Yes, poker is gambling. Though if that was the entire answer, this article would end here.
Instead, a better answer is “Yes, poker is gambling – but not in the way you might think.”
Let’s dive into gambling, poker, common objections, addiction, and more. Push play, and/or continue reading to get started.
Defining Poker & Gambling
Let’s begin with the most boring way to start anything, with a Britanica definition of gambling.
Gambling, the betting or staking of something of value with consciousness of risk and hope of gain, on the outcome of a game, a contest, or an uncertain event whose result may be determined by chance or accident or have an unexpected result by reason of the bettor’s miscalculation.
Let us be less academic and simplify this language:
Gambling: the risk of something valuable on an event with an uncertain outcome.
By either the academic or condensed definition, poker is 100% gambling. As you can see, this article is not even close to complete, so there are more than just these strict definitions.
Yes, poker is gambling. You are buying into a poker tournament where you could win the entire thing, or you could bust out on the first hand.
Poker is full of uncertain outcomes and you are risking something of value (aka, money) on it. On another side of the poker world, you could get Pocket Aces all-in preflop during a cash game. You are risking something of value when betting on an uncertain outcome. Having a massive equity edge on even the second-best possible hand still leaves an uncertain outcome.
So given our previous definitions, this is still gambling.
What Else Is Gambling?
But it’s also helpful to consider what else is gambling by these definitions.
Let’s start with the clearest activities and slide down the continuum to things that are not perceived as gambling traditionally.
- Lotteries are clearly gambling.
- Buying stocks for example Amazon stock. For any stock, you do not know if it will go up, down or stay even for the future. You certainly hope it will go up, you may think it will go up, but it is not certain to go up.
- Health Insurance every single year you pay your premiums and do not know if an accident, bad health will cause you to use the insurance and if the payout will cover the premiums if they do. This is certainly gambling. You “win” by getting sick and your premiums pay for health care well in excess of their cost. You might “lose” by being perfectly healthy and never getting reimbursement for healthcare in excess of your premiums.
We could spend all day nitpicking everything we do and attempting to apply a “what level of gambling is involved here?” label to it. But safe it to say, most actions risk value on uncertain outcomes at the end of the day.
Many “Normal” Activities Are Gambling
Some people might feel uncomfortable thinking of these last two as gambling. They might call it “hedging” or “investing” and they are right. They can be both.
When non-poker people think of poker or games like poker they are really thinking about games that are 100% pure luck. When people start to understand poker, as even the most novice of poker players do, they see that poker is not 100% luck.
Poker is not 100% skill either in the short term.
It is somewhere in the middle.
Over the long term, skilled players are going to come out ahead. They will make more money, but they are not going to mitigate the chances of short-term luck.
Defining Luck In Poker
Let’s try a different definitional exercise. How do you know if a game is pure luck?
Simple put, you cannot deliberately choose a losing strategy in a purely luck-based game.
Think of the children’s game of Chutes and Ladders. You are playing with a child, and the only way you can “win” is by letting the child win and feel good. Could you think of a strategy to ensure they win?
No, there are no choices to be made, and no strategy to use (good or bad) to affect the outcome of the game.
Your cute little nephew is just going to have to take his chances. Just like you do.
Now the older niece wants to play you in Scrabble. Could you purposefully throw the game to her?
Presumably, you have a better vocabulary and understand the value of the “double word scores” and can play defensively when the random draw of tiles is not in your favor. You could deliberately choose not to play strong words, dump your rack of tiles when you know you have a game-winning word lined up.
The meta-game for you is can could throw the game her way without her noticing. This author can tell you from experience that I can when playing Uno against her.
We can see with this lens that you can deliberately lose in Scrabble because of the skill, but you can not in Chutes and Ladders because it is pure chance.
How Much Luck Is In Poker?
Getting back to our thesis question, could we find a poker strategy that deliberately loses?
Yes, I think we have all seen people angry and frustrated at the end of the night that seem to do this with their last half a buy-in.
If we are being more strategic (about losing, lol) than frustrated in our attempt to lose, we could simply call all the way down and be the first to blind-fold at showdown. The fact that we can deliberately lose “proves” that there is some poker strategy baked into the game. This means poker is not a 100% luck game, it can not be.
Games Can Be Luck, Skill, Or Both
Poker is not 100% luck, there are also other variables at play beyond the strategy of one given hand also.
There is a general, overall risk.
You can play poker in a way that is very risky for a given session and for your bankroll in general. This is the idea of Bankroll Management (BRM). There are skills that you can develop, edges that can be realized with more study and practice.
There is the risk of spending on coaching, training or the risk of not studying or training.
This again shows there are games that are pure luck, games that are pure skill and games, like poker, that are somewhere in the middle.
Poker & Religion
One of the beliefs that taint people’s views the most on poker is religion. This is not to become a theistic debate, as we are not experts in all the world religions because we have not studied all of them.
But a common notion, especially from Christians, is that “gambling is a sin.”
Well, is it?
if your read either or both testaments it can be helpful to use a modern search engine to search for “gamble” (spoiler, no results found for this or related terms). If you look for a more comparable term such as “casting lots”, you will find a variety of passages – though not a single one specifies gambling as being sinful. Hint, if it were, it would be odd that Aaron is told to cast lots for the scapegoat (Lev 16:8).
If you can go to a religious teacher with an honest question on this ask if gambling is a sin. The answer is very likely “Yes.” But then ask for chapter and verse. When they can not find the reference, then ask them about Matthew 7:23 and how the Messiah felt about adding to the Word.
Here is the thing, we like logical consistency. We endeavor to remove hypocrisy from our lives. If someone is telling you poker is gambling and you should never, ever play it… we certainly hope that person does not own stocks, have health insurance, or any number of other financial instruments, or even partake in activities like bingo.
Poker Gambling Addiction
Let’s discuss the elephant in the room: there is ‘problem gambling‘.
To be clear, gambling addiction and problematic behavior certainly exists. There are people that have a problem gambling and they need to get help. Some people succumb to gluttony, that does not mean that bread is bad and you should never eat it. Some people are addicted to online shopping, but that doesn’t mean we should ban Amazon.
Most people are responsible and treat food, shopping, and poker as these things ought to be treated. Extrapolating from a few bad actors is not wise in any situation.
In any of these games, there is pure gambling, there is gambling with an edge, and there is gambling with an extreme edge.
If someone that you care about needs to understand this, show them that you track your results, that you have study time, that you are being responsible with your finances- win or lose. Someone that is a pure gambling addict will not do these responsible things. Students of the game will have a clear and articulable thought process on why they make the poker decisions, like GTO bluffing, that they do.
If you found this article because you fear someone you love has a gambling addiction, these are the kind of questions that you can ask to understand them and poker.
Poker Skills vs. Luck
Honing the skill in poker is the difference between playing this game like a slot machine (just hoping to get lucky) versus serious investing (making as many +EV poker decisions as possible).
If you are someone that is taking poker seriously, is finding and growing those edges then we highly suggest you sign up for CORE on Red Chip Poker.
CORE is a clearly defined curriculum and poker course. The most extensive education in poker ever made, with videos, articles and podcasts designed to bring you from a beginner to an intermediate player. We even start to add advanced skills beyond that. With a solid foundation, you will be able to understand what you need to study next, and how to find those resources in the larger Red Chip Poker world.
Sign up for CORE today for only $5 a week. When you learn something that saves you one mistake a session, signing up was a gamble that paid off.
Do a lesson a day and see those edges start to add up.