Spotting the Leaks in Negreanu's Defence of Casino Games on PokerStars

In the wake of the recent announcement that PokerStars is launching casino gaming alongside its flagship poker product, the poker world has been abuzz.

Immediately after the announcement, Victoria Coren-Mitchell took to her blog to announce she was ending her association with the online poker site. As the first player ever to win two European Poker Tour Main Events, Coren-Mitchell is one of the most recognizable faces in the PokerStars stable of sponsored pros.

“Poker is the game I love, poker is what I signed up to promote.” Coren-Mitchell said on her blog the morning after the announcement. Continuing, she explained that she could not in good conscience continue to be the face of PokerStars while they offered gaming that was fundamentally unfair. “I’m always careful to explain the difference between the essentially fair nature of poker, where we all take each other on with the same basic chance, and those casino games at unfavourable odds which can be (especially online) so dangerous for the vulnerable or desperate.”

Coren-Mitchell’s announcement generated a lot of discussion in the poker industry around the inclusion of casino gaming with a poker product. Some players, such as Massachusetts pro Tim Reilly, offered support for Coren-Mitchell’s stance. In an interview with Global Poker Index (GPI), Reilly said “I think our focus needs to be on legitimizing poker as a sport and not a game of chance. By associating with online casino games we may be hurting ourselves.”

Others, however, such as Pennsylvania pro Matt Glantz, took a different view. In the same GPI article, Glantz said, “I guess my views have always differed from Vicky’s. I have never seen non-poker types of gambling as evil or bad. I would never recommend anyone to take part in any negative expectation gambling but I understand there is a ton of entertainment value involved for most people. This is what continues to make the overall casino business thrive.”

Another very recognizable face from PokerStars roster weighed in on the controversy recently. Daniel Negreanu took to his Full Contact Poker blog this week to respond to Coren-Mitchell’s resignation. While saying “I both respect and admire Vicky Coren’s personal stance on online casino gaming,” he goes on to arrive at a very different conclusion from Coren-Mitchell.

Negreanu’s main argument seems to be summed up in one sentence. “I would personally feel like a hypocrite if I justified that it’s OK for me to take money from problem gamblers, but it's not OK for the casino to do the same.” He spends some time qualifying this position in various ways, but his position seems to rely on an equivalence between the competition at a poker table and the competition in casino games.

Negreanu considers the prospect of a recreational poker player playing against “sharks” compared to the same person putting money down on casino games, and claims their return on investment would probably be better on the casino games, and he’s almost certainly right. The problem is that it compares apples and elephants.

The average “recreational poker player” won’t sit down at a table of Negreanu-calibre sharks. Instead, that rec player will buy into a local $50 tournament that is too small to be of any interest to the sharks, and will play against other recreational players.

Further, even if she does lose her buy-in to a shark, poker offers her the chance to go away, study, and become better, to the point that she can come back and hold her own or even win against the shark. The casino game offers no such chance to improve her skill, nor does it offer the chance to play against various skill levels; you play the house on its terms — terms that are specifically rigged against you — or you don’t play.

In poker, I can choose the table I want to sit at based on the relative skills of the people I observe there, thereby finding a place where I don’t feel “preyed on” by sharks. Similarly, I can enter a $50 tournament to play against other recreational players, or a $10,000 tournament to play against sharks like Negreanu. But no matter which table I choose to sit at, or which tournament I buy in to, I know that what separates me from other players is only my skill level, because the rules don’t favour any one side over the other.

Casino games, of course, are fundamentally different beasts. In casino games, the rules are written specifically to favour one side — the house. As Negreanu points out, casino games are “not a fair game, in the sense that with hard work you could beat it. ” Unlike poker, their rules are deliberately rigged against the player.

Negreanu’s argument seems to ignore the difference between being beaten by a more skilled player in a fair contest and being beaten by someone in a contest rigged against you.

While his point that players can delude themselves into thinking they are more skilled than they really are in the poker contest, that’s no different than any other game of skill. I may delude myself into thinking I am a better golfer than I am, and then lose money in a skins game against a more skilled golfer, but that delusion is my problem, not the fault of unfair rules in our competition.

There should be no shame in participating in a game of skill where the rules are written fairly for all participants. If you win and I lose in that game, it’s down to nothing more than our respective skill levels. And, if I improve, the fair rules mean I can compete fairly against all other players.

I have nothing personal against casino games, and I’ve been known to play blackjack on occasion — a game where the skill edge is so small it’s virtually non-existent, and whose rules of play specifically favour the house. If casino games are viewed as entertainment, then I see no difference between spending $100 to be entertained on the blackjack table and spending $100 to be entertained at a concert.

The problem I see is putting a casino product beside a poker product under the same banner. PokerStars has already made the move to more “gambly” sorts of games with the introduction of flipaments and the new spin-and-go tournaments, and adding casino games just goes farther down that road, moving away from the promotion of a game of skill.

As a business decision, adding casino games is obviously a solid financial move for Amaya Gaming, and I don’t object to them offering casino gaming online. My objection is in the branding association with Pokerstars. If Amaya put out a “CasinoStars” product and used the PokerStars product to promote it, I’d have far less objection since the skill game of poker would be distinct from the chance games of the casino.

Ultimately, I think that combining the two blurs the skill of poker, making it far harder to sell the game as a mainstream “sport” as opposed to “gambling”. It will be far harder for a PokerStars that includes casino games to bill itself as a “sport” when it is specifically diluting the skill aspect of it’s product with chance games.

Coren-Mitchell, it would seem, has taken a very nuanced moral stand here, standing on the distinction between games of chance and games of skill. Negreanu is trying to blur that distinction, claiming that when he wins as a result of his skill, it’s no different than a casino winning because of rigged odds, and that seems a very hard position to justify.

I’ve always respected and admired Negreanu for both his poker skills, as well as his outspoken and well-spoken opinions. In this case, however, I think he misses the mark. His argument ignores the distinction between poker as a game of skill and casino games as a game of chance. Someone who loses in a game of skill is not at all the same as someone who loses in a game of chance, especially one where the odds are rigged against them.

As the U.S. Congress slowly makes decisions on internet poker and other forms of online gaming, the fact that poker is a game of skill will be a key point in the decision process. The implication of Negreanu’s argument is that poker and craps are very much the same, and this damages the efforts of the poker community.

If we want mainstream acceptance of poker as a sport, as an industry we need to emphasize the skill aspects of poker and de-emphasize the chance nature of it. By blurring that skill-based distinction, both Negreanu and Amaya risk destroying the gains poker has made in that regard in recent years.

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