Is Poker A Game of Luck or Skill?

One of the age old questions that lingers around poker is whether it is a game predominately of skill or luck. There is no denying that both skill and luck play significant parts of the game, but which is the dominant factor? This article will delve into the inner workings of Texas Holdem, compare the game to other variants such as Chess, and also compile quotes and insights from some of the world’s top poker players. DurrrrChallenge.com has been surprised at how divergent point of views are on this subject. From our experience, Texas Hold’em is clearly a mixture of both in the short term, and results are heavily weighted towards skill in the long term.

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The Insiders Comment

If you ask those deeply involved in poker, its top players and authors, they will argue that skill is by far the strongest factor.

Respected poker author David Sklansky has stated that good poker players “are at war with luck. They use their skills to minimize luck as much as possible.”

11-time WSOP bracelet winner Phil Hellmuth has infamously stated “If it weren’t for luck, I’d win every time.”

Poker Players Alliance Chairman Alfonse D’Amato and former New York Senator commented, “As a poker player, I can tell you that knowing when to hold or fold is not based solely on the cards that are dealt, but a series of decisions based on skill and the actions taken by other players. This study provides the raw data to back up the compelling arguments made by poker players around the world that it’s skill, not pure luck, that determines the outcome of this game.”

Scott Matusow, poker commentator and brother of Mike “The Mouth” Mouth Matusow, asserts that your perspective and approach to your game determines if poker is predominately a game of skill or luck. If you approach the game as a vocation that you apply yourself at, studying, disciplined and structured playing and observing strict bankroll management, you are bound to see that skill wins out in the end. If you are the casual player who likes the action, taking risks, gets emotional with wins and losses and rarely follows the recommended percentages or bankroll management, they are likely to view poker as based mostly on luck. In the end, the player perceptions aren’t the determining factor of whether poker is a skill game or not. The skill level of a player doesn’t determine whether the game is a game of skill or not. It only helps to determine their relative results in that game of skill.

You Can’t Avoid Losing No Matter How Skillful You Are

No one will debate that there isn’t considerable luck involved in poker, especially in the short term. No one controls what cards will be dealt. No player can win every hand. No player is always dealt a good hand or knows when their good hand will face a better hand. All you can do is play the percentages. The skilled player attempts to take advantage of luck when it visits them and how to minimize the effects when it visits their opponents.

Some poker players love to point at a string of unfortunate bad beats as signs that poker is mostly luck. The reality is you’ll suffer more bad beats if you’re playing well, because by definition a good player will be getting their money in the pot with the percentages in their favor. They are most likely ahead, thus more likely to get outdrawn more times than a poorly skilled player who won’t be ahead as often and thus can’t suffer as many bad beats.

A big distinction between poker and pure gambling games is when gambling you are playing against “the house.” The Casino has statistical edges to all their games which means in the long term you are destined to lose. In poker, the house has no interest in the outcome, as they are an impartial provider of the services for a fee. They provide a forum for the players to compete equally against each other. One player will win at the expense of others. The rules of real money poker accord every player a statistically equal chance to win, unlike gambling.

David Sklansky’s favorite argument for skill being predominant in poker is to look at gambling games and losing. In pure gambling games of chance, like baccarat or roulette, it is impossible to intentionally lose. Each move has a similar chance. That is not the case in poker. Poker players contribute significantly towards their results by the actions they choose to make. If poker relied mainly on luck, most players would play to showdown and turn over their cards on the river to let luck decide the winner. There are some who argue that there is no actual luck in poker, as luck is random and doesn’t favor anyone long term so it’s a non factor, there are just mathematical fluctuations that in the long run approximate the correct probabilities for your play.

Studies

A Global Poker Strategic Thinking Society study demonstrated clearly that participants who were given instructions and basic strategy advice outperformed those who were not instructed. It showed that players who selected their starting hands more carefully also fared better. Finally, the control group who received no prior instruction saw their results improve as time went on, showing that there was a learning by experience factor.

A Levitt and Miles study using date from 32,000 players who participated in the 57 2010 WSOP tournaments demonstrated that “previously classified ‘skilled’ players outperformed “unskilled” players by a large margin.” The “skilled” players achieved an average return on investment of over 30% while all others gain a negative 15% return on their results. Comparisons were made to skill and luck based accepted endeavours like stock investing.

In a 2009 Cigital study of 103 million hands of Hold’em played on PokerStars, it was shown that 75% of hands dealt never made it to showdown. Therefore the success of a hand depended more on players betting than on the cards they were dealt. The player with the best final hand rarely won the hand. Paco Hope, one of the studies’ authors stated “the same information is available to all players (the values of the cards), but it is skill in interpreting that information — not the presence of that information — that determines whether a player folds.”

The important caveat to all studies on the role of skill in poker is the length of time that you measure the results. In the short term, luck can overcome any skill you display, but over enough time, skill will always overwhelm luck in poker.

Poker vs. Chess or Financial Markets

Comparisons are made to chess or to the financial markets when comparing the skill element of poker. Poker is a game of incomplete information, whereas chess isn’t. In chess, it’s possible an unskilled player could get lucky for a move or two, but over the entire game, they can’t compete with a master player. Given enough time, the same would happen in poker. A true amateur would stand no chance long term against a top professional poker player.

As for the financial markets, there are numerous parallels with poker. Brokers look for edges to exploit, but the unpredictability of the markets can easily undermine prudent decisions. It’s said “the market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent” so even high percentage plays can fail. In the long run, the amateur is going to make too many low percentage plays and go broke.

Why Poker Is Popular

Much of the popularity of poker is due to the wonderful combination of luck and skill. If it were solely a game of skill, the inexperienced wouldn’t play because they would lose every time. If it were too much about luck, the professional players would give up. With the current balance of luck and skill in poker, on any given day anyone can win a tournament, but over time the skillful players will come out on top. Over time luck evens out and the skill difference will prevail. It is the psychological ramifications of how we deal with the skill and luck components that can prove challenging for many players.

Poker constantly puts you to decisions (e.g. bet or check, raise or fold) that require skill to navigate effectively. Each of your decisions impact your ability to win a hand or session. The fact that there are many levels of success in the game only goes to prove that their different skill levels influence their results long term.