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Is Poker A Game Of Skill Or Luck?

Jan 31, 2008
One of the ways to suggest an answer to the question of skill or luck is to watch the TV tournaments and notice how often some professional players seem to make the final table. Another clue to this question is taking stock of a local poker room and who seems to win more often than not. Some players are luckier than others, but it seems that skill over time wins out over luck. This is particularly true in cash games. Luck in tournaments does play a bigger part since one bad bet can end the tournament for a solid player. In tournaments you can often see a river card out of nowhere beat a very good starting hand of a professional and the amateur that lucked out continues in the game.

Many state legislatures have decided in favor of skill when letting poker rooms legally run in the state. The skill quality of the game overcame the prohibition against gambling. Watch the fate of any new player learning the game during the early stages of their learning curve and you can easily see that their skill level is suspect and they only seem to win with lucky draws or very powerful starting hands. They are lost when it comes to knowing when to bluff or play a marginal hand. Solid players who have a knack for doing the right move at the right time are the personification of poker skill. They rarely make a playing mistake and are only beat by an unexpected draw of luck or four running suited cards in the flop to give the Ace holding player a flush. You see many hands like this in online tournaments. Watching pairs of Aces get cracked online is an ugly display of how fickle the game can be at times.

Knowledge and experience are usually rewarded in a cash game and to a lesser degree in tournaments. The big reason for the difference is the player can rebuy in the cash game and when they lose their starting stack in a tournament they are knocked out of the tournament. Tournament play does seem to have a greater element of luck in its play. This is especially true when these Internet players are willing to go all in at the start of a hand. They play power poker and do not wait to see if they make their hand or not. In cases like this you may as well be playing showdown and not Holdem. Big pairs are likely to be over bet before the flop in tournaments and under bet in cash games. Patience also seems to be a bigger factor in cash games and less of an element in tournament play. Tournaments reward very aggressive play far more than cash games. As a group of players, cash game professionals are often more skillful players.

The betting level of the game also seems to bring more skill into play. The higher the betting level the more skill you will see in the play. Low-level games are hard to win with just skill, as there are too many players who will call even when the odds are very much out of favor toward them. No limit games will be filled with skillful players who know how to play. This is true in spades if the blinds are also very high. Players who are learning would be advised to stick with the lower level games until they have a better understanding of how the game should be played.

Making set up bets and bluffing are not the new player's best play. Skilled players do it all of the time. They also seem to know exactly the amount they should wager to get their opponent to call. Getting the maximum amount of money for a winning hand is a learned skill and not a play that should be left to luck.

The other part of luck versus skill is luck cannot be counted on from day to day, but skill can be maintained from one session to the next. This alone may be the reason that familiar faces are seen at tournament after tournament. It is hard to beat a player who plays well and makes few mistakes. As the song goes, they know when to Holdem and when to Foldem. Mistake free play is hard to win against when a player is counting on lucky draws to bail them out of bad calls. Players sitting at a poker table make miracle draws every day. The difference from a skill standpoint is the odds are taken into account before the draw and the player knows that the play will depend on the odds. The player who depends on luck to win will be disappointed many times and does not even consider the odds of the play they are making. A blind eye to the odds of the play can be very costly over time and over many poker sessions.

Conclusions

Most solid players would come down on the side of skill in this debate. They saw it happen in their own play, as they got better at the game of poker. Early on they had games where they got very lucky, but over time they began to realize that they could not depend on luck to win. As they learned more about the inner workings of the game, they began to play with greater skill and their wins and losses were reversed to the win side of the ledger. Many of these same players have had two other significant advantages over the older players. They could read any of the really good books on poker that are now available. They could also play thousands of hands on the Internet at online poker rooms. The old time poker players had to spend a long time playing poker to log the same number of games and the experience that real time play gives to a player. This accounts to some degree for the young players doing so well in tournaments. Skill in the long run is the bread and butter to a winning poker player.
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