Every time I play poker I hear at least one player say something about luck. Someone either complains about their luck, or say they got lucky, or wish for luck on a draw. I used to wonder if all of these people actually believed that poker was a game of luck, but I stopped wondering years ago. I know that many poker players think that luck controls their results.
Instead of wondering if they believe poker is all luck, I’ve started encouraging this thinking in as many opponents as possible. I even say some of the same things that I hear from others to reinforce their belief. But I don’t believe that luck has anything to do with my poker results. The more my opponents believe that their results are based on luck, the more I win.
I’ve come to the conclusion that poker players that believe in luck at the poker table fall into one of two categories.
- They don’t understand the mathematical facts that dictate everything that happens at the poker table. This is simple ignorance, and has nothing to do with how smart they are. They simply don’t understand how they can use math to improve their results.
- The other possibility is that they have at least some understanding of how poker results can be improved using the base math facts, but are too lazy to do anything about it. It’s easier to claim it’s all luck than to take responsibility and start learning how to play better.
If you fall into one of these categories, now is your chance to break out of it and start winning more money. You can use the six reasons why poker is a game of skill below to learn why poker doesn’t involve luck, and how to use this knowledge to improve your results.
Many things happen at the poker table that look like luck, but what they really are is short term variance.
One definition of variance is a result that or event that departs from or doesn’t conform to expectations. What this means is that when you do or see something that has a predictable or expected outcome, if the outcome isn’t what you expect it’s called variance.
Short term variance is simply variance, as described above, over a small sample size. A small simple size can be said in a different way that makes more sense when you think about poker. A small sample size in poker is one or a few hands.
The way poker is designed, rarely do you see situations where the expected outcome is 100% guaranteed to happen. Many situations where players think they have a lock actually are just situations where they have a high chance to win.
After the turn in a Texas holdem game the board has the three of hearts, five of hearts, nine of hearts, and the jack of spades. One player has the ace of hearts and queen of hearts. This is currently the best hand, with an ace high flush. This player usually thinks they have a lock on the hand. Another player has the four of hearts and the six of hearts.
In this situation, the player with the ace high flush is a big favorite to win, but they don’t have a lock on the hand. The second player, with the lower flush, can improve their hand to a straight flush if one of two cards lands on the river. They need the two of hearts of the seven of hearts.
You can determine the chances or odds of one of these cards landing on the river with the information above. You know the deck has 52 cards in it, and at this point you know the value of the four board cards and the hole cards for each of the two players. This leaves 44 cards that can land on the river.
Two of the 44 possible cards win the hand for the second player and the other 42 out of 44 cards win the hand for the first player.
When one of the two cards the second player needs hits on the river, is he lucky? Is the player with an ace high flush unlucky when this happens?
The truth is that neither player is lucky or unlucky. Both outcomes are possible, and in the long run each possible outcome is going to happen the correct number of times. The correct number of times is determined by every possible outcome.
In this example, you can list the value of each of the 44 unseen cards. In a perfectly random situation, each of the 44 cards will land on the river once, on average, if you play the hand 44 times.
Where variance, and short term variance, comes into play is when the results of playing the hand 44 times don’t match the expected outcome. If you play this situation 44 times the expected outcome is the lower flush completes a straight flush two times and the higher flush wins the hand 42 times.
Over any particular set of 44 hands a wide variation of results can happen. But if you play the hand a million times the expected results will bear out.
The problem is that most players only focus on the current hand, so if the outcome with the higher chance of happening doesn’t happen, they think luck is involved. When you think luck is involved at the poker table, you’re ignoring the true probabilities.
Remember this as you learn more about luck in poker below.
1 – The Best Starting Hand Is Profitable
Many different things happen during poker hands that are responsible for the outcome. But every hand starts with each player receiving two cards. The first decision each player is forced to make is whether or not to enter the pot based on the value of these two cards.
Each possible starting hand has a value. You can learn more about value in the expected value section below. Some hands show a long term profit, while others show a long term loss. It’s easy to understand why pocket aces show a long term profit, and seven two off suit shows a long term loss.
But there are many hands between these two, and many variables come into play that determines their long term value. Here are some of the things that come into play:
- How you play after the flop
- How your opponents play after the flop
- Your position relative to the button
- Stack sizes for you and your opponents
- What you know about how your opponents play
- What your opponents know about how you play
All of this and more comes into play to determine the winner of each individual hand. But poker isn’t based on a single hand. Your results are based on every hand you play in your life. You need to make the best plays possible on each hand, but all of your hands add up over your life to determine if you’re a winning or losing player.
In the long run, which is what everything should be based on, the player that enters the pot with a better starting hand wins more than the player or player’s who enter the pot with a weaker hand. You can run hand simulations to see this is true, or you can track every hand you play, but this is a mathematical fact.
Short term variance does come into play, because even the worst starting hand can beat the best starting hand sometimes. But in the long run, the best starting hand shows a big profit over the worst starting hand.
You can compare any two starting hands to determine which one shows a profit and which one shows a loss when they play against each other in the long run. The easiest way to do this is to use a starting hand calculator.
Of course, not all hands are contested by only two players. Sometimes three, four, or more players enter the pot. But it doesn’t matter, because one of the hands shows more profit than the others in the long run.
What all of this means is that if you enter the pot with a better starting hand than your opponent or opponents, you’re going to make more money than them in the long run. Luck doesn’t have anything to do with the long term profitability of any starting hand.
Even the distribution of starting hands you receive has nothing to do with luck. Over millions of hands you’re going to receive the proper distribution of starting hands. This mean that over time you’re going to start with pocket aces the same number of times you start with pocket twos, and you’re going to start with ace king the same number of times you start with two seven.
2 – A Set Number of Cards
Everything you’ve learned so far is true because each game of poker is played with a deck of cards with a set number and a set value for each card. Popular poker games use a standard deck of 52 playing cards. This makes everything that happens at the poker table predictable.
The problem comes in when you have to deal with a large number of possibilities. The chance to receive any individual card, like the ace of clubs, as your first card, is one out of 52. The chance to receive any of the four aces as your first card is four out of 52, or one out of 13.
This is easy to understand. But when you start adding variables it makes the calculations more difficult. But no calculation in poker is impossible. You might not be able to run complex calculations in your head, but computer programs can run them quickly if the software is set up the right way.
The set number of cards with set values creates a situation where you’re dealing with a set number of possible outcomes on every hand. This means that nothing that happens is based on luck.
3 – Probabilities and Pot Odds
A set number of cards and values let you make mathematical calculations to determine probabilities and pot odds. Probability is the chance or odds that something is going to happen. It’s what I used above when talking about the chance of the first card you get dealt being an ace. You know the deck has four aces out of 52 cards, so the probability is four out of 52, or one out of 13, that the first card you get dealt is an ace.
Pot odds use probabilities in combination with the amount in the pot and the size of the bet you need to call. When you use pot odds correctly it tells you whether it’s more profitable to call of fold. When the pot offers a better ratio of possible return against the cost to call, and includes the odds or probability that you win being better than the cost, it’s more profitable to call.
The ability to use probabilities and pot odds eliminates the possibility of luck.
4 – Playing Against Good and Bad Players
If you have to play heads up against a player at the poker player, do you want to face the best player in the world or one that just started playing today? Which player do you have the best chance to beat now, and in the long run?
So far you’ve learned why luck doesn’t have anything to do with poker based on the underlying mathematical nature of the game. But the decisions you and your opponents make also alter the outcomes, both in the short term and in the long term.
How does this come into play where luck and skill are considered?
I asked two questions at the beginning of this section. The answer to the first question is you want to play the beginner, not the best player in the world. The reason is the answer to the second question. You have a better chance to win against the beginning player than the best player in the world.
Can you think of any argument against these two answers? Of course you can beat the best player sometimes, and the beginner will beat you sometimes, but over a long time the best player is going to win more money, and the worst player is going to lose more money.
This section alone should be enough evidence for every poker player to understand that poker is a game of skill and not luck.
5 – Expected Value
Every hand and decision you have at the poker table can use math to help you improve your results. Most of what you’ve learned so far on this page shows why this is true. Expected value is one of the tools you can use that pulls most of the other things together into one thing you can focus on that will instantly improve your play.
Expected value is how much a situation or hand is worth on average over time. Expected value can be positive or negative. When you consider expected value, it doesn’t matter what the result of the current hand is. The only thing that matter is the average value of the situation.
When you understand and start using expected value you know that luck has nothing to do with poker. Entire chapters of books have been written about how to calculate and use expected value, so you won’t be able to get a complete picture in this section. But I want to introduce you to it so you have a better understanding by using a couple examples.
You and the player sitting next to you at the poker table make a bet on whether the turn card on the next hand is going to be black or red. You make this bet before any cards are dealt, so the chances of either outcome are equal. The deck has 26 red cards and 26 black cards.
The bet is that whoever wins gets $10. Over time, if you make this bet millions of times you’re going to break even. This creates an expected value of zero. But what if you find someone that’s willing to pay $11 when you win but you only pay $10 when they win?
Here’s how you determine the expected value in this situation:
The easiest way to determine expected value is to run the possible outcomes 100 times. In this situation, you expect to win 50 times and lose 50 times. When you lose, you pay $10, so if you lose 50 times you pay $500. When you win you get $11, for a total of $550. This creates a profit of $50. If you divide your profit of $50 by 100 hands, you get an expected value of .50.
This means that every time you make this bet you have a positive expected value of .50. This also means that your opponent has a negative expected value of .50.
You’re playing Texas holdem and have a set after the turn. From what you know about your opponent and the way the hand has played out, he has a flush. The pot has $400 in it and he pushes his last $40 into the pot. Should you call?
This situation uses exactly the same as calculations as pot odds, but takes it a step further and assigns an average expected value to the situation.
You need to hit the fourth card to make your set a four of a kind or have one of the board cards pair to complete a full house on the river to win. This means that 10 of the remaining 46 unseen cards win the hand. You have to invest $40 to have the chance to win $440.
Instead of using 100 hands to determine your expected value, you use 46 because that’s how many unseen cards are left. 36 times you lose the hand and lose your $40. The other 10 times you win the hand, and win the $440 pot plus get back your $40 call.
You have to make the call of $40 46 times, for a total investment of $1,840. The 10 times you win you get back $480, for a total return of $4,800. You subtract the investment of $1,840 from the return of $4,800 and divide by 46 hands to get a positive expected value of $64.35.
In this exact situation your expected value is high. You’re still going to lose 36 out of every 46 hands, but on average you make a good profit. The key is that you need to develop an idea of expected value on each decision in the hand. Did you make good decisions up to this point or should you have folded earlier?
The poker player that makes more positive expected value plays than their opponent wins more money in the long run. It doesn’t have anything to do with luck; it’s all based on skill.
6 – Specific Rules
The last thing that you need to consider about luck in poker is that each game is played with a specific set of rules. Every player has to play by the same rules, so there are a limited number of variables. In the section about a set number of cards, you learned that if there are a limited number of variables that every possible outcome can be calculated mathematically.
Because poker is played with a set number of cards and a specific rule structure, it eliminates the possibility of luck. Remember, short term variance still comes into play, but it has nothing to do with luck.
One of the best things you can do, starting immediately, is stop believing luck has anything to do with your poker results. When you stop thinking about luck and start focusing on ways you can use the structure of poker games to your advantage you have a great chance to start improving your results.