November 28, 2012

Politics—A Game of Chance

Poker players are familiar with the "skill vs. luck" debate, which leaves most poker players scratching their heads trying to figure out why the law looks at a game requiring significant skill, then labels it "gambling" and lumps it in with games of pure chance like roulette, keno, and lotteries. But given that there is an element of luck or chance inherent in the nature of the game, perhaps banning or regulating poker as "gambling" is a necessary step to insulate the public from risking money on something as random as the turn of a card.

Of course, when it comes to politics, hypocrisy and arbitrary line drawing are standard plays. Games of chance might be too dangerous for people who want to play a little hold 'em at home, but apparently betting your entire roll on the luck of the draw is perfectly acceptable for politicians:

It's one of the weirder traditions of American democracy:  In many states, if a [political] race is tied, a "game by lot" -- cards, straws, or most often, a coin toss -- determines who goes to the house and who goes home. Months of campaigning, committee assignments, the fortunes of careers, the possibility of political change -- it all comes down, like possession in a football game, to heads or tails.

That's right, after months of ads, yard signs, debates, rallies, speeches, and fundraisers, if an election is tied, the winner of the political race is generally decided by chance. But how can that be legal? Isn't a political office something too important to be left to the luck of the draw?

The election noted in the article above is a state legislature race in New Mexico, which is currently tied pending a recount. Under New Mexico law, "gambling" is defined to include both "making a bet" and "conducting a lottery". A "bet" is defined under New Mexico law as:

[A] bargain in which the parties agree that, dependent upon chance, even though accompanied by some skill, one stands to win or lose anything of value specified in the agreement. ...

A "lottery" is defined under New Mexico law as:

[A]n enterprise wherein, for a consideration, the participants are given an opportunity to win a prize, the award of which is determined by chance, even though accompanied by some skill. ...

Now, at least arguably, a political office is "anything of value" or "a prize", such that relying on the flip of a coin, playing of cards, or drawing of lots to win that political office would constitute illegal "gambling". Of course, it's not really so straightforward. Like many states, New Mexico's gambling laws carve out a wide number of exceptions for a variety of occupations and undertakings that rely in part of elements of chance. Here, New Mexico's gambling law exempts "betting otherwise permitted by law". Of course, there are statutes permitting tied political races—both state and municipal—to be determined by resorting to drawing lots:

In the event of a tie vote between any candidates in the election for the same office, the determination as to which of the candidates shall be declared to have been nominated or elected shall be decided by lot. The method of determining by lot shall be agreed upon by a majority of a committee consisting of the tied candidates, the county chairmen of the political parties that participated in the election and the district judge. The county canvassing board shall issue the certificate of nomination or election to the candidate chosen by lot.
In the event of a tie vote between any candidates in the election for the same office, the determination as to which of the candidates shall be declared to have been elected shall be decided by drawing by impartial lot. The method of determining by lot shall be mutually agreed upon by the candidates who are tied. The municipal clerk shall issue a certificate of election to the candidate chosen by lot.

So, by definition New Mexico law permits political races to be decided by drawing lots—by chance—yet still declares poker to be illegal gambling despite being predominately a game of skill. It would seem that if we as a society agree that resorting to a pure game of chance is good enough to determine something as sacrosanct as our democratically elected political leaders, then maybe, just maybe, we can trust adults to take a reasonable gamble on the turn of the cards in a game of poker.

I wonder where Ms. Ferrary and Mr. McMillan stand on the issue of legalizing poker. If one of them is ultimately awarded office by luck of the draw, I wonder if they will maybe, just maybe, look at poker in a different light.

What are the odds?


  1. They might see poker in a different light, but don't bet on it.

  2. From a religious/moral perspective, there is no sin in leaving important decisions to chance, the casting of lots was used to decide such things as who should be ruler or apostle in both the old and new Testament.

    That is because of the belief that there is no such thing as chance; God, nature, the universe or a higher power has a hand in everything, so a cast of lots (or coin) to decide an election is a proper use of the 'force' or whatever one believes.

    The moral objection to gambling for money is that a gambler is asking 'God' to choose his wallet over the house bank which the odds favor, or in the case of peer to peer games, over his opponents where the odds are theoretically even.

    When poker protagonists argue that they aren't gambling, the highly skilled players are likely correct - they aren't gambling because they are only the hoping the cards run break even.

    But just because you (the house or the higher skilled players) aren't gambling, doesn't mean gambling isn't occurring, the lower skilled players by definition would not be playing if not for the hope that the cards might run in their favor.

    The statistical reality is that poker is every bit the game of chance that Vegas slot machines are, the difference is only that in poker, the House take is shared with the top ~5% skilled players.

    The reality is that poker is arguably a worse form of gambling for most people than games of pure chance, because of the allure that with enough practice, anyone could become one of that top ~5% who aren't actually gambling.

  3. @Anon (11/29; 12:41 am): I agree that many religions see no problem with choosing leaders by lot. Buti think there is a moral argument that chance should not be used to decide elections. Presumably the candidates hold differing positions on significant issues. Having one set of policy preferences prevail based on chance seems wrong to me. Imagine the uproar had Florida 2000 presidential race been a true tie, with the presidency decided by a coin flip.

    I completely agree with your observation that, for many/most poker players, poker is simply their preferred form of gambling. I'm actually working on a post which will get into my thoughts on the issue in more detail.

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