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Games of skill or games of chance? And why is the difference such a big deal?

How much is success in a certain game dictated by skill and how much by chance? It sounds like the kind of debate that would rage between game theory undergraduates and statisticians over long evenings, but surely it is not of practical importance in the real world. Surprisingly, however, this is a question that has loomed large in US legal circles time and again over recent years.

The rules from Nevada

 In part, it is down to the nation’s slightly Jekyll and Hyde approach to gaming. The vast differences in attitude from, say, Nevada to Utah mean that where it is legal, it is analyzed to the moon and back. So while in mainland Europe, for example, you might play a slot spiele, as they are called in Germany, without a second thought, in Nevada there has been a raft of legislation to determine how much the result can be down to the skill of the player as opposed to being down to random numbers and chance.

Players of these types of games all across the world have felt the impact of this legislation. When the Nevada Gaming Commission relaxed the rules on skills based gaming, it gave the developers an opportunity to think more broadly about the games they were creating. Traditional games like sizzling hot deluxe are still hugely popular, but there is a new breed of video based games being played for real money that are more arcade-like in nature and the better your skills, the more likely you are to win.

A long-standing question

To those whose game of choice is more connected with the tables than the video games, this dichotomy of skill and chance is old news. Surely a card game is the perfect example of a game that demands a combination of both. Playing a child’s game like snap or beggar your neighbor is predominantly based dependent on luck – although the latter game forms one of the most discussed questions in combinatorial mathematics.

On the other hand, nobody can seriously suggest that a game like poker is purely down to chance. There have been dozens of books written on poker theory, and if the game was not skill-based, stars like Erik Seidel and Daniel Negreanu would not be multi-millionaires.

For games like these, it is the blend of skill and luck that is such a tantalizing question. After all, any game that starts with a shuffled deck of cards simply must have an element of luck to it. The skill comes when any kind of decision has to be made. Look again at beggar your neighbor. There are no choices the player can make, every action is dictated by the rules and there is no way to influence the outcome. Now look at poker. Every hand, the player is making decisions, evaluating options and taking the game away from the wheels of random chance.

Skill and chance in sport

Of course, you can approach the question from the other side. A game like football is surely all about skill. Or is it? Like the card game, skill is fine as far as those things you can influence are concerned. But what about the form of the opposing side, or the weather conditions or a freakishly lucky bounce after a punt?

The nation’s recent obsession with fantasy sports has, again, brought the question of luck or skill to the attention of the US legislators. Ultimately, every game we play has a certain percentage of both at its heart, and it is this heady mixture, where we can hone our skills but at the same time we can still be lucky and beat the odds that keeps us coming back for more, whatever our game of choice.

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