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Game Takes More Than Luck to Win
by Sam Gorewitz

With the fall semester under way, college students all across the country are quickly approaching their first measure of academic rigor: midterms. Hoping to perform well on the tests, students prepare by turning stereos down low, flipping textbooks open and, for some students, playing a few hands of Texas Hold 'Em.

How are some students using rounds of poker to prepare for midterms? Simple: They're part of a group of math students who are learning how mathematical concepts are applied in games of skill such as poker. At Emory University in Atlanta, students learn about probability, game theory and combinatorial design theory in a seminar course called, "Mathematics in Sports, Games and Gambling."

While post-graduate poker players may lament the fact that they never received such an enjoyable math assignment during their college years, the teaching of mathematic principles and theories by some of American's top universities underscores what we have long been saying - that part of poker's uniqueness is that skill is needed to win, not simply pure luck.

Even folks who are now debating over whether to call poker a "game" or a "sport" have little disagreement with the fact that it takes talent to play poker correctly and winningly.

Strategy, observation, cleverness, memory, tactics and acting are all the unique demands of poker, and Americans seem to be in high pursuit of these talents. Bookstore tables and shelves are groaning under the weight of poker manuals, guides and brochures, as more than 70 million Americans play poker today.

All across the country, grandfathers are being rejuvenated with spirited challenges from grandchildren.

Folks stream to play for charities. They play in tournaments with television cameras, klieg lights, boom mikes, $10,000 entry fees and $7.5 million payouts.

And there are players in basements, barnyards and backyards. There are even celebrities, complete with the lights, cameras and action to make the game hot and in the spotlight.

But the requirement of skill is important not just in deciding whether it is a sport or a game. When governments recognize that poker is a game of skill, then poker players can play their craft without worrying about being the targets of confused law enforcement officials or politicians who see the new interest in poker as a way to boost the arrest tally or collect unexpected revenues.

Now, as public support and interest in poker grows through televised celebrity matches and other events, several states and localities are making changes to laws that encroach on poker players' abilities to play online, at home, in bars, taverns and even at charity events across the country.

Also, some at the federal level have dedicated themselves to putting an end to interactive poker, while at the same time portraying all poker games in a negative light. Opponents have seen the growing popularity of poker and have tried to obscure the commonly accepted notion that poker is a game of skill, not a game of chance - a word change aimed at stripping longtime legal protections for poker.

These changes would mock the long-standing historical significance of the game. From presidents to generals, Americans have looked to poker and the skills they have acquired from the game to help think clearly and make tough decisions.

For example, after several defeats at the hands of aggressive Southern generals, President Abraham Lincoln put the hard-drinking poker player Ulysses S. Grant in command of the Union Army. Using his well-honed poker skills, Grant succeeded in the ultimate bluff by misrepresenting his troops' position and strength, divining his opponents' intentions and countering with devastating effectiveness.

President Dwight Eisenhower is said to have courted his future wife, Mamie Doud, with his poker winnings. And his future running mate, Richard Nixon, won enough pots playing stud in the Navy that he was able to finance his first congressional campaign.

As a game of skill, poker is designed so anyone can win. In this match of intellect, the true underdog can prevail, causing average poker-playing women and men everywhere to dream of being the next poker superstar. And they all learn a crucial variation of knowing when to hold them and when to fold them: It is better to be skillful than lucky.
 

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