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Luck vs Skill in Poker

Luck vs Skill in Poker
It’s BAFFLING to us that in today’s age of information we still have to help settle the argument on whether or not poker is a game of chance or a game of skill. Why are we baffled? Well, we figured that with such easy access to information, statistics, theory and results, people would be able to come to an informed and correct decisions on this matter.

Sadly, this is not the case. Before we go any further, here’s the spoiler. Poker is a game of skill with a luck element. The skill element outweighs the luck factor. This means that unlike games of chance, poker can be beaten over the long run. You can play poker for a living. You cannot play roulette for a living. This is because poker is a game of skill and roulette is an example of a game of chance.

To take this a step further, we want to point out that this is not an opinion piece. This piece is laying out the facts of the situation. This is not “what we think” or “what we want to be true.” This is what IS true and is backed up by theory, statistics and our good ole’ pal sound logic.

We hear people time and time again arguing that poker is all luck and no skill. They’ll argue this until their blue in the face and usually without a lot of sound reasoning as to why they feel that way. We guess that they feel this way for a few reasons. First, it could stem from a lack of understanding. If you don’t understand every aspect of the game of poker, it’s probably easy to lump it into a category with other games of chance. We get it. Casinos house games of chance…poker is often played in a casino. You’re not dumb for incorrectly drawing this conclusion.

The second reason people might stick to the wrong side of this debate is that they are jealous or have some sort of ego issue. They feel that if they aren’t capable of doing something for a living or beating something in the long run, then no one is probably capable of it. This is a close-minded and arrogant attitude that needs to be checked if they have any hope of seeing things as they are.

If this debate strikes a chord with you, then you’re in the right place. We’re going to address the debate, share information and hopefully put a close to this chapter of the book. You may be reading this for one of a few reasons. You may be here because you sternly believe that poker is a game of chance. You may be here because you are new and unsure of what to believe. You may be here because you are trying to figure out how to explain to friends and family that poker is a game of skill. You may even be here because someone sent you this link to read!

Whoever you are and wherever you are from, welcome. We’re not here to judge anyone or make anyone feel stupid for questioning things. The only way you learn is to let your ego down, ask the tough questions and get to the bottom of things.  If you’re still stubborn after presented with all of the information, then that is, unfortunately, going to be something you have to deal with on your own.

Now that we’ve laid the groundwork for this article, let’s start digging into this debate. Buckle up because it’s going to be a fun and bumpy ride!

Defining Luck and Skill

An important first step in settling this debate is defining some of the more important terms that we will be discussing.

  • Luck – success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions.
  • Skill – the ability to do something well; expertise.
  • Game of Chance – an activity, especially one in which you gamble money, that depends on luck instead of skill.
  • Game of Skill – A game of skill is a game where the outcome is determined mainly by mental or physical skill, rather than by chance.

The argument that most people make is that poker is a game that only utilizes luck. They claim that there is no skill involved. These two claims make up our third definition. They are claiming that you are playing a game where the outcome depends on luck and not on skill.

So, what do we need to prove to show that poker is a game that can be beaten long-term and can effectively be played for a living? We need to prove that poker uses skill. A step further, though, is that we need to prove that the skill element of poker outshines and supersedes any luck or chance component that game might have. We need to prove that poker is a game of skill and not a game of chance. Let’s get to work!

Luck and Skill Can Coexist

The biggest issue that a lot of people have when approaching this debate is that they want everything to be black and white. They believe that poker is either a game that uses skill OR it’s a game that uses luck. They fail to acknowledge that a game can have both a luck and a skill component. This is important to our argument.

Luck and skill can coexist within games of chance and within games of skill. For example, the game of craps is one that most people would agree is a game of chance. Most people would agree that no matter what you do, the casino is always going to have a statistical edge in the game. The few that disagree do not understand. Again, this is not a matter of opinion. It is a mathematical fact that the casino will ALWAYS have an edge when it comes to playing craps.

But is there skill involved as well? Yes, actually. There are things that you can do to limit the house edge and give yourself a better opportunity to win in the short run. In the long run, you’re still going to lose to the casino, but you can certainly utilize some strategies to better your chances and lower that house edge. The problem here, though, is that the skill is not significant enough to overcome the luck factor. There are no strategies that can defy math.

On the flip side, there are games of skill that have a luck element involved. Let’s look at a non-poker example first. Are you familiar with investing? We’re referring to people who buy stocks and bonds to help grow their money. Most people would agree that this involves a lot of skill. There is a reason that the big brokers on Wall Street get paid the big bucks. They have a lot of skill and training that allows them to stay a step ahead of the markets and turn a profit for you and for themselves.

Let’s say a Wall Street broker purchases stock in a big oil company. They use their skill and expertise to identify that the company is in an emerging market and stands to have a huge year. All skill so far, right? Well, let’s also say that two weeks into Q1 there is a massive hurricane that destroys a huge percentage of that company’s oil wells. The company takes a massive hit, and the broker loses big on the trade. All skill or lack of skill still? Nope. This is luck. The broker got unlucky that the hurricane stepped in and ruined what was going to be a genius trade.

This broker may have lost on this trade in the short term, but that does not mean they’re going to lose in the long run. You’re not going to say that this broker has no skill and is playing a game of chance. The broker’s skill and expertise should help them to get past the short-term variance and persevere on their other trades and their overall bottom line. This is an example of something skill-based (though it’s not a game per say) where luck still plays a role. However, the skill factor supersedes the luck factor in the long-run picture. The broker may lose in the short-run, but they will be able to use their skill and win in the long-run.

Skill in Poker

This conveniently leads us to our connection with poker. We’ve shown that luck and skill can coexist, which means identifying the presence of either is not enough to prove a game of chance or a game of skill. We’ve found that what we need to prove is that the skill factor in poker is great enough to overcome any sort of luck factor in the long run.

While we definitely can’t go into every bit of poker strategy, we can talk about quite a bit that should be enough for you to begin to see the light. In poker, all strategy is aimed at extracting as much money from your opponents when you have the best hand and losing the least amount of money when you have the worst hand. In other words, it’s about getting as much money into the middle when you have the best hand and putting in as little money as possible when you are behind.

Imagine this scenario. We offer you the ability to bet on the flip of a coin. Now, you know that the coin flips 50% heads and 50% tails. Is this bet appealing to you? Well, unless you’re someone who loves to gamble, probably not. This bet is completely luck-based and requires no skill at all. But let’s say we change the game a little bit. We bring out a special coin that lands on heads 60% of the time and tails only 40%. Now this bet looks WAY more appealing. You’ll be tripping over yourself to bet on this as much as possible.

You can safely say now that selecting heads is a smarter move. You’re technically using your knowledge base to make a betting decision that’s going to turn you a profit. But are you going to win on the first toss? Maybe…maybe not. While you still have a statistical advantage, you may still lose in the short term. Heck, you could lose 5 or 10 tosses in a row. Are you going to stop making the bet? You’d only stop if you were crazy. You know that in the long run, you are going to turn a massive profit if you keep pushing the small edge that you have.

Imagine that we then told you that you had to bet heads five times and tails five times, but we’d allow you to change your bet size to whatever you wanted. You’d bet the absolute minimum every time you had to bet tails, and you’d bet the max every time you were able to bet tails.

This is A LOT like what poker is and what poker strategy tries to do. You use your skill and expertise to identify small edges where you are a statistical favorite to win the hand. When you stumble on these situations, you use more skill and strategy to try and get as much money into the pot as possible. When you identify situations where you are not a statistical favorite, you use skill and strategy to avoid putting in as much money as possible. Effectively, you are maximizing your profits when you have the best hand and minimizing your losses when you have the worst hand.

Much like our coin example, this does not mean that you are going to win every single hand. Even though you are making statistically favorable conditions, you might find yourself falling victim to short-term variance. This will happen. But, as in our coin example, if you keep pushing your edges, you will eventually realize that edge and turn a nice profit.

So, how do poker players do this? Well, they use a whole host of strategies to try and identify what their opponent has and how their hand compares to that. The more they can identify the range of hands their opponent has, the more they can figure out how much they can extract when they have a better hand and when to get away when they have the worst hand.

People that believe poker is all luck don’t realize how much thought goes into a particular hand from a winning player. Players are analyzing game conditions, history of how each other player has played, pot conditions, bet sizes, potential hand ranges, tells and reads and any other piece of information they can get. They take all of this and mix it with their personal strategy of what cards to play, bet sizing, position, their opponent’s perception of them and more in order to decide what the highest expected value move is to make.

Are they always right? Of course not, but if they’re right more often than they are wrong, they can easily be a long-term winning player.

The best advice we can give is to read hand histories from winning players or listen to YouTube video breakdowns of what all goes through a player’s mind during a hand. You’ll quickly see that a professional or winning player is doing a lot more calculating and observing than you are giving them credit for. For example, here’s a sample hand one of our staff members played recently that will walk you through some of their thought processes in a hand.

“I was playing deep in a $565 multi-table no-limit hold’em tournament when this hand happened. We area about 15 people away from the money and I had about 65 big blinds. I opened with JJ to 2.5x and the button 3-bet me to 10x total (4x my bet). The button was an older player who had been playing extremely tight all day. They also keep checking the tournament clock to see how many players are left so clearly making the money was important to them.

I had played with this player a bunch and started to realize that he only 3-bet with premium hands. It was always AK+ or JJ+. I also started to notice that with AK or JJ they 3-bet a lot larger (usually in the 4x range) and with their super premiums (QQ, KK, and AA) they would 3-bet slightly smaller to try and invite action.

While I don’t ever like to put players on such tight ranges, I felt like it was pretty clear that I could in this situation. He only 3-bets with the top of his range, we’re on the bubble that he cares about so clearly his range is even tighter, and his sizing was the bigger sizing. It seems pretty clear that this guy is holding AK or JJ. Because I was holding JJ, I felt like it was way less likely that he had JJ. I felt like this guy was literally trying to tell me he had AK. Again, I never aim to put players on such narrow of ranges, but in this situation, it seemed so clear.

I elected just to call as I knew if I raised at all he would shove, and we would be flipping for our stacks. The flop came out Q-7-4. I checked, and he fired out a big bet. Sticking with my initial read, I called. The turn was another Q, and I checked again. This time the guy went all in. I thought about it for a few seconds and decided I was sticking to my read. I noticed he looked super nervous as well and like he wasn’t excited about the situation.

I called, and the old guy sighed and flipped over AK. He had six outs going into the river for about a 12% chance of winning. The river was a 3, and we scooped a monster pot.”

This is just a sample of what goes through a professional player’s mind during a hand. The player in this story was able to use historical evidence from prior hands, situational evidence and some strategy to navigate the hand and get their money in as an 88% favorite. Could they have still lost on the river? Yes, but if they’re able to get their money in the middle as such a big favorite every time, they’re going to win in the long run.

This hand was a very surface-level look into a winning player’s mind. The strategy goes much deeper, especially when you start getting into the math and range calculations. This should be enough to show you, though, that a thinking player is able to manipulate the situation in order to give them the best chance of winning. The player could have put all of their money in pre-flop, where they would have been just over a 50% favorite. They elected not to, though, and ultimately were able to get their money in as an 88% favorite.

If an ace or a king had come on the flop, our staff member could have easily folded and lost only about 15% of their stack. Other players might have put it all in pre-flop and then complained of bad luck if they lost the coin flip. This is a perfect example of how skill can help you to navigate a hand and get more money in the middle when you have the best of it and avoid losing when you are behind.

Anecdotal Evidence

At this point, we’re hoping that it’s pretty clear to you that poker is a game of skill and not a game of chance. While there is a short-term luck factor, skill will help to prevail in the long run. If you still need some more convincing, let’s take a look at some anecdotal evidence.

Why are the same players at the final tables of so many events? Why are some players able to play poker solely as their source of income for years? If you answer that they are the luckiest people in the world, you may want to take a minute and reexamine your judgment. The reason these players are able to make money and stay crushing the game continually is that the game is not a game of chance.

How many professional roulette players do you know? How many professional craps players do you know? The answer is most certainly a big zero. If anyone tells you anything differently, they better be the richest person in the world because they’re telling you that they can effectively print money.

Take a minute and look at how many poker players have been playing the game as their sole source of income for years. This by itself should be sufficient evidence that poker is a sustainable game of skill that can be beaten long term.

How Does the Casino Allow This?

A big question that a lot of people ask during this debate is how the casino allows this to happen. The old cliché phrase that “Vegas wasn’t built on winners” is true. Casinos don’t take bets that they know they can’t win. Every bet that the casino takes, they have a statistical advantage (besides the pass line in craps which is 50/50). So, how do they allow poker into the casino if it is actually beatable?

The answer is that when you are playing poker, you are not betting against the casino. When you play roulette, you are betting against the casino. When you play craps, you are betting against the casino. When you play poker, though, you are betting against other players. The casino is only taking a small fee for facilitating the game. This is known as the house rake.

Think about it this way. If the casino was able to make money off of betting against you, they would. Since they can’t though, they take a small cut of the pots to facilitate the action. The casino is completely content with this for several reasons. One, as usual, they can’t lose with this model. Two, poker serves as a way to get people in the door. Poker players are notoriously big fans of sports betting and gambling, which are two huge money makers for the casino.

So, that’s a long way of saying the casino does not mind because they are happily making money with absolutely no risk.

The “Pro”-blem and Why People Refuse to Believe

Hopefully, by now you’ve seen the light and agree that poker is a game of skill that can be beaten long term. Before we close out the article, though, we want to talk about a few of the reasons that it can be challenging for people to see the light. This may help any of you holdouts that are still sitting on the fence. It may also help some of you who have seen the light to understand why some people are just that stubborn.

The biggest issue happens to be with the recent growth of “pro” poker players. Why did we put that in quotes? Well, we are referring to the people that have been playing for a few months and claim to be professionals because they’ve won a few tournaments. Inevitably, most of these people are just on a heater and quickly burn through their bankrolls before they have to go back to regular jobs.

What does this do for our cause? It ruins it. People see people that are claiming to play poker for a living failing miserably. It’s no wonder they think that it’s not possible when they see so many people failing. What we’re begging you to see here is that not everyone that calls themselves a professional poker player is a professional or anywhere close to good enough to be a long-term winning player.

Want proof? Watch the World Series of Poker Main Event from a few years back. Most people’s professions were listed as regular jobs. Fast-forward a few years…literally. Everyone and their brother has their profession listed as professional poker player. It is not humanly possible for there to be that many pros. We can also say that watching some of these “pros” play is pretty close to embarrassing.

Make sure if you are looking for proof of our point that you are looking at people that are actually winning players and not just people masquerading as winning players.

The Final Verdict

The verdict should be clear now. Poker is a game of skill that has a small luck element. The skill element far outweighs the luck element, and because of this, the game can be profitable long-term. We’ve walked you through a small bit of the strategy that winning players use to get themselves their desired edge, but this is certainly not all of the strategies they use. The game goes much deeper, and the ability to push statistical edges gets even stronger. Hopefully, this small taste is enough to prove our point.

Now, does this mean that anyone who plays is going to win in the long run? Is everyone that believes in this going to start winning? It definitely does not. This is not like Santa Clause. Just because you believe that it’s a beatable skill game does not mean that you’re instantly going to beat it. Do you instantly become a great basketball player just because you believe it’s a game of skill? We won’t answer that one for you. All it means is that with the right set of skills, discipline and volume, you can beat poker and make consistent money playing it.

If you’re still stubborn and refuse to believe that the game can be beaten, we’re sad to hear that. We hope that one day you’re able to see things for what they really are. If not, though, maybe poker isn’t the game for you. Leave the free money from the fish to us!