I recently had a conversation on stream about luck in poker.  Is poker luck or skill?  Which category of belief do you fall into? 

As poker players begin their journey with this wonderful game, they often go through a shifting cycle of belief on this topic... their studies on the strategies and intricacies of the game leading them into the skill corner, while the fate of a few ****le river cards press them back to the luck side of the ring. 

No one questions that chess is a game of skill, where a good player will beat a bad player game after game over and over again.   And no one questions that the spin of a roulette wheel or the picking lottery numbers are games of luck, where the odds (payouts) are set against you in favor of the house and there's no measure of skill sets that will allow you to play these games profitably.  Why is there such a debate over poker then?

The reason is, poker contains both skill and luck elements.  We often hear people say that poker is luck in the short term and skill in the long term, but why?  How is that? 

Well, there are luck elements that impact things in a micro or short term level.  Obviously the turn of a card in an individual hand, something over which we have no control.  A seat we get randomly moved to in a tournament.  A dealer misdealing and exposing your card, causing you to get a new one and change that hand.  The thing is, as time rolls on and you play more and more hands, you experience both good and bad short term luck, and over time it tends to even out (I know, everyone thinks theirs is worse... this is largely a function of our memory playing favorites to the pain of bad luck over the joy of good luck.  Trust me.)  So what rules the day on the macro or long term scale is skill.  Players that exercise better skill and judgement reap the long term rewards by utilizing their skill sets in the proper way to make fewer mistakes and smaller mistakes than their opponents.  How does this skill factor interact with the shorter term luck factor?  Good players use their skills to maximize/minimize.  That is, when luck smiles on a player, the more skilled player tends to win more or derive a greater benefit than the less skilled by doing things like maximizing value in a hand, adjusting to exploit their image or the opponents or a situation, etc...  And when luck runs against them, they tend to lose less than the poor player does by doing things like getting away from a hand sooner, not tilting, etc.

What about tournament poker?  You probably have heard it said in order to win a large field tournament you simply have to get lucky along the way.  If you've attended a number of my live training streams you may have even heard me say it.  So what gives?  Am I saying skill doesn't play as great a roll in tournaments if some luck is a virtual requirement to best a large field of players?  No, quite the opposite in fact.  It's true that it's really hard to win a tournament without some luck... which can manifest in many ways. Getting AA when someone else has KK and holding up for example.  Or getting KK when someone else has AA and hitting your king.  And countless other, smaller ways as well.  Here's the thing:  This luck takes time to manifest, and by exercising their skill the better players put themselves in a position to get lucky more often. 

Let me explain what I mean.  Picture a game of Duplicate Poker which is essentially a tournament where players on each table are dealt the same hands from identically sequenced decks... so seat 3 is getting the same hand and board as all the other seat 3's, likewise for the seat 4's, etc.  The idea behind this concept was to remove the luck element since every seat receives the same "luck" by design.  Of course while all the seat 3's get the same exact hands and spots, they don't all play the same. You can imagine a beginner on one table might play those hands quite differently from an experienced player on another.  The more skilled seat 3's
should be able to use their skill sets to win more on their winning hands, lose less on their losers, and find winning spots the others may not via better bluffs or better bluff catching.  Okay, so back to what I mean by skilled players put themselves in a position to get lucky more often.  Let's say there is a hand sequenced for seat 3 during level 15 of the tournament where they are going to get AA vs. KK vs. KK and hold up at showdown.  How many chips players win on that hand will vary based on their stack size.  The most skilled players will tend to have accumulated the biggest stacks and thus benefit the most from this lucky spot.  Some of the weaker seat 3's may not even be in the tournament any more, having busted their stacks out earlier... they miss out on this spot completely.

The point of this blog is to get you thinking about the interaction of luck and skill in poker.  There *is* a luck element to this game... embrace it and understand it for what it is.  But make no mistake, while luck may impact you in a single hand or a single session a great deal, over the course of time it is your skill relative to your opponents that tells the final story.  You will lose battles here and there, and some of the skirmishes, but the most
skilled players always win the war.

I'd like to wish everyone a Happy and Safe New Years... see you on the other side., and may the luck be with you.

Cheers,
Dave