The Classic Debate in Poker- Is it a game of luck or skill?
You’ve seen people sitting around a poker table and being secretive. You’ve seen the players side-eye each other. You’ve seen them looking around suspiciously, or sweating out of nervousness and using their cards to fan themselves. But, you’ve also seen a player throw his or her cards on the table and walk away dejectedly. You’ve even seen one of them win these huge stacks of chips, and grin, triumphantly. If you’ve happened to observe any of these pictures I’ve painted, then you must have wondered; how does one player win all that, and the others just lose? Is it formidable poker skill, and innate talent that sets one player apart from the others? Or could there be some other-worldly forces at work? Could it be possible that a player could have little talent, and a lot more cosmic help? Could they be, well, lucky?
If you’re wondering about these exact things, then you’re not alone. It’s a question that has plagued people throughout time, and not just in relation to poker. Philosophers have wondered whether luck plays more of a role in our lives than we credit it with. Now, we’ll leave the philosophers to ponder about life, but we can definitely weigh-in, on the debate between luck and skill, in poker. It is a frequently discussed matter in the poker community, but I can’t guarantee a definite answer. However, along the way, we might get a better understanding of the game and even a vague idea of what’s more important; luck or skill. So, let’s get started and try to untangle this complicated question.
Luck v Skill in Poker
It’s difficult to determine which is more important in poker; luck or skill. It’s like asking a mother to choose between her children. But, maybe somewhere amidst all the fundamentals of the game and the poker rules, lies an answer.
However, one thing that everyone can agree on is the fact that both luck and skill are involved in a game of poker. There is an easy way to prove that skill is required to play the game. If any game can be lost intentionally, we can safely say that there is a certain amount of skill required to play it. Think of skill like a muscle. If you want to complete an activity successfully, you use the muscle. Like throwing a ball or pushing something. However, if you want to fail at the activity, you don’t use your muscle, at all, or not to its fullest potential.
To make things clearer, take a game that relies completely on luck, like roulette. There’s no way you can use your skill to win that game. You cannot use any skill in your repertoire, to move that ball, without touching it.
But, apply the same strategy to poker. Can we intentionally lose a game of poker? Yes, we can. All a player needs to do, in order to throw a poker game, is to fold their hands pre-flop. As long as all the other players at the table don’t want to be equally bad at poker, you’ll definitely lose that game.
We can deduce, from the example given above, that a lot of poker relies on skill. And this skill is exercised and controlled by us. We can turn it on and off, at will. That isn’t to say that a person can increase or decrease their skill, whenever they want. All it means is that whatever skill you have, be it very little or a large amount, you are in control of it.
Luck and Sample Size
We’ve established the role of both luck and skill in poker, right? But which one has more of a role to play? Can we ever find out? Luckily, (or maybe not) there is some groundwork for an answer to this question.
Let’s compare poker to another game. If we look at a game of blackjack, we’ll find more clarity. Blackjack relies on skill, just like poker. But the amount of skill, does not beat out chance. That’s probably why it’s referred to as a game of chance, as opposed to a game of skill. If blackjack was a cup of tea, then the water used to make it is chance and the sugar added, would be skill.
We can see this demonstrated whenever people play blackjack in casinos. The game is rigged by the casinos in such a way, that if you play a large number of hands, it is impossible to beat the house (casino).
So, if people are fated to lose in blackjack, why do they play it at all? Surely, it’s no fun to lose? It isn’t. But, the casinos are smart. They give the players just enough that they want to play, but not so much that the house loses money. What I mean to say is that there are chances that a player does win. Players do win in the short run and even make a profit. This has to do with the hands they play. The fewer hands a player plays, the higher are his or her chances of winning. It is only when the players play more and more hands that the casino starts winning. So if you were to go to a casino and play an infinite number of blackjack hands, the casino would always win.
Now, let’s come to poker. Poker is somewhat similar to blackjack in the sense that, the fewer hands you play, the luckier you are. If you were to play a couple of hands of poker, you can get lucky. It will be a game of chance, with some skill added. But, the more games of poker you play, the more the luck peters out. Now, you’ll have to rely on your skill, if you want to win. Poker will become a game of skill, with a dash of luck. As the number of hands played increase, the luck spreads and evens out between all the players, thus increasing the dependence on skill.
However, an aspect of poker that sets it apart from blackjack is the question of opposition. In games like blackjack, the opposition is the house. As mentioned before, in such cases, the house has an edge and they always win. But, in games like poker, the opponents are always other people. The casino merely provides a set-up where the players can play a game of poker. So while the casino benefits from the buy-ins and rake amounts, they don’t make any profits from the actual game. This makes room for more skill at a poker table because your opponents are humans who will make errors, which you can exploit if you have enough skill.
Poker Relies On Math and Odds
So far we’ve understood that not only is poker a game consisting of skill and luck, but it has the potential to rely heavily on skill, with luck only as a minor crutch. To do so, we need to play many hands, running into tens of thousands,
But, we also need to play our opponents well. We need to capitalize on the mistakes they make and improve our chances of winning. Sounds difficult? Don’t worry, it can be understood really simply.
In order to improve your game, you need to keep a basic tenet of poker in mind. Always remember to bet and strengthen the pot when you’re at an advantage. If you have a really strong hand, or if you’re seated with weaker players, then you know your chances of winning have improved. In such situations, it is safe for you to make higher bets. Whenever you don’t have such an advantage, remember to put less money in the pot. In short, bet reservedly.
Another trick that can benefit your game is the art of bluffing. Bluffing is essentially acting or pretending to have a hand you decidedly do not have. Its purpose is to mislead your opponents into folding their cards. But bluffing whenever the fancy strikes does not work. You need to be able to read and analyze your opponent. You need to strike at a time you know they are weaker, and more likely to fall for your bluff.
In fact, the math in poker is extremely strong. Nothing proves this better than bad beats. A bad beat is a scenario wherein one player is very sure of their victory but ends up losing as some other player takes the pot. For example, you have a pair of Aces, and another player has a pair of Queens. Statistically, your cards are more likely to win, around 81% of the time. But, a pair of Queens is no chump change and can win around 18% of the time, which is 1 in every 5 games.
Sometimes, even with a winning hand like a pair of Aces, the pair of Queens can win. This kind of a game can be very disappointing and almost look like a stroke of luck, but it is all in the math. And while it may seem like a big deal at the time it happens, over time, a pair of Queens will end up losing more games, in the long run. Thus, over a longer period of time, and after playing numerous hands of poker, the mathematics will support skill, over what seems like luck. The math of the game helps restoring sense in the universe.
In short, you can’t beat the mathematics of poker, not even with luck. So, may the math be with you.
Poker is a Game of Skill
Poker is a game of skill; however, this skill will not be visible when you play just one hand or one game. But, it will be evident, when you play thousands or even tens of thousands of games, over the course of your poker career.
As mentioned before, your luck reduces and skills improve as you keep playing. Eventually, all the mathematics and the statistics add up and work in your favor. As you play along, you’ll rely on luck and chance less often, than you will on your own abilities. Even statistically, the odds are in your favor as you play a larger number of hands.
However, there will be that one game, where your pair of Aces will be defeated by a pair of Queens. Sounds frustrating and completely contradictory to everything I’ve just said, right? Be patient, and hear me out.
Although the role of skill increases as we play more poker, luck is not exterminated. If this was the case, then any player who went up against someone better than them- skill wise - would never win. The player would either improve their game, or they would just quit and never play again. These kinds of players have to be incentivized a little, in order for them to continue playing. So, allowing them to win 18% of the time ensures that they keep coming back and playing. Then, if they lose, they can blame it on bad luck.
It works out as a win-win, in the end. The newer players can feel lucky and continue playing, whereas the older players know it’s their skill and the math, that’s in their corner.
Poker is a game where it’s possible for players to win the battle and the war.
As we reach the end of our probe into the luck versus skill debate, we can say we’ve found some answers. We now know that poker is largely a game of skill, but there is a little bit of luck thrown in there. Both of these factors make it a game that has survived centuries and an industry that is thriving. And if it brings in new players while sustaining the old ones, what is the harm in that? Now, reading about poker is easy, it is the playing that’s difficult. So, don’t waste any more time. Test out your poker luck and poker skills by joining us at Spartan and playing some online poker games.