A question people often ask about poker concerns luck. Is poker really a game of skill, or is it just gambling like any other casino game? People frequently discuss this subject, whether at the poker table, over a beer, or even when forming gambling laws. In this article, we’ll assess the arguments from both sides. Read on to discover our verdict.
What is Luck? (Baby Don’t Hurt Me)
Before we can decide whether or not poker is about luck, we need to understand what that word means. One dictionary defines the term as, “success or failure apparently brought by chance rather than through one’s own actions”.
If we run with that particular definition, then we cannot deny that luck is fundamentally involved in poker. No matter how good a player you might be, your opponent can still hit that one outer on the river. You have no control over a randomly shuffled deck of cards.
Case closed then? Well, not quite.
Variance in Poker
Anyone familiar with poker will undoubtedly have heard the term “variance” before. This concept concerns luck, but rather than looking at isolated hands, we think about luck over a period of time.
If you lost a hand, perhaps you played it badly, or maybe it was just unfortunate. However, if you endure ten losing sessions in a row, it seems much more likely that you need to work at your game. Sure, in theory at least, your downswing might be an amazingly unlucky run. But the longer it goes on, the more you have to wonder if you just made a lot of bad decisions.
Long, consistent losing runs cannot simply be explained away by negative variance, or “bad luck”. If a sports team lost every game in a season, we’d say they were not good enough. If a colleague in the office always delivered poor results, they’d be deemed incompetent. Poker is no different in that regard.
Why Poker is a Skill Game
Still don’t think that poker is a skill game? Here’s the case for the defence in a little more detail.
The Best Players Always Win
Phil Hellmuth has 16 World Series of Poker bracelets to his name, as well as five World Poker Tour final table appearances. He is known as possibly the greatest tournament poker player in history. There is simply no way that his performance, over a period of more than 30 years, can be down to just luck.
Perhaps it is though? Well, what about all the other career professionals who’ve made millions out of poker over an extended period of time? Daniel Negreanu, Doyle Brunson, or Phil Ivey? It’s always the same old faces crushing tournaments and cash games year after year.
Results Can Improve With Effort
When you first start to play poker, you will be a losing player. Even the greats lost money until they understood the game at a deeper level. So why, if the game is all about luck, did their results improve as they gained experience?
The fact is that, the harder you work, the better you become. You cannot put effort into getting better at predicting the outcome of a coin toss. It’s always a fifty-fifty shot. That’s because flipping coins is about luck and not skill. But a poker player can improve their results over time, which proves that the game is one of ability.
Mathematics and Probability
If you remove the element of psychology from poker, the game is essentially about mathematics. If you put your chips into the pot when the numbers are in your favour, then more often than not you’re going to make a profit.
Understanding when to call or fold involves calculations, sometimes even complicated ones. Nobody would claim that understanding mathematics is not a skill. And poker’s fundamentals involve maths.
Poker Strategies Require Constant Study
When Daniel Negreanu was beating up poker games throughout the 1990s and 2000s, many would argue that he was the best in the world. But when he recently took on Doug Polk in an extended high-stakes heads-up match, he was destroyed.
The game changes. If you don’t work at it, you will be left behind; that is no different from any other walk of life. Doctors need to stay abreast of new medicines and surgical techniques. Car mechanics today must understand computers more than carburetors. These are skilled professionals too, just like poker players.
It’s quite clear that, in the long-term at least, poker is a game of skill. Much like an athlete, craftsperson, or student, if you constantly work hard in improving your skills, you will see positive changes. Of course, in the short term, we can all suffer from bad luck. But over time, poker players get the results they deserve. And ultimately, that’s why poker is a game of skill.