Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Gambling is an academic jackpot for DU professor

Professor Robert Hannum

Professor Robert Hannum says poker is a game of skill, not chance. Photo Illustration: Wayne Armstrong

Ask DU statistics professor Robert Hannum about how academically invigorating the study of probability, data collection and quantitative analysis is, and he can’t bluff.

“I freely admit there are many areas of statistics that I find dry and boring,” he says. “That’s part of the reason I ended up doing statistics of gambling and game theory.”

Hannum has applied his top-shelf knowledge of statistics and probability to the study of poker. While some professors toil away at microscopes and dusty volumes, Hannum studies the math behind flops, value bets, pot odds, full boats, pocket rockets and the nuts. And, his conclusions have led to him playing a pivotal role in criminal trials around the country.

Although similar situations have played out in South Carolina and Pennsylvania, Colorado has its own homegrown version: In 2008 law enforcement stormed a Greeley poker game and arrested organizers. The ensuing charges contended that the organizers — in running weekly games with a $20 buy-in at a local bar — were running an illegal gambling operation. Enter Hannum, who was called to the trial as an expert witness. Calling upon his extensive research on the subject, Hannum argued, as he did in subsequent trials in other states, that poker is a game of skill, not chance.

“It’s not like we’re saying chance isn’t involved, but we’re saying it’s predominantly skill that determines the outcome,” Hannum says. “Players determine what other players’ cards are, who’s bluffing, how much they’ll bet, whether they’ll bet at all. Most hands don’t even go to showdown.”

The importance to the defense teams of establishing poker as a game of skill is that to do so exempts the games from many gambling laws, which, simply put, define gambling as games of chance.

In the Colorado case, Hannum’s testimony resulted in a jury acquittal. However, the prosecution appealed, claiming Hannum should not have been allowed to testify on the grounds that a 20-year-old state Supreme Court case already established poker as a game of chance. The appeal was accepted, although the defendant, Kevin Raley, cannot be retried.

Anthony Cabot, a Las Vegas-based gaming attorney, collaborated with Hannum on Practical Casino Math, a reference book on gambling law. Cabot praised Hannum’s contributions to the gaming law field and says lofty math concepts are casino industry’s backbone.

“The gaming industry is based on statistics, which results in a positive financial benefit for the casino industry,” Cabot says. “Robert has effectively provided both the courts and the regulatory bodies the proper framework for understanding the statistical nature of the industry.”

John Pappas, executive director of the Poker Players Alliance, a national advocacy group with 1.2 million members, has utilized Hannum in the Alliance’s legal work.

“We believe poker should not fall under the traditional definitions of gambling because of the skill required to succeed, much like bowling or billiards or golf,” Pappas says. “[Hannum] has been extremely instrumental in providing the statistical and analytical reasoning for why poker is a game of skill.”

Hannum says he thinks the next frontier of the skills-versus-chance argument likely is the Internet and how laws will apply to online poker.

Hannum can comment on the skills question involving many games, including blackjack, roulette, craps, and James Bond’s favorite, baccarat.

One might assume such knowledge would have Hannum frequenting casinos and poker nights. Not so. He says deeper knowledge of gambling has made the pursuit less appealing to him, not more.

“I might sit down at table games, but I’m doing it for background research,” he says with a chuckle.

Hannum adds that the dream of going to a Colorado casino or spending a weekend in Las Vegas and coming back with more money is a delusion. He says it’s best to view gambling as an endeavor in which losing money is inevitable, and that the money lost (hopefully a small amount) is nothing more than entertainment dollars.

“It should be viewed the same as going to the movies: a certain amount of money spent for a certain time period of entertainment,” he says. “In the long run, you’ll lose money gambling. There just aren’t that many situations in which the player has the advantage over the house.” 

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