Is Texas Hold'em a Game of Skill? (It Might Surprise You)

Is Texas Hold'em a Game of Skill?

This article was written by contributor Fran Ferlan.

Something I've personally struggled with in the past, and still do to this day, is trying to explain to people why poker is a game of skill. 

And if you’ve played poker for a while, it’s pretty self evident.

However, even players who have  been playing for a while and thoroughly enjoy themselves insist it’s pure gambling and all luck. They don’t see much difference between poker and playing slots. 

So what gives? 

What’s the deal with poker and how is it different from other forms of gambling? Is it really a skill game, or was my mom right all along?

This article will give you 4 reasons why poker is a skill game, as well as highlight some common misconceptions about it.

1. Unlike in Other Casino Games, Good Poker Players Have Agency 

Let’s get one thing clear right off the bat. 

Poker is a form of gambling by definition. It entails wagering a certain amount of money on uncertain outcomes.  

How much you win or lose in a certain period is beyond your control, so yes, there is certainly a luck element involved. 

But the same can be said about other endeavours with risk involved. And there’s risk involved in everything, like investing in the stock market, or starting your own business. 

You’re also betting money on things beyond your control. In that regard, poker is just another form of risk management.

So why does poker get such a bad rep, even though it’s clearly different from other forms of gambling, and has far more to do with risk management? 

There’s a ton of reasons for it that go way beyond the scope of this article, but it mostly comes down to misunderstanding.

It’s normal to be apprehensive about the things you know very little or nothing about. It’s understandable to be sure, but not the best way to go about life.

What separates poker from other forms of gambling is the player’s agency. When you play slots or bingo, the events are random, and it doesn’t matter who’s sitting in a chair. 

Players have absolutely no control on the outcome whatsoever.

In poker, you have no control over the cards you’re dealt, but you can choose whether or not to play them and how to play them.

For example, there are 10 really bad hands that many losing poker players choose to play, as Nathan discusses in a recent video.

Winning poker players on the other hand tend not to play these 10 hands as much. 

People who believe that Texas Hold'em is all gambling though, and they have no control over the outcome, will just take random actions with each hand and hope to "get lucky."

So yes, if you don’t know what you’re doing, then sure, Texas Hold'em is all luck. 

But there is something deeply insidious about that line of thinking, and it spills over to other aspects of people’s lives as well.

People who believe they’re somehow inherently unlucky, or attribute other peoples’ success to external circumstances and “pure luck” are missing the bigger picture, and usually lack agency in their own lives. 

Sure, life is chaotic and unpredictable, and people don’t always get what’s coming to them. It’s unfair, arbitrary, and deeply unjust. Fair enough.

But applying that line of thinking in your life makes things worse, not better. Bad things happen, yes, but some people deal with them better than others. 

Some accept them and do the best they can given the circumstances, and some bemoan their luck and insist they never get their fair share of it. 

The latter category, ironically, don’t even recognize or can’t appreciate when they actually do get lucky, or somehow feel entitled to it. 

This type of focusing more on negative outcomes rather than positive ones is called the negativity bias. People are more likely to remember negative events and stimuli than the positive ones. 

It’s totally normal, but doing so unconsciously can skew the reality to look much bleaker than it actually is.

This is also why so many people are convinced for example that online poker is rigged, despite the fact that there is no statistically significant evidence to support this assertion.

2. Texas Hold'em Poker is Essentially a Complex Math Problem

In its essence, poker comes down to math and probabilities. Intuitively, people can recognize a potentially profitable wager. 

They’ll gladly bet their money on the outcome of the sports game if they believe their team to be the favourite. 

They’ll even bet on the underdog team if someone offers them particularly favourable odds.

Yet, when it comes to poker, they don’t apply the same logic, even though you actually have far more control on the felt than you have on the outcome of any sports event. 

Poker is all about wagering your money with a mathematical advantage. You don’t have to be a math genius to realize pocket Aces are a favourite to win against 72 offsuit. 

But one might get lucky and win against the odds, so it’s all about luck again, right?

Wrong. 72 offsuit can win against pocket Aces sometimes (12.58% of the time, to be precise). But in a big enough sample size, the guy who keeps shoving money with junk hands is going to end up broke. 

I don’t care if they have seven four-leaf clover decorated rabbit’s feet around their neck. I’m taking my chances with pocket Aces any day, and luck be damned.

What people call luck is basically randomness, either positive or negative. It’s what we do to make sense of the world around us. But it’s just a story we tell ourselves. It has nothing to do with objective reality. 

Some people aren’t inherently luckier than others. And you are not cursed because your pocket Aces got cracked three times in a row. 

Things just happen. Sometimes we like how they turn out, sometimes we don’t. 

Attributing luck to them usually just serves as a way of ego protection at best, and depriving us of personal agency at worst. 

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3. Texas Hold'em Poker is All About the Long Run

Poker is all about chance in the short term, and all about skill in the long term. 

The problem is, the long term is far longer than most people think. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of hands over years, if not decades. 

The fact is, most people never even come close to such numbers. Their sample size is just too small to draw any sort of meaningful conclusions.

Dealing with statistics is something people can’t always wrap their heads around. In a small sample size, anything can happen.

This is one of the biggest reasons why people fail to beat even low limit micro stakes poker games, as Nathan discusses in a recent video.

If you flip a coin ten times, it’s highly unlikely it will land on heads ten out of ten times. But it’s possible nonetheless, and if it does, it’s not a miracle. 

But if you keep flipping the same coin over and over again, eventually it will land heads 50% of the time. It’s just how statistics work, but the sample size needs to be big enough. 

In the previous pocket Aces example, if you keep shoving them all-in against 72 offsuit, you will win 87.42% of the time. No more, no less.

But most people just can’t get over the short-term results, period.

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Not to mention all the cognitive biases we’re prone to have as a species. The human brain is tragically ill-equipped to deal with math and probabilities. 

We’re not computers running simulations. We’re breathing, feeling meatsacks trying to make sense of the world around us. And we’re usually doing a terrible job at it.

People from fields like economics, statistics and data analysis might have a better grasp on the issue, but it’s a lot harder for us non-mathematically inclined.

The point is, over a large enough sample size, there is no such thing as luck. Everybody will get their share of both good and bad cards. 

It’s not about the hand you’re dealt, it’s how you play it. More importantly, it’s about how you manage yourself when the deck runs cold. And it will run cold for a while. 

There’s simply no running away from it. 

And that’s when the skill part of the equation comes in. Not just in the purely strategic sense, i.e. which cards to play and how, but also your mental fortitude, or lack thereof.

By the way, make sure you check out my top 15 proven ways to beat small stakes poker games for more on the exact strategy you need to use to win consistently.  

4. Most People Lose Money at Texas Hold'em, Yet Some Players Win Big Time

Poker is a game played against other people. No two players play the same way. 

Yet, most people lose money playing poker, some break even, some are small winners, and a tiny minority earns an exorbitant amount of money.

Daniel Negreanu for example has made $40+ million dollars in poker tournaments as he discusses in his Masterclass poker training.  

This means that the results are disproportionately stacked at the top, while most people end up poorer for their efforts. 

This sort of uneven distribution is comparable to other professions, like sports, acting, you name it. Everyone can play basketball, for example, yet very few people can make a living out of it. 

If poker wasn’t a skill game, the results would be evenly distributed among the population. 

On average, everyone would be breaking even, minus the rake. Essentially, everyone would be losing money over the long run.

But that’s not the case. 

There are players that earn a living playing poker. This means they are doing something different than the vast majority of the player pool. 

And that something is this: they put in more effort.

Not only do they know the game inside and out, but they approach it with far more dedication than your average recreational player does. In fact, the amount of effort is comparable, and even exceeds your average 9 to 5. 

What’s more, poker is incredibly mentally challenging. Consistently performing at a high level requires not only years of studying, but optimizing your life off the felt as well. 

Plenty of sleep, healthy nutrition and an exercise regime are a must if you want to make it in this highly competitive endeavour.

There is so much more to it than playing a couple of hands over the weekend with a beer in hand. See Nathan's 10 years as a poker pro post for much more on this.

Is Texas Hold'em a Game of Skill? (Summary)

Texas hold’em poker is a skill game pretending to be a luck game. The short-term luck element makes it exciting and welcoming to new players.

On the other hand, it also gives poker a bad rep as just another card game leading to gambling addiction, financial ruin, depression and suicide, in that order. Or so my mom told me.

Full disclaimer, poker is a form of gambling, and as such, should be played responsibly. 

But unlike other casino games, players have much more agency. While you can’t control which cards are dealt to you, you can control how you choose to (or not to) play them based on math and probabilities.

And luckily, there is more high level poker strategy books and advanced poker training video courses than ever before these days to help you get better, much faster.  

This means there is theoretically always a better or worse way to play, i.e. there is a strategy element involved. The same thing can’t be said for bingo.

It all comes down to math and probabilities. If you’re not familiar with the odds and outs, then yes, poker is all about luck. But that’s like saying chess is all about luck without even knowing the rules of chess.

The short-term luck element involved is only a factor in a small sample size. Over a large enough sample size, everyone gets their fair share of both good and bad cards, respectively. 

The problem is, people simply don’t play enough hands for that to be the case, so they get all wrapped up with anecdotal evidence backing up their claims about how they’re just unlucky.

Funny enough, I am yet to meet a poker player claiming to be super lucky. If some people are unlucky, then there’s surely someone lucky on the other side of the equation, right?

Nope? Nobody? That’s curious.

At the end of the day, there ARE people who make a lot of money playing poker, and no, they’re not born under a lucky star. They just worked hard for long enough for their luck to manifest. 

I’ll leave you with a quote that surmises it nicely:

“I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.” - Coleman Cox

If you are serious about taking your Texas Hold'em poker game to the next level, make sure you join my free private poker study group on Facebook.

Lastly, if you want to know my complete strategy for crushing small stakes poker games for $1000+ per month, make sure you grab a copy of my free poker cheat sheet.

Is Texas Hold'em a Game of Skill?