Analyzing Adelson's Words In The Broader Context Of Regulation

Did Sheldon Adelson Just Contend That Poker Comprises Both Skillful Elements And Luck?

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This is a really strange spot for me, as I’m going to defend staunch online poker opponent Sheldon Adelson in a column. Well, some of his recent comments anyway.

Adelson kicked up yet another poker controversy dust cloud with his latest “anti-poker” comments.

In a recent interview with Yahoo Finance writer Dan Roberts, the casino billionaire took a swipe at poker when he put daily fantasy sports (DFS) in his anti-online-gambling crosshairs.

Or did he?

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Adelson comments provoke ire of poker community

Here’s what Adelson said about poker during the interview:

“Some say poker is not gambling. Poker is gambling. They say poker is a game of skill. I don’t know how skill can apply to somebody shuffling a deck of cards and randomly giving them out to you. You don’t have any control over it. Can somebody bluff and can somebody place bets better than somebody else? Yes. But that doesn’t make poker a game of skill.”

The comments caught the attention of the poker community, and the responses were not kind.

But the responses are focusing on Adelson saying poker isn’t a game of skill, which has a different connotation when you’re in the casino business.

And saying there is luck involved in poker doesn’t mean it doesn’t also necessitate skill.

What Adelson might actually be saying

We have to be very careful when we parse Adelson’s words, especially when we put them in full context with what’s currently transpiring in statehouses around the country regarding DFS — where its “game of skill” designation is fast-tracking legislation.

So, while it may sound like he’s calling poker (and DFS) a game of luck, if we take a closer look, Adelson never says poker doesn’t demand skill.

In fact, you could argue he said the opposite, considering how he answered his own question in the interview with Roberts. “Can somebody bluff and can somebody place bets better than somebody else?” Adelson rhetorically asked. Then he answered himself: “Yes.”

What Adelson appears to be saying, is, despite the skill element, poker (and DFS) are still gambling, and need to be treated as, and regulated as, gambling. This is a very important and nuanced distinction. As Adelson told Roberts: “Daily fantasy sports is gambling. There’s no question about it. Anybody can play this, and they can gamble on it.”

Here’s why calling poker and DFS gambling (something the Nevada Gaming Control Board declared in October 2015) is important.

If poker were a “game of skill” it wouldn’t fall under the Nevada Gaming Control Board’s sway any more than a chess or bridge tournament.

The same goes for DFS. If the legislature decides DFS is a game of skill (as some other states have done) the game falls into a different category than poker and other regulated casino games.

By calling it gambling (even if it’s skill-based gambling) it remains under the control of licensed operators and falls under the sway of state gaming regulators.

So, when Adelson says poker isn’t “a game of skill,” he’s not necessarily saying that playing poker well doesn’t require skill. Which seems to be the case if we look at the entirety of his comments, and what he’s said in the past.

Adelson’s previous comments are pretty consistent

The most anti-poker comment Adelson has made came via a previous interview from 2013 where he stated:

“That skill base is, in my opinion, just a bunch of baloney. To get a card is not skill base. I know people say it is skill based, but it’s just so they can categorize it in a certain segment.”

The problem is, the statement is pretty vague and really needs to be contextualized. At the beginning of the article, the author provides subtext, paraphrasing Adelson as saying, “He says there should be no special exemption for online poker, since it’s a game of luck, not skill.”

The poker world obviously latched on to the game-of-luck element and went into a tizzy, but these were the writer’s words, not Adelson’s.

If the above statement made by Adelson was the genesis of the “poker is a game of luck” takeaway, it may not have been what Adelson was implying at all.

More likely, Adelson is once again saying poker is a game comprising both skillful components and luck. Because of the luck factor, it’s not a “game of skill,” like chess, and should not be decoupled from traditional casino games, thereby easing its path to online legalization.

The conversation was in regards to Adelson’s proposed online gambling ban, and his unwillingness to consider a poker carveout.

More evidence of Adelson’s belief that poker takes skill but is still gambling can be found in his keynote speech from G2E in 2014.

During the near-hour-long Q&A session with Global Gaming Business publisher Roger Gros, Adelson said that vulnerable people can be exploited online by what he described as “expert poker players.”

“They could be flying high and out of control of themselves, and what are they going to do with the poker players that are expert at playing poker. They’re just gonna clean everybody out? [pause] Like they do in the poker clubs and various casinos.”

Bottom line

Poker advocates are often frustrated and feel they are being treated unfairly when certain statements are misconstrued and used against them, or when data is mischaracterized.

This sense of fairness needs to be extended to Adelson’s comments about poker and skill; his statements have more complexity than people are assigning to them.

Image credit: lev radin /

- Steve covers nearly every angle of online poker in his job as a full-time freelance poker writer. His primary focus for OPR is the developing legal and legislative picture for regulated US online poker and gambling.
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