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Is poker gambling or a game of skill?
Poker is not gambling, At least it doesn't need to be.

Of course, if you have no idea what you are doing and figure to be a big losing player in the game, then poker is gambling in the sense that you will usually lose and you need to get lucky to win. In this case, there would be little difference between spending your money on poker and spending it on roulette. If, however, you take the game seriously, play within your bankroll, and play in games where you aspire to have an edge, then poker is not gambling in the conventional sense. Here is why.

Large Samples

The difference between a serious winning poker player and a roulette player is that if the former puts in enough work and effort, he can guarantee that if he plays an infinite sample of hands, he will win. The roulette player, on the other hand, is guaranteed to lose after playing an infinite sample of spins.

That's that then. We just have to go and play infinity hands for a failsafe profit…

I use infinity here just as an illustration. It is the only sample big enough to 100% guarantee a winning sample. Let's have a look at the certainty of winning over some more realistic samples of play. Our case study is a marginally winning aspiring player. Let's call him Rich.

Rich has been working hard on his game for the last six months and has acquired a very solid foundation through his participation on the forums of PokerStars school, watching the videos, and reading the articles of the school's instructors. Rich's win-rate is a small but respectable 3BB/100. Check out this article for a fuller explanation on what this means.

Below, we can see Rich's chances of winning money at a game like 6-Max cash games over various samples.
  • 1000 Hands: 54%
  • 5000 Hands: 60%
  • 10,000 Hands: 64%
  • 25,000 Hands: 71%
  • 50,000 Hands: 78%
  • 100,000 Hands: 87%
  • 500,000 Hands: 99.3%
  • 1,000,000 Hands: 99.98%
  • 5,000,000 Hands: 99.9999%
As we can see, the larger the sample, the higher the certainty of a winning player ending up with a profit. We can never actually hit 100%, but by playing very large samples, we can reach such a high likelihood of winning that, if all of the grains of sand in the world played poker with this win-rate, it would be extremely likely that every single one of them would win money.

Of course, many players do not take the game seriously and play worse than your average grain of sand would if it could operate a mouse and keyboard. Just as winning players can virtually guarantee that they will win money over large samples, losing players, who do not improve, guarantee that they will lose.

Losing Control

We have covered the element of 'gambling' that relates to large amounts of luck and have seen that this luck only exists over smaller samples. It can be almost entirely eliminated by putting in enough high-quality volume at the tables. There is, however, another sense in which people use the term 'gambling' and that is to denote the act of reckless betting that causes strong emotional reactions. I used to work in a casino as a dealer and I saw more than my fair share of gamblers losing control at the tables. Here are some tips to make sure that you, as a poker player, do not turn your passion and hobby into a problem.
  • Play within your means. Set some non-negotiable rules about how many buy-ins you need for the various games you choose to play.
  • Do not chase losses. Stop playing and take a break if you feel desperate or frustrated beyond your control.
  • Accept that all players have many losing days, whether they are long-term winners or losers.
  • Do not form grudges against specific opponents. They are just playing the game as best they know how.
  • Try to avoid playing when drunk or under the influence of drugs.


A downswing is a period where a player's current overall profits are below his peak life earnings. In other words, a player endures a downswing for as long as his total winnings are less than their previous maximum amount. It is very possible to go on large downswings in the short-term and these can make you feel like you are just playing a gambling game, but this is an illusion.

Let's go back to Rich; our 3BB/100 hypothetical school member. How likely is he to experience downswing of various sizes? Remember, Rich endures a downswing when he drops X BI's below his previous maximum amount of winnings. What percentage of the time is Rich going to find himself X Buy-ins under his maximum total winnings, during his career?
  • 3 Buy-ins: 80%
  • 5 Buy-ins: 74%
  • 10 Buy-ins: 63%
  • 15 Buy-ins: 51%
  • 20 Buy-ins: 42%
  • 30 Buy-ins: 27%
  • 40 Buy-ins: 11%
  • 50 Buy-ins: 0.6%
Most of the time, we will lose up to ten buy-ins of our highest lifetime profit before reaching a new highest lifetime profit. It is rare to fall up to 30 or 40 buy-ins below your highest profit level, but it can easily happen. A 50BI downswing, however, is very unlikely for a player like Rich.
This data further supports that poker is not a gambling game in the long-term, or is at the very worst, a game with a very tiny element of risk. It is just the short-term volatility that creates the illusion of gambling.


  • Over very large samples it is very nearly impossible for winning players to lose money at poker.
  • Keeping control and being professional about poker will increase your win-rate and decrease the feeling of volatility at the tables.
  • It is very likely that, as a winning player you will lose between 3 and 20 buy-ins between peaks. It is less common to lose 30 or 40, and extremely rare to lose 50 or more.
  • Poker is a game of skill with some short-term volatility.
So what do you think. Is it a game of gambling or skill?
Leave a comment below with your opinion.

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