I just read (here) about the folks at Bluefire Poker challenging Barack Obama and/or any member of Congress to a poker match, with odds at one million to one (i.e., pay $1 to enter, win $1 million if victorious) to beat any of their training pros, the most recognizable of which is Phil Galfond, he of the worst online screen name in high-stakes history ("OMGClayAiken").
It's a clever idea on the surface. But it's so ludicrously wrongheaded that it's hard to take it seriously. That is, I'm sure that it is in earnest at its most basic level--they presumably would actually conduct the game and pay up if necessary. But do the Bluefire people harbor any actual thought that it will accomplish anything meaningful towards their stated goal of demonstrating that poker is a game of skill?
Let's consider, first, who might accept the challenge. Well, perhaps somebody like Barney Frank would. He loses, then gets to say, "See? I've been trying to tell you that poker is a game of skill!" But since it is already known that he supports legal online poker, skeptics will suspect that he threw the match just to confirm his point. Result: Nobody's mind changed.
Would somebody like Senator Jon Kyl, one of the most vocal opponents of gambling, take up the challenge? Of course not. What does he have to gain?
The people who want online gaming to be as illegal and inconvenient as they can make it simply do not care about where any particular game falls on the skill/luck continuum. It's kind of like trying to convince a Prohibitionist to carve out an exception for 3.2% beer on the basis that it's not very much alcohol.
Consider, e.g., the position of "Focus on the Family," a leading anti-gaming lobbying group: "Focus on the Family opposes all forms of legalized gambling for both moral and pragmatic reasons." Do you see even a pinhole of light coming through that position that is open to the argument about the skill involved in poker? Of course not. It's a completely irrelevant point to the moralist crowd. They have determined in advance that they know better than you do what things you should and should not be allowed to do with your own money in the privacy of your own home, even when you are hurting nobody else. They can't be bothered with facts or reason or nuanced distinctions.
Senator Kyl has been clear on this. Two years ago he wrote a piece for the National Ledger predicting that there will be no carve-out for poker.
First, he shows that he's perfectly willing to lie to make his case when he says, "Online gambling is already illegal under existing federal and state laws."
Next, he either intentionally misrepresents or ridiculously misunderstands the very nature of the game by stating that poker isn't really affected because you can legally continue to play the game online as long as it's not for real money. If the game is for play money, he seems to think, it's just the same, so you're not really being deprived of anything:
"It is important to note that the UIGEA does not affect online poker for entertainment. If a poker player does not bet with a gambling entity or stake anything of value on the game, it does not constitute 'gambling' and does not violate the law. Your Saturday night poker game is not affected. Nor are 'dot-net' and other poker sites that are free to play. Poker enthusiasts are not deprived of the opportunity to play the game – only online financial gambling is affected."
I can't tell if he's serious about this. If he is, then he is so misinformed that nobody should ever take seriously anything he has to say about gaming. To state what will be obvious to every one of my readers, if there is not something of real value at stake, it ain't poker. If there is not genuine risk of loss and gain involved, then there is no incentive to make better decisions than one's opponents do. The game instantly devolves into farce, as is evident after just a few minutes of playing on the free side of any poker site. Try playing your A game against a piece of software (e.g., the Wilson products) when there is nothing on the line. Go ahead--I dare you. See how long your patience holds out.
In his final paragraph, Kyl tosses a bone to the idea of poker as a game of skill, challenging supporters to prove their case in court. But his mind is explicitly already made up to the contrary: "While poker, like other card games, involves an element of skill, the hands that win or lose are a result of chance – 'the luck of the draw.'"
So I repeat: Those already opposed to gaming will not participate in the Bluefire challenge, for several reasons. (1) Their opposition is based on moralistic judgments for which the question of skill is irrelevant. (God has commanded them to prohibit you from playing hold'em, you know.) (2) They have nothing to gain politically from the challenge. (3) To the extent that they will even recognize that skill is involved, they maintain that luck still predominates, and aren't interested in being convinced otherwise.
The irony, of course, is that anti-gambling efforts are being led by Republicans, who, in most other circumstances, claim to be in favor of laissez-faire economics, individual liberty, and lessening governmental interference in citizens' lives. Hey, not everybody can be bothered with piddly details like intellectual honesty and a consistency of principles.
Of course, the Republicans aren't entirely alone on this. Those who foolishly believed that Barack Obama was going to be on their side in the attempt to repeal the UIGEA or enact an exception for poker (despite my warnings to the contrary) must have been disappointed when he selected Eric Holder as Attorney General. Despite their philosophical differences on most policy questions, Holder and Kyl are blood brothers when it comes to absolute opposition to online gaming. During his confirmation hearings, Holder was crystal clear that he would take a hard line against any attempt to "modify or stop" the UIGEA regulations, and that he would be "vigilant in enforcing those regulations to shut off the flow of cash from this illegal activity." (Those are Kyl's words, but Holder endorsed them unequivocally by saying, "Yes, that is my position. That's what I will do.") See here for more details.
Is there on Capitol Hill a single politician who (1) is genuinely unsure of whether poker is predominantly a game of skill or chance, (2) cares about the answer, and (3) would be willing to base his legislative votes on the answer? I doubt it. I have not heard of any. Those would be the natural targets for the Bluefire challenge. But I think it's like having a natural consistuency of leprechauns.
Furthermore, are those who press this skill vs. luck question really willing to be consistent and intellectually honest about the consequences and implications? I cannot see any way to argue for a poker exemption on the basis of the skill factor without also needing to take blackjack along for the ride. People can unquestionably employ enough skill at blackjack to make a living playing it--as opposed to, say, roulette or craps, games for which you will search long and hard to find a "professional" player. Hard as it is to make the political case for a specific exemption for poker, try arguing for an exemption for both poker and blackjack. But if you don't, you're guilty of special pleading rather than a reasoned and principled position. Sports betting, too, can clearly be done with enough skill to make a handsome living, but I don't see the Poker Players Alliance or other advocacy groups rushing to include sports betting in their carve-out requests on the basis of the skill argument. I think I detect the stench of hypocrisy there.
In short, I can't take the Bluefire challenge seriously as anything other than a publicity stunt. It's vaguely reminiscent of Mark Twain's famous short story, "Science vs. Luck," in which a Kentucky jury becomes persuaded of the skill involved in the game of "Old Sledge" by playing through the night, because the skilled players end up with all the money. But unlike the jurors in that tale, minds in Washington, D.C., are already made up, mostly on grounds that have nothing to do with the question of skill. Nobody who is in a position of power is, as far as I know, susceptible to suasion on the basis of the kind of test Bluefire is proposing.
It's a cute idea, and an interesting attempt to get their company some free attention, but nothing more.