinos, their role in poker is to facilitate the action. They don’t have an edge on the games; instead, they collect rake from each cash game pot or tournament fee.
The average amount of rake from a cash game pot is 5%, and the average tournament rake is 10%. While poker players must account for the rake, they can at least make up for this handicap by beating their human opponents.
Many aspiring poker pros look to the game’s best players as a template for what’s possible. But the truth is that most successful pros don’t have glamorous beginnings.
Dan “Jungleman” Cates is one of the top online poker players in history, earning over $11 million in internet cash game profits.
But Cates was nothing more than a low limit fish in the beginning. He worked at McDonald’s to build his bankroll, which he busted several times before becoming a talented player.
Mike “The Mouth” Matusow is a 4-time WSOP champion with over $9.3 million in tournament winnings.
But before he became a poker pro, Matusow was addicted to video poker machines. He even stole money from his mother’s purse to feed his habit.
Chris Moorman is the best online tournament player in history with $14.5 million in winnings, but Moorman was far from successful when he started playing online as a student at the University of Essex.
One of his early online poker endeavors involved playing $0.05/$0.10 limit cash games. And it wasn’t long before he figured out that his strategy of going all in on every hand was terrible.
“I just thought it [internet poker] was rigged,” Moorman recalled. “The truth is, I just wasn’t very good.”
With $25 left from his initial deposit, Moorman put it all into a single sit and go buy in. Lucky for Moorman, he won and gradually improved his poker abilities from then on.
All the players and discussed here eventually developed the skills to be successful. But the point is that some of the best players started out as pure gamblers with no clue on poker strategy.
A decade ago, many judges held the opinion that poker is just another form of gambling. But this has largely changed, with judges from Colorado, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania ruling that poker is a game of skill.
One landmark ruling came from Brooklyn District Court Judge Jack B. Weinstein, who presided over a 2012 appeal involving a home poker game in Staten Island.
Lawrence DiCristina, who owned the warehouse where the poker game took place, collected 5% from each cash game pot. DiCristina was convicted of running an illegal gambling business and was facing up to 10 years in prison.
Kannan Sundaram, DiCristina’s lawyer, argued that poker is a skill game and shouldn’t be subjected to standard gambling laws.
Weinstein agreed with Sundaram and threw out the conviction against DiChristina on the basis that poker is a skill game.
“The most skillful professionals earn the same celestial salaries as professional ballplayers,” he wrote in a 120-page ruling.
This was the first time that a federal courtroom ruled on poker’s status as a skill based or gambling game. Since Weinstein’s ruling, other judges across America have come out with similar opinions.
Despite what courtrooms say, much of the general public still sees poker players as gamblers. This can even be the case when looking at longtime poker pros.
One good example comes from Jason Mercier’s 2016 appearance on The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz.
Le Batard is a well-known sports radio personality who hosts a show on ESPN Radio. Unfortunately, Le Batard didn’t paint poker in a good light.
“I wonder how happy these guys actually are,” Le Batard said about poker pros before Mercier came on.
He also targeted pros who enter multiple WSOP tournaments, saying, “It’s just another form of being a junkie, where it’s not enough to merely be in a [single] poker tournament.”
When Mercier came on air, he defended his chase for three gold bracelets in a single WSOP. “I love playing poker,” he said when discussing grinding in dozens of bracelet events.
“Do you have a gambling problem?” Le Batard asked in response.
“No, I don’t think so,” Mercier said. “I play poker to make money, and I gamble to make money. It’s more of a job for me.
“The thing that I always look at is, are you able to stop? Are you able to take a couple of weeks off and not play poker?”
Le Batard didn’t come off as the most knowledgeable person about poker. After all, many pros play as many WSOP tournaments as possible to boost their chances of winning profits.
But the fact that a major radio host would refer to poker pros as “junkies” and “degenerates” shows that much of the general population is still clueless on the game’s skill level.
Poker isn’t just a random game where players hope to have the best hand. Instead, they need to apply a mixture of reading opponents, bet sizing, disguising their own actions, and understanding odds to win.
One example of the latter is when poker players use pot odds and hand equity to decide when to call with drawing hands.
Pot odds is the amount of money that you must contribute to the pot in order to call.
The next step is to determine your number of “outs,” or cards that will make your hand. Here’s how this works:
The final step involves calculating your hand equity, or odds of completing your hand. Here are the steps behind this:
Your hand equity is 17%.
You should call if your hand equity is greater than the pot odds. Comparing 17.0% equity to 16.7% pot odds, you should make the call.
Pot odds and hand equity are just two examples of using poker math. But you can see that a lot more goes into making calls than basing decisions on your gut feeling.
Poker pros aren’t just gambling addicts because they have a skill that earns them long term profits. But if there’s anything to categorize poker pros as addicts, it’s that many of them love to make proposition bets.
A prop bet is made away from the table and can be based on any number of events. Here are examples of famous prop bets made by poker players:
Most prop bets are made with some degree of skill, rather than just blindly throwing money around. But it’s hard to quantify your chances of success with many of these bets.
For example, how do you know whether it’s +EV to wager on somebody going vegetarian for a full year?
Long story short, some prop bets are made purely for entertainment. And this can be risky when players are betting substantial amounts of money.
One of the most attractive qualities to poker is that it can make you rich. Here are some online poker players who’ve become insanely wealthy through the game (online cash profits only):
Some will argue that many of these players got their start before or during the poker boom. Games were softer back in these days because strategy was less prevalent.
Poker is tougher today because strategy resources are everywhere. Nevertheless, it’s still possible to become a highly successful player.
One of my favorite examples of somebody crushing modern poker games is Cullen “cumicon” Connors.
Cumicon flew under the radar because he never publicized his high stakes poker results during his career. It was only until he decided to retire from the game that Connors shared his results with the world.
He displayed a shocking graph on TwoPlusTwo that revealed $7.4 million in online cash game profits.
One of the most impressive things about Connor’s graph is that it features a steady upward climb. In other words, he didn’t just ride a hot streak towards a massive fortune.
Cumicon and the other examples show that skilled poker pros can get rich.
10-time WSOP champion Doyle Brunson was once asked if he thinks poker is gambling.
“Of course it’s gambling,” he said. “Are you some kind of bozo? Although that doesn’t mean that some folks aren’t better at it than others.”
Brunson has made millions of dollars from poker. But his comments show he’s freely willing to admit that poker isn’t immune from the gambling category.
Daniel Negreanu is another famous pro who believes that poker is gambling.
“Poker is gambling. Exactly as backgammon is gambling. When you play for money, you are gambling – you can either win or lose,” Negreanu explained.
“[Poker] is a form of gambling you can beat, just like sports betting, but it is gambling. To say that we want to distance ourselves from gambling, it would be dishonest.”
Negreanu has won more money in live tournaments than anybody with $35.3 million. But the 6-time WSOP winner isn’t biased when explained that poker does indeed have gambling elements.
Another interesting thing that Brunson said is, “Poker takes 5 minutes to learn, but a lifetime to master.”
This is even more the case today with how skilled modern players have become. The fact that you can dedicate so much time to becoming a better player shows just how much skill is involved.
In the past, the best tools for improvement were books and online articles. But we have far more resources today, including forum threads, Heads Up Displays (HUDs), Twitch streams, and YouTube videos.
My personal favorites are Twitch and YouTube because they are free and full of helpful advice.
Many poker pros stream their online sessions on Twitch, offering helpful tips along the way. You don’t have to spend any money to watch their streams because they earn revenue from ads.
YouTube videos are good for situational advice, such as how to 3 bet or identify opponents’ hand ranges. All you need to do is run a YouTube search for whatever poker topic you’re trying to learn.
The internet is filled with countless videos, Twitch streams, and forum threads based on poker strategy. This means that you have no shortage of ways to improve your game.
I covered multiple points on how poker can be considered both a skill game and strictly gambling. The truth is that poker lies somewhere in between skill and gambling because both elements play a role in your results.
Even the best players lose money when they suffer bad beats and a poor run of cards. Likewise, a novice can win short term profits when things are going their way.
But poker contains enough skill that the best players are going to win over the long term. The more hours you put into studying strategy and analyzing your sessions afterwards, the higher your chances of making profits.
In summary, I highly recommend poker if you’re looking for a challenging game that gives you an opportunity to win serious money.