“Big data” suggests online poker “relatively benign”

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This week’s New Scientist reports (currently only available to subscribers) that the “Big Data” revolution has now encompassed online poker – with data collected on four million online players between September 2009 and March 2010.

I have never played online poker – I do like the game but I am hopeless at it and losing money brings me no thrill! But all the same the results are fascinating to me and I think they are also important in public policy terms.

The UK relatively recently liberalised its laws on gambling – but in the face of much controversy and moral panic the legislation was never implemented in full. Horror stories of gambling addiction abounded. But is addiction a big problem?

Not for most players it seems. Kahlil Philander (what a great name!) from the University of Las Vegas (not the person who collected the data – that was Ingo Fielder at the University of Hamburg) says “online poker is a relatively benign activity for 95 to 99 per cent of users”. The only 1 – 5% are a mixture of “pathological gamblers” and professionals. Are there other policy areas where we would let the issues facing perhaps less than 1% of the population block what is benign for the others? I am not convinced.

The US, despite draconian laws on online gambling and what looks like attempts to enforce the law extra-territorially, provided 23.7% of all players and next came Germany (where it also supposedly illegal but there is no real enforcement) with 9.6%, followed by (fully legal) gamblers in France (7.4%), Russia (6.7%), Canada (5.7%) and the UK (4.5%).

Half of online players played for less than a hour a month, while 6% played for more than 100 hours. And about 94% of players pay poker sites less than $500 in a six month period (in fact about a quarter of players pay the sites less than a dollar in six months and more than half pay in around $2.40 a month or less).

So, the games are not a threat to most people – but are they a realistic way of making money? The answer very clearly is no, and what money professionals make is down to very hard work, according to a sidebar on the main article.

Essentially it is much easier to lose money in poker than it is to win it, and it is also the case that for most of us luck (or rather random processes) and not skill will dominate our rate of loss or return. Typical (losing) players have to play 1560 hands (I am sure that is more than I will manage in a lifetime) before skill predominates over luck and for professionals the number rockets to 35,450.