Justice Mudgal Trophy for Lawyers & Law Students: Texas Hold ‘Em Poker – a definite Game of Skill

Bar & Bench September 5 2019
Justice Mudgal Trophy

PokerHigh is hosting an online Texas Hold ‘Em tournament called the “Justice Mudgal Texas Hold ’Em Online Championship” on 15th September 2019. All profits made from the tournament will be donated for a social cause to Romil Seva Sanstha, a charity chosen by Justice (Retd.) Mukul Mudgal. 

The Justice Mukul Mudgal Online Championship is providing an opportunity to the entire legal fraternity to compete against one another and unify for a social cause. The Justice Mudgal Championship would only have Advocates, In-House Counsels, Interns, Law Students compete on one level playing field, by playing a game of skill.

In this column, Vaibhav Gaggar writes how this variant of poker is a "game of skill" that has much to teach lawyers as well. 

In India, jurisprudence is well established - ever since the judgments of RMD Chamarbaugwala v. Union Of India (AIR 1957 Sc 62), Satyanarayanan Judgment (State of Andhra Pradesh v. K.Satyanarayana, AIR 1968 SC 825) and Dr KR Laxamanan v State of TN AIR 1996 SC 1153 (“Dr. K.R. Laxmanan’s case”) - that “Games of skill”, whether played for stake and for earning profit, would be a legal business venture, not amounting to ‘Gambling’, as compared to ‘Games of Chance’ which would be treated as Gambling.

The juxtaposition of “Games of Skill” versus “Games of Chance” goes to the root of the Constitutionality of the laws relating to gaming in India as the former is protected as any other business in India would be, while the latter category is not considered to be a genuine business and suffers from the taint of being “Gambling”.

Rummy, Bridge, Fantasy Sports, Chess, Quiz and Poker have been held to be “Games of Skill” judicially, legislatively and executively in various parts of India. In the context of poker, Texas Hold ’Em is the most popular variant and is taught at leading national & international institutes including MIT, IIM Kozhikode and a number of Ivy League colleges.

The skillset one requires to become good at it primarily includes knowledge of psychology, statistics, probability, and strategy. Texas Hold ‘Em has also been attracting a lot of national attention, with the hon’ble President of India having recently honoured Muskan Sethi, a leading poker player, with the coveted ‘Women’s Achievers Award’. As the legendary chess player, Vishwanathan Anand, put it, “Poker is like chess with cards”. It has also been recognised by the International Mind Sports Association (IMSA) as a mind sport, and there are annual World Championships for Texas Hold ‘Em Poker. Like any other sport, Texas Hold ‘Em also has its own legends of the sport who have won the coveted World Series of Poker multiple times. 

In fact, the connection between strategies required to be adopted inherently by lawyers and Texas Hold ‘Em players runs quite deep. Recognising the same perhaps, in a very interesting development, Justice Mukul Mudgal, the Hon’ble former Chief Justice of Punjab and Haryana High Courts, and who is also the current head of the FIFA Governance and Review Committee, has permitted a Texas Hold ‘Em Tournament to be held in his name which is meant exclusively for lawyers & law students only.  

Think about the deep symmetry between litigation and poker, both of which involve competitive decision making with constantly changing dynamics and information asymmetry  (for instance, the strategy or cards/brief/strategy that the opponent is holding). There are many poker tactics that can be applied to comparable situations in law practice. In fact, some of the language used in the two situations is also fascinatingly common :

First principles for both lawyers and poker players is “keep your cards (strategy and facts) close to your chest”. In a negotiation or litigation, you make a reasonable offer or “opening” and may have to “sweeten the pot”, while the opponent, may “raise the stakes” posturing they have an “ace up their sleeves”. You may, at that stage, after conducting a quick back of the mind probability/ calculation, take a strategic decision to either “ up the ante”, figuring that you have a “ better hand” or can “beat the odds” if you “play your cards right”, in which case you will have to just “call the opponents bluff” or you will have to “fold”. You can’t ever  “pass the buck” so you’d better hope you have the “ winning hand” ( and that you aren’t playing with a stacked deck). Whatever be the “stakes involved”, there is no reason to “show your hand” until the “showdown”, while you all along maintain a “poker face”.

Even strategically, there are a lot of commonalities and lessons to be learnt. Folding a bad hand or eliminating a pointless argument will invariably limit future losses. Never ask a question in cross examination ( or ask for a showdown in Texas Hold ‘Em) that you don’t already know the answer to, you never gamble but take strategic and calculated bets, reduce the risk for your client and not take chances. The similarities are unending. As they say, great lawyers and poker players are never truly lucky, they actually position themselves to ensure that they achieve the best results by maximising the gains and/or minimising their losses given that they have no say in the cards ( briefs) that have been dealt to them. 

Understanding the above, and more particularly the fine but crucial difference between ‘placing/ taking a bet’ basis skill, as required to be exhibited while dealing with the issue at hand, and “gambling”, hoping that luck would tide them over, is the difference between the great lawyers and players versus the novices. It all depends upon how much control you have over the result. In poker, like in Court, the best players do not depend on luck at all. They depend upon their skill, and based on their ability to calculate precise odds, they bet only on positive expectations and predictable outcomes where they either hold unbeatable cards or they are able to make other players believe that they do; and like the stock market, business or even courts, even the best prepared and thought out strategies may not always go right, where ultimately it’s the preponderance and the probability that defines the eventual winner and not just a flash in the pan. 

Given the aforesaid, it is quite apparent that there should be no confusion anymore that poker is a definite game of skill only, and as they say, “may the best man win”.

Let the games begin.

To know more about the Justice Mudgal Texas Hold ’Em Online Championship visit pokerhigh.com/justice-mudgal