What is Gambling?


Since poker went main stream (actually even before that) there has been discussion on whether it’s a game of skill and whether it counts as gambling. Some courts made their rulings in different countries, I think all the players are pretty unanimous that it’s a skill game and I think any half-decent mathematician will tell you luck doesn’t really exist. So what is the thing we call »luck« and when is something actually a gamble?

Nothing in life is certain. There are only probabilities of something happening or not happening and outcomes for each scenario. This shows especially in card games and games in general. So the only thing that really matters is that you make a decision that you will profit from. This would translate into assessing how much you gain from a scenario that is likely to happen in X% of cases and how much do you stand to lose,if it doesn’t… basically a standard EV calculation. So how does this look in games?

Any game where your EV is positive is not really a gamble. You are going to win. Any game where your EV is negative is not really a gamble either. You are going to lose. So what is a gamble? A gamble is not really knowing. If you don’t know what your EV is then you are gambling that it is positive.

So any time you go play a casino game like Roulette you are not gambling, since you know you will lose (at least I hope you realize that). You are either throwing money away or paying for entertainment, which ever way you want to look at it. Every time you flip a coin with someone on 2:1 odds. it’s not gambling, since you are going to win.


What happens in poker and card games in general?

The thing with most card games that are played against other players, and poker is a prime example, is that there are so many variables. There are so many decisions to make on so many factors. When you play a hand of any NL poker game even the raise size makes for so many possible options and you have to make it on a million factors (specific player characteristics, table dynamic, player stacks, your hand, your opponents range etc.).

So unless you are playing against players where you have an obvious edge it can be really hard to know whether you are +EV or –EV, so it actually is a gamble. It however stops being a gamble after you played a decent amount of hands (let’s say 200k+). Then you should see whether you are +EV or –EV, but even then poker is a dynamic game and people change their playing styles and also players themselves come and go, so you probably won’t play 200k hands against the same people.

Doesn’t that make poker and other card games gambling games and casino games just games where you throw money away for fun?

The definition of gambling I found online: »Take risky action in the hope of a desired result.«

This is actually perfect in my opinion, except it’s flawed, because it uses the word »risky«,which isn’t defined.

My definition of gambling would be: »Taking an action where you don’t know whether you will gain more from getting the result you desire compared to what you will lose otherwise given the probability of either scenario happening.«

So my conclusion would be that most games that we see as gambling games are actually not, since they have a fixed long term negative outcome for the player. Most games that we try to make look as not gambling (poker, sports betting, fantasy sports, rummy etc.) are the ones that actually are gambling, since it’s hard to know until you played them for a while whether they are giving you a positive or negative outcome.

Also the negative understanding of gambling is wrong, because it’s used for games where you will definitely lose money (and which I’m arguing that are not actually gambling games, just losing games for the player). It should be understood as a neutral state in which you do not yet know if you are a long term winner or loser at something.