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Poker: Skill or Chance?

“Chance favours the prepared mind” - Louis Pasteur by: Carl Sampson

The age old argument of whether poker is a game of skill or chance has reared its head again. In fact this argument has even been taken to the courts in the past few years. Many sharp minds have decreed that it is a game of chance. Are they right or wrong?
The answer to the argument is actually a simple one and as a professional poker player then I am best placed to answer it properly and accurately. Poker is a game of skill…..end of story! Well actually that can’t be the end of the story because otherwise there wouldn’t be an article.
Which people call it a game of luck?
Firstly we need to examine which types of people are referring to poker as a game of luck! It certainly isn’t the people that are making vast sums of money from playing the game! It always seems to be non-poker players or non-serious poker players that are academics. It may also be serious poker players who for whatever reason can’t make the game pay.
If you point to the serious poker players that can’t make the game pay as some sort of proof then you would be way off the mark. Serious poker players who are not making money have deep flaws in their thinking processes. They either haven’t kept up with the latest developments in poker theory, are too set in their ways, overvalue their own skill level or are simply picking the wrong games.
Why the answer confuses academics?
The point is that poker really is a game of luck most of the time! However it isn’t a game of luck all the time and that’s the key! The difference between those two statements is bridged by the skill and knowledge of the player. So just when is poker a game of luck? Well that tends to stem from the times when your skill level is insufficient to provide you with an edge over your current opponents. It could also apply if the dynamics of the game forbid you from using skill like with some poker tournament structures for example.
This basically means that luck will win the day in any one session. Poker tournaments are a great example where the result is heavily based on luck. So if you play in forms of poker that are heavily luck based or you have insufficient skill then you can call poker a game of luck! The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of the players that frequent card rooms are not good enough to gain an edge……this is where poker is a game of luck!


A Simple Experiment to Prove the Point

Let us pick a simple game like coin tossing. Now we know in advance that this game has no skill and the result of the coin toss will be random. However when we play for money then the equation changes under certain conditions! Let us say that me and you decide to play for money on these coin tosses.

The pivotal point comes when I negotiate the terms of the bets in my favour. You agree to pay me $10 when I win and I pay you $8 when you win. Each coin toss cannot be predicted and will be totally random and so the results are luck based. However the key thing is that the financial consequences of the luck based events are not luck based at all.

We know in advance that over a large sample size that heads and tails will cancel each other out. Every academic in the world would accept this to be true without reservation. So for every one hundred times that I win I win $1000 while you only win $800 for every hundred wins. This turns a totally luck based result into a game where you can earn money.

In fact because you know in advance that the results are totally luck based, this would allow you to still carry on playing even if your opponent initially won more coin tosses than you and was ahead in money terms.

But it’s a bad example!

I can hear thousands of unconvinced readers screaming right now…..but a coin toss analogy is a bad example! They would argue that no sane person would give someone $10 if they lost a coin toss and only accepted $8 if they won. Of course you would be right but here is the point. As I said, I quoted the coin toss because it was a simple example. A simple example for a very simple game!

However poker is not a simple game, in fact it is a very complex game. A game so complex that the exact same thing is happening without players realising it! Their results and overall lack of skill get lost within this complexity and especially if they don’t track their results. Skilled poker players win more money on average from the pots that they play than unskilled ones.

They win more on average per pot, per session, per week and per year. The way that the cards are shuffled and dealt is a totally luck based thing just like the coin toss was. However just like in the coin toss example, the financial consequences of a luck based event (the shuffle and dealt hands) isn’t luck based. A skilled player would win a $100 pot in a situation where a player with lesser skill may only win $80.

The skilled player recognised that despite his moderate strength hand that his opponent would call a small value bet on the river. He figured out that his opponent’s range and the action to date coupled with the pod odds that he was giving his opponent meant that a value bet was going to be profitable. The unskilled player couldn’t figure this out and so didn’t make the extra bet and didn’t pick up the $20.

Argument from ignorance

Any full time poker professional who has played online poker basically proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that poker is a game of skill. Poker professionals who play online often multi-table! The best ones play as many as 1000 hands per hour. Full time players often play more hands in one year than the old time players played in a lifetime. These facts would stagger a non-poker player or someone ignorant in online poker.

Their sample sizes are so large that mathematical models prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that their results are skill based. You can’t pay bills, a mortgage and keep a family for ten years on something that is luck based. So the academics and non-poker players that call poker a game of luck need to do more research.

Psychologists have a term for people that debate topics with insufficient data...“argument from ignorance”! However, as previously stated, they do have a case sometimes. Poker needs certain game dynamics to be in place for there to be profit potential. Once these exist then winning money in poker can be as easy as picking apples from a tree. It’s a matter of having the right skill and the right game.

Carl Sampson, Professional Poker Player/Coach/ Author www.pokersharkpool.com www.pokersite.co.uk  www.thedeanrakeback.com