The Poker Debate: is it Luck or Skill? (It’s a bit of both really)


Does your poker success depend on luck or skill? This debate has garnered a fair amount of attention over the years. Some people are dead certain that it’s about who’s having a luckier day while another school of thought believes the most skillful player will always win.

The problem here is that if poker is indeed a game of luck, then it can be categorized as gambling. An inference that doesn’t sit well with professional poker players. So, what is it then? Luck or skill? Let’s find out.

Is poker luck or skill? To be fair, it’s a bit of both. Skillful players will be able to win a lot of hands against players of lesser skill. Their abilities mean they can always outsmart their opponents and outplay folks who are considerably weaker.

On the other hand, even the most skillful poker player will lose hands against relatively weak opponents. A stroke of luck could decide the game and allow players to win hands against better opponents. Hence, it’s safe to say that luck and skill both play a role in deciding the outcome of a poker game.

Poker is a mix of luck and skill.
Poker is not just tossing the chips around randomly and hoping to win. A Player with better strategy will win more often than the player that has no idea what he is doing.

With luck and skill actively playing a role in deciding the outcome of a hand, it would be wrong to conclude that it’s down to one of the two variables. However, a more in-depth analysis shows that one variable does command a substantial edge over the other.

The Role of Skill in Poker

The most skillful poker players will always assure you that your success in the game depends on your abilities. It is the reason why many players spend their precious time to try and improve their skills by reading books, studying the hands they play, and even hiring a poker coach. If you read the success stories of many pro poker players, you’ll probably read about a time where they invested their time and money to improve their skills.

The fact that it worked for these people is one of the reasons why the role of skills in poker can’t be ignored. One of the best ways to measure skills is consistency. If a person consistently excels at a particular activity, chances are the person has a unique skill for it.

For example, the best sports players in the world today didn’t become famous after one moment of magic.

The likes of Lebron James, Serena Williams, and Cristiano Ronaldo are considered the best in their respective sports because they consistently produce top performances. They aren’t lucky; they’re skillful. The same goes for top poker stars like Daniel Negreanu,  and Justin Bonomo.

These players have shown a remarkable level of consistency during their poker career. With their many triumphs in tournaments, it’s difficult to call it luck. Even amongst poker players, there’s an understanding that everyone is not on the same skill level.

Skill in poker is most important factor to decide if you win or not.
How skilled player you are is the main deciding factor if you will win or not in poker.

Names like fish, rock, and shark have been used to distinguish the style of play and gulf in class between poker players, and we’ll be taking a look at what they mean. 

  • Fish: A poker fish is a below-average player whose skills are still quite basic. Every beginner starts out as a fish. A poker fish can be easily spotted by their style of play. They frequently make amateurish moves, regularly call with marginal hands, and can easily be read by better players. The dream of every poker player is to sit at a table where a few fish are sitting next to them. 

    Playing against such players eases the difficulty of winning games. Every beginner poker player starts as a fish with little skill and experience. But many players remain permanently rooted to this skill level even after many years playing poker.  Most poker fish depend on luck to win hands as they’re not skilled enough to beat superior players.
  • Donkey: They are some people who interchange the word donkey with fish. The belief is that donkey is a modern word for fish. However, many poker players agree that there are actual players who are worse than fishes. They’re called donkeys.

    These guys are as bad as they come. Not only are their skills inferior, but they also do not have a firm grip on the basics of the game. A fish might get lucky every once in a while. But a donkey is almost always going to lose his/her money.
  • The Rock: Quiet possibly the easiest players to spot, a poker rock is an extraordinarily tight player who doesn’t enter many hands. A typical rock is only interested in a hand if he or she is dealt a premium starting hand. Like the fish, a rock in poker is also considered amateur, with the only difference being that a fish would be willing to enter mode hands than a rock.

    The worst thing about being a rock is that you can easily be identified. Once your opponents know you only play premium hands, they will readily fold to your raises with the knowledge that you’re most likely making a raise because you got queen, king, or ace.
  • The Shark: A poker shark is a well-rounded player. He or she is experienced, highly skilled, and can easily read their opponents. Poker sharks are often posing as your average player. After successfully fooling everyone that they’re playing against an opponent of equal skill, he or she pounces and outclasses everyone, taking their money.

The goal of every poker player is to become a shark. Experienced and able to apply the right strategy at the right moment, poker sharks will always win many hands when playing against opponents who aren’t as good.

This obvious disparity between a shark and fish solidifies the argument that poker is a skill-based game.

5 Reasons why Poker Favors Skill Over Luck

Humans are quick to describe anything that seems to have lots of brainwork as “luck or being lucky.”  From my young days, if I won a game against an older person, they’d say I got lucky.

No one thinks about the times I may have practiced some definite steps to earn my wins. 

Luck is a lot less important than skill in poker.
Relying on “one time, please” will not make you a long term winner in poker.

Or the time I used to study others playing the same game. Nope,  it’s easier to ascribe all the results of the hard work to luck. Over time, I’ve heard people mistake poker as a game of luck. But in reality, skill is what gives anyone the class and upper hand to dish out scores and wins that are worth envying

Although luck plays a role in poker, there’s no doubt that skill is the star of the show. This game was created to ultimately favor the more skillful player, and I’ll show you how. Below are 5 Crucial Reasons why Poker Favors Skill Over Luck.  Asides the fact that it’s a basic reality check that skill always outwits luck, in no particular order, we’ll look deeply into reasons to back up this claim.   

1. Expected Value:

At last, we find another use for Math in the real world. 

In the heat of the poker game, it’s math, not luck that would help you improve your scores for every hand and decision you make. 

Expected value is simply how much a hand is worth on average over time. 

It has nothing to do with luck. Having this knowledge helps keep you afloat from making the wrong decision. It’s important not to miss the math class!

2. Rules

For every game being played by humans, there is a set of rules that are bounded by it.  

And poker is no exception. Every player in poker plays by the same set of rules, which limits the variables that can affect the game. Thereby, the probability could be easily calculated. Any player with a sharp mind that can calculate the probability for the result of each hand and decision is aiming for big wins. 

3. Players Involved

Rocket science isn’t needed to establish that there’s a difference when you play poker with a skilled player and with an amateur. You’d have it easy when you’re paired with amateurs than when you are paired with the likes of Fedor Holz(insert your personal favorite professional poker player). 

A skilled player would come equipped with strategies and decisions to dominate the game. And most certainly,  this would end up in big wins. When you’re paired with a beginner who has his head up believing that poker is all about luck, this would most certainly lead to bad decisions for him.

4. Fixed Set of Cards:

Poker game has a standard deck of 52 playing cards. This makes predictions possible.

The probability of receiving any sort of card is 1 out of 52.

This straight-cut calculation may be confusing when variables are added to it but no calculation is impossible. Thanks to computer programs, these calculations can easily be achieved. 

This goes to strike out the possibility of poker being a game of luck. 

5. Possibilities and Pot Odds:

In poker, players are given a set number of cards. Having a set number of cards gives you room to make probability calculations and pot odds.

Pot Odds uses probability plus the amount in the pot and the size of the bet you need to call. 

Probability is the likelihood of an event occurring. This gives you a quick rundown of the pot odd if it’s profitable to call, fold or raise. This approach eliminates the possibility of luck in the game of poker.

The Role of Luck in Poker

Poker might be a game that requires a considerable amount of skill, but luck has a role to play. For most people, the argument has always been on the influence of luck on the outcome of poker. Is it a significant factor, or does it play a minor role? What’s clear is that luck comes to play in almost every aspect of our lives, including all sporting activities

In soccer the re is some luck involved, just like in poker.
In every sport there is some luck involved. The same as in poker, in soccer also, the better team doesn’t always win. But best teams will very often be at the top at end of the season.

For example, the game of soccer requires a considerable amount of skill, but sometimes players need a bit of luck to have the ball bounce off the woodwork and into the net in their favor. Skill will prevail in the long run, but luck will have its moments. The same can be said for poker.

Skillful players will enjoy successful runs, but the players with limited skills will have their moments. On paper, AA has a huge statistical advantage over QQ preflop. AA should prevail 81.33% of the time. However, QQ’s 18.24% equity means it will beat AA once in almost every 5 hands. This is where most people who call poker a game of luck get that cue from. The fact that the underdog will always have a slight chance of pulling an upset as long as it has at least 1 out to win.

Also, let’s not forget that skill has no part in which starting hand you’re dealt. Of course, you can mathematically calculate how often you’ll be dealt a premium hand, but ultimately, you can’t pin when exactly that would happen.

As you already know, starting with a premium hand gives you an edge over your opponent. You’re not sure to win the hand, but you will have a better chance to. Since this advantage doesn’t happen as a result of a player’s skill, we can only attribute it to luck.

Luck is Good for Poker

Many people are indeed frustrated when they lose to less skillful players or suffer a bad beat

Most sharks understand that their overall success depends on a fish winning the odd hand.

The logic is simple: Good players love to play against bad/average players because they know they’ll win. But a bad player who consistently loses will one day realize that he/she is simply throwing money away and decide to stop. This is terrible news for the superior players who need to play against less skillful guys to win more.

Hence, the win here and there encourages a bad/average to keep playing with the hope that they’ll win the next time.

In the end, the skill will always trump luck. An average player may dominate a better player on the night, but the better player will have the last laugh in the long run. This gives poker the right balance. It gives the up and coming guys a chance to dream, while the established pro gets to profit from their superior skills. 

The better players have learned to accept that they can have bad days. Their premium hands can get smashed more often than they’d like. But there’s no reason to get too emotional. Bad runs are temporary, but a player’s skill will always determine how well he does in the end.

How to Improve Your Luck at Poker

As much as poker is a game of skill, we can all agree that the element of luck cannot be overlooked. Jesse May, a poker commentator, and player, wrote in his novel Shut up and Deal,  ”Poker is a combination of luck and skill. People think mastering the skill part is hard, but they’re wrong. The trick to poker is mastering the luck. You no doubt, have had, and  your share of bad beats.”

You’ve certainly wondered just how much luck has to do with poker, and how to improve your luck. Keep reading to find out how you can improve your luck at the next poker game you play.

How to Get Lucky at Poker

In poker, getting dealt a good hand might be what helps you knock out your opponents from the hand and win. It could be noticing a stray tell or being assigned to an easy table. This is the luck factor. Sometimes luck beats skill, just as pro poker player Phil Hellmuth said, ”If there weren’t luck involved, I’d win every time.” This is why amateur players can win hands and amass a respectable amount of profit while pro players still lose. If poker isn’t all skill, it’s important we find poker luck too.

Variance

You may have had a series of lucky breaks or heard players talk about needing to hit a lucky streak to get back to even. The truth is, poker luck has more to do with variance than any mystical force.

Variance is the tendency for mathematically predicted results to deviate from the average or normal.

This means that in the short term, how far the mathematically predicted results are altered from the actual odds is variance determined. Once you understand the concept of variance, you can stop playing based on your emotions and make sound decisions.

Here’s the thing, you can’t do anything but play the hands you are given the best way you can. What you should keep in mind is, getting lucky at poker is simply about making the right decisions.

How do You Play Luck (Variance) to Your Favor?

Here’s how you can improve your luck in poker:

Improve your poker skills

If you want to keep winning at poker, you can’t rely on luck. Skilled players seem to be luckier than most amateur players. This is why it is essential you spend time learning the skill of poker.

The combination of skill and luck will make you a winning player. It will also help you manage your bankroll so that you can keep playing. Reading poker books and joining forums where you can find useful information are some of the ways you can improve your skill. Some of the best poker players today spent quality time studying books and gaining other useful information to help improve their game. They still do.

There’s always room for improvement. Top athletes from around the world do not stop practicing because they’re good at what they do. Learning and practicing what you have learned is essential to keep improving.

Also, having a personal coach is recommended if you want to improve in the shortest time frame. Poker coaches are experienced and can help improve your game by identifying your weaknesses and addressing them.

I have spent thousands of dollars for hiring poker coaches. Some have been worth their money while with others I felt like I have thrown money out of the window. It is true, getting a poker coach might not be worth it for everyone, but if you do proper research, then you will get great value out of hiring one. Read the article and you will avoid mistakes I did, so you can find yourself a great coach, well worth the money.

Play Soft Poker Games

Sometimes, you need to go low to go higher.  If you’re getting grilled at your regular poker sites, maybe it’s time to play against people with similar or less skill. Find tables where you are better than most of the players. You will definitely see an increase in your short term luck if you play at soft tables.

You might want to lay off playing at a table with equally skilled or better players for a while to improve your winnings. Finding soft players may be a little difficult, but knowing where to look will help. 

Search for poker sites with beginners on the tables or play live with unskilled players, you know. You can play at smaller poker sites since they attract fewer professional players.    

Keep Playing

Most people quit poker because they think they had a series of bad beats. Only people who keep playing get better at it and increase their short term luck. Of course, every poker player has their bad beats stories, including the pro player. The difference between a winning player and a frustrated poker player is often that one chooses to keep playing.

Why Poker is not Gambling

Playing roulette is gambling.
If you play roulette you play against the house. When you play poker you are battling it out against other poker players (unless you play video Poker).

If you argue long enough, the debate on whether poker is luck or skill soon turns to whether poker is gambling. Many people think it is. It’s not too hard to see why, though. For one, poker is regularly played in casinos alongside games like roulette and slots that are purely gambling. Professional poker players have been trying to counter this opinion for years, mostly due to the bad publicity that goes with the word ”gambling.”

To religious people, gambling is a sin. To the average person with a moral high ground, it’s a bad habit that will ultimately present severe financial consequences. This bad public image is why many parents are traumatized when their child tells them they’re quitting school to play high stakes poker. It’s also the reason online poker was ultimately banned in the US in 2013. Simply put: gambling is bad news.

But is poker really gambling? Is a professional poker player any different from the millions of people who visit Las Vegas every year, hoping to ”get lucky?” The answer is no; it isn’t gambling. Gambling is considered to be the act of wagering money or other valuables if’s decided by chance.

People who argue that poker is gambling often refer to this definition as their evidence that poker is gambling. They point out that poker feature wagers in the form of buy-ins with the outcome being unknown.

However, this argument is flawed because poker is not a game of chance. You don’t spin a wheel of fortune and hope to land a winning number. Players face off against each other and battle it out against each other in a game that’s often won by the player who has made the best moves on the table. This is in sharp contrast to gambling games like blackjack, where players face the house.

As we all know, the house always wins irrespective withstanding the player’s skill. In poker, you’re playing against other players. This is not different from competitive sports like Basketball or football. Also, the argument that any game with an unknown outcome is gambling simply doesn’t hold water. For example, sports games have uncertain outcomes too. You’ll never 100% sure who’s winning a game until it has ended.

The significant difference that separates other gambling games and poker is the competition poker brings. Poker players compete against each other, whereas gambling games are purely decided by luck. This school of thought was supported by a New York Judge’s court ruling in 2012, where he declared that poker was more skill than luck and is therefore not gambling.

Final Thoughts

Phew! That was a lot of information to share, but people need to understand that the skill vs. luck argument should never present a clear winner. Poker is neither based solely on skill or luck. Both variables have their role. I know a few players who were close to abandoning poker altogether because of what they felt was the unfair role of luck in the game.

If you’re a forward-thinking player, you’ll understand and ultimately accept the role of luck in the game. A frequently asked question is on the percentage of poker that’s luck and skill. In my opinion, I’d say skill accounts for 80% of the game while luck has 20% influence, but only in the short term. But long term, a better player will always win.

Now assuming a good player is up against a bad player, he will win more poker sessions, probably 80%, while bad player only 20%. However, luck is not reserved for bad players alone. Great players get lucky too. Lastly, the next time you hear anyone say poker is gambling because it’s a game of luck, be sure to educate them. The sooner people realize that poker isn’t gambling, the quicker the game’s image can improve. And a better image is just what poker needs to become even bigger.

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Primoz

I have played poker professionally for more than 10 years. I was a winner at every poker format that I played - from tournaments to cash games, both in NL Holdem and PLO. Now my biggest satisfaction is to provide enthusiastic but new poker players with answers to all of their questions.

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