Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Is Poker a Game of Skill or Luck?

Is poker a game of skill or luck?
Most of the general population, if polled, would probably tell you that poker is a game of luck. And you can't really blame them. After all poker is often played in a casino right alongside other games of chance like blackjack, craps and slot machines.

But most people who play poker seriously know different. They know that by consistently asserting a skill advantage over weaker players that they will win in the long run.

In this article I am going to discuss how much luck plays a role in poker in the short run. And I will also demonstrate why poker is undeniably a game of skill in the long run.


Poker is Played Against Other People, Not the House


The biggest reason why poker is a game of skill and not luck is because unlike every other casino game your main opponents are other people, not the house.

As everybody knows, the house always wins. There is a reason why the Las Vegas skyline is so impressive and depending on how much you are willing to wager, they will even comp your entire stay.

It is because they know that they will win in the end.

In fact Vegas casinos are well known for hiring some of the top math graduates in the country in order to be absolutely sure that the margins in their games do indeed turn a handsome profit for them in the long run.

You might be the one who gets lucky this time, but you can be rest assured that out of the 40 million tourists that the city attracts every year, more go home with gambling losses than winnings.

But in poker the house really only provides the means of playing the game. They don't directly profit from the outcome of poker hands.

Sure, they turn a profit by collecting a rake from tournament buyins and cash game pots. However, this is a fixed amount. The majority of the action is between it's patrons, the poker players themselves.

So since you are playing primarily against other people (often amateurs), your opponents will make plenty of mistakes and you can capitalize on them. This is why I constantly suggest that you play against the people who are making the most egregious technical errors, the recreational players.


Poker is a Game of Math and Odds


So how do you actually capitalize on the mistakes of the bad players and exercise your skill edge? Well, it really isn't that complicated at all.


Winning at poker is simply the consistent application of the following rule:

Get more money in the pot when you are at a statistical advantage and put less money in the pot when you are at a statistical disadvantage.

Bluffing is the other key aspect of the skill edge in poker. By being able to read your opponent and know when they are weak, you can get them to fold a better hand and therefore win more than your fair share of pots.


Poker is an easy game on paper

Now all of this probably sounds pretty easy in theory. However, the biggest problem that most poker players face though is dealing with losses when the math was in their favor.

For instance, let's say you entered a poker tournament and played patiently for several hours. You eventually got all of the money in the middle before the flop with AA versus somebody else's QQ.


As we can see, pocket aces are a big mathematical favorite to win the hand. They have roughly 81% equity in this situation. However, pocket queens are not exactly drawing dead here. In fact QQ will still win this hand roughly 18% of the time or almost 1 out of every 5 times.

So when the unthinkable happens (QQ wins the hand) this will cause some people to become frustrated and go on tilt and play emotional. When so called "bad beats" like this happen this also leads people to believe that poker is just a game of luck.

But from a logical, unemotional standpoint we know that the person holding the QQ is not going to win in the long run. Keep running this same scenario enough times and eventually they will go broke.

You can't fight math.


Poker is a Game of Skill in the Long Run


This is why we don't play poker for individual hands or even individual sessions. We play instead for tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or even millions of hands over the course of our playing career.

Because eventually all that math, statistics and odds are going to add up in our favor. This is of course assuming that you are the one who is getting the money in the middle with the mathematical edge most of the time!

The fact that the sucker with QQ gets to walk away the winner nearly 1 out of every 5 times is in fact one of the most beautiful things about this game. Now before you scream blasphemy, just hear me out for a second.


Give them a bone

You see if poker were like chess or tennis where you lose pretty much every time when you get outplayed, the recreational players would not keep coming back.

They would eventually realize that no amount of wishful thinking is going to allow them to win against somebody who is a lot more skilled than them. They will lose every single time.

If this were the case in poker then it would lead them to either quit the game entirely or improve their abilities. Neither of these scenarios are good for the poker economy.

But when you give the bad players a bone 18% of the time, this is just enough for them to keep blaming their losses on bad luck. This is also just enough to keep them coming back again and again and giving their money away.

As they often say, denial runs the entire industry.


If You Play Better Than Your Opponents, You Will Win in the End


But the crazy short term variance that can happen in poker sometimes can still mess with the mind of even the most highly skilled and experienced players.

Losing with the best hand is going to happen on a regular basis in this game. And if you play enough hands, it can happen several times in a row as well. This is just the same as if you flipped a coin 1000 times. It is going to come heads 5 times in a row eventually.

And if you "run bad" in poker for long enough it can totally mess with your confidence and make you question if you are a winning player at all even after years of success.


But the simple fact of the matter is this: 

If you play better than your opponents, you will win in the long run. This is just a simple mathematical fact.

You have to trust in the process or else there is no point in even playing this game. And sometimes the process will take a long, long time to sort itself out.

But that is why I said above that poker is not about individual hands or sessions. Poker is in fact the exact opposite of a get rich quick scheme.

Poker rewards those who consistently apply their skill advantage over long periods of time. This is why longevity is the real mark of success in this game in my opinion.

On a personal note, it is not all the money that I have made at the poker tables over the years that I am most proud of. It is not the two best selling books that I wrote or the dozens of successful students who I have coached either.

It is the fact that I have survived over 10 years now in this crazy game. I have seen so many people come and go during this time shooting up like a rocket for a short period and then burning out and fading away.


Final Thoughts


Nobody ever said poker was going to be easy. In fact it is one of the hardest games on earth to deal with at times and that is why so few are successful at it over the long run.

And this is the way that it has to be.

Somebody has to be losing in order for you to win after the house takes it's cut. And these are all of the people who end up in the red over the long run either because they got outplayed or because the game was too much for them to handle mentally.

But this doesn't change the simple mathematical fact that poker is a game of skill and not luck in the long run. The same top pros keep winning year in a year out for a reason.

The bottom line in poker is that if you keep consistently applying your statistical edge and skill advantage, you will profit in the end. Where you take it from there is entirely up to you.

If you want to know how I created some of the highest winrates in the history of online poker at the lower limits make sure you pick up your copy of my free ebook. 


Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Is poker a game of skill or luck?

Is poker a game of luck or skill?

10 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    1. Hi, the sample sizes that you are talking about have no statistical significance at all. As I discuss in this article we play this game for the long run, months, years, hundreds of thousands and even millions of hands. If you apply the right strategy, play against bad players and manage your tilt, anyone can beat these stakes.

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    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    3. No problem and I am glad that my blog helps! :)

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    4. Nathan,this is in my opinion by far the most usefull and superb arcticles you've ever written.Even though many of us grinders already kinda know this stuff,the way you put it is superb!
      Thanks for writting this,and wish you all the best ,at the tables and your life in general!

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    5. Thanks Chris, appreciate it and same to you!

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    6. Hey Nathan ... we can't see the comments of rukiddingme? ... it says you removed them ... if they were that insulting why did you thanked him and told him glad your blog helps lol

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    7. Hi Mircea,

      His comments weren't insulting and I did not remove them. As you can see by the "This comment has been removed by the author", he chose to remove them himself.

      The only time I remove comments on my blog is for spam or excessive personal insults. Both are very rare.

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  2. "Poker is in fact the exact opposite of a get rich quick scheme."
    -Nathan Williams

    I think we can all agree that this really nails the grinder mentality and every grinder should have this framed and hung and/or as your computer wallpaper. Thank you Nathan for another great article!

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    1. Thanks Spidy, glad this article was helpful for you!

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