A History of Classic & Modern Card Games

Other columns by Joe Andrews:
I am often asked about luck as a factor in various board and card games, including Backgammon. We should also include a short discussion about casino games as well. To begin with, classic partnership card games such as Spades, Euchre, Pinochle, Whist and Bridge are not really a valid comparison to board games. Yes, the Duplicate or "Comparison" versions of these games do favor the accomplished players. This is especially true in Bridge, given the plethora of bidding conventions, defensive technique and play of the hand. It is the partnership factor that makes all the difference here. Experience rules! And now we come to the individual games.
Games of Absolute or Higher Skill
Chess, Go and Checkers are games of pure skill. There are no variables here. If you are a novice and make a bad move in any of these games, the experienced player on the other side of the table will pounce on your mistake like a snow leopard! The better player almost always wins, although there are those rare instances (especially noteworthy in Chess when some amateur upsets a higher rated, more experienced opponent. Cribbage, a venerable game which has been around for nearly 400 years, normally rewards the seasoned player. We also must consider the "fresh deal" aspect of Cribbage and the "cut" for each hand. Still, the superior player dominates over the long haul.
Where Luck Plays a More Significant Part
Next is the discussion about casino games. There must be a house advantage in any gambling establishment. Otherwise, they could not stay in business for very long! Roulette is a very bad bet. Slot Machines are based on random luck and preprogramming. Blackjack when played with a single deck, can favor a person who counts cards or uses a "Thorpe" system. Yet very few casinos have one deck games and most have shoes with six or eight decks. In short, you can decrease the house advantage by making prudent bets (sometimes called "Basic Strategy") and understanding the odds of your favorite game. (This is especially true at the "Craps" table!)

Poker and the World Series of Poker in particular, has had a massive popularity explosion during the past thirty years, thanks to television and the Internet. There are many professionals who make a handsome living at 'Texas Hold Em' Poker. Still, luck is a factor when it comes to winning – along with psychology, bluffing and the ability to "read" your opponents. Legends such as Hellmuth, Brunson, Ivey and Lederer, to name a few, have honed their games to a very high level. They rarely lose to weaker players, although it does happen every so often. After all, how many times have you seen a player "done in" by the "Turn" or "River" Cards? And how many times have you seen a player win by filling a straight, flush, or full house on the last card of a hand? Most Poker "pros" are in fear of amateurs, as the weaker players are very unpredictable. Very few past winners are repeat Champions at the Annual World Series Championship.

Now we come to Backgammon. At first glance, the use of dice would appear to infuse a huge luck element into the game. It is also true that the rank novice can defeat a professional at any given time. But the skill of the expert player will usually overwhelm the vacillating luck of the weaker player as more games and matches are played. The doubling cube, an innovation from the late 1920s in New York City, completely revolutionized Backgammon. Now, the player who had a significant positional advantage or significant pip count lead in a game could offer the cube to his opponent, forcing a decision. Most good players would turn down the cube while in a bad position, rather than rely on luck to "steal" the game. It is not a miracle that the legends of the game (Robertie, Magriel and Woolsey come to mind; there are lots of other great players, too) have prospered in the Backgammon arena. Some tournaments have offered million-dollar prize funds!

Finally, we should not exclude the Classic board games, such as Monopoly, Clue, Stratego, Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit, etc. These games feature a combination of luck, skill, memory and intuition! Scrabble particularly rewards the player with the strong vocabulary and knowledge of two and three letter words!

Maybe it all boils down to the adage:

"I would rather be lucky than good!"

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