Why Some People Win at Poker (But Most Don't)

Why Some People Win at Poker (But Most Don't)

This article was written by blackrain79.com contributor Fran Ferlan.

Why do most people lose at poker?

The short answer is because poker is a skill game. 

And in any human endeavour where there is skill involved, be it creative work, business, or sports, the results will always be disproportionately stacked at the top. 

Everyone can play basketball. Very few people can play in the NBA. And while there are a lot of talented athletes in the NBA, there’s only one Michael Jordan. 

Poker is no different. Everyone can learn to play, but very few people can actually be long term winners. And between those long-term winners, there will be huge gaps between their results. 

Most of the long term winners will actually be just above breaking even. And the better the results, the less people there are that can actually achieve them. 

This article will take a closer look at why most people will lose money playing poker, and more importantly, why do some people actually manage to win big over the long run.

1. Talent Or Luck Has Nothing To Do With Great Poker Results

There are a lot of factors that determine whether or not someone will be successful in a given endeavour. 

While talent is one of the crucial factors, it’s basically meaningless in and of itself. It takes way more than talent to succeed whatever you choose to do. 

People often use talent, or lack thereof, as an excuse as to why some people succeed when most fail. 

As if raw talent is some kind of an ethereal gift that preordained the select few to succeed, and those born without it don’t even need to bother. 

This kind of thinking prevents people from even trying something in the first place. 

What they fail to realize is that honing any skill has more to do with the effort and perseverance over long periods of time, rather than some innate gift. 

Ascribing someone’s success due to some God-given gift is a huge disservice to the amount of effort they must have put in in order to get to where they are.

When it comes to poker, it’s even worse in some sense, because a lot of people believe it’s basically just a game of chance, much like bingo or even the lottery. 

Now, I don’t want to go too deep into the topic of why poker is a game of skill, rather than luck. I’ve written an article a while back on the topic if you want to check it out.

Now, it’s worth mentioning that luck does play a role to an extent in poker. But that can be said for other endeavours as well. 

But to attribute everything to luck is a disservice to the hard work and effort required to achieve extraordinary results. 

Nobody would ever say Michael Jordan won 6 NBA championships because he got lucky. 

2. Forget About Your Poker Winnings and Focus on the Process Instead

Luck plays a role in your poker results over the short term. But over the long run, skill prevails. The problem is, the long run is far longer than most people realize. 

We’re talking tens and thousands of hands played over months, or even years. If you’re only playing a couple of hands over the weekend, it will take you a long time to truly assess your results. 

That’s why professional poker players outrun the short-term luck element involved by putting in a lot of volume. 

Over a large enough sample size, everyone will get their fair share of good and bad cards, respectively. 

What separates the poker pros from the rest of the players, is the fact they maximize their winnings when the cards are falling their way, and lose no more than necessary when they don’t. 

People tend to spin it around saying the reason they lost is because they encountered “bad variance.” But bad variance is only a part of the equation. 

If you encounter a couple of suckouts in a row and your game goes off the rails as a result, and you start spewing chips left and right trying to get even, which causes you to incur even more losses, then guess what? 

It’s your fault.

This is something that Nathan actually talks about in his latest video for all the "unlucky" poker players out there.

While a professional poker player might lose two or three buyins due to bad short-term luck, other players will lose five or ten due to consequent mistakes they’ll start making. 

That’s a textbook example of being overly results oriented, rather than focusing on the quality of your playing and decision making. 

Professional poker players don’t even pay attention to their short-term results. 

They know that they are beating the game over the long run, they are sufficiently bankrolled for the stakes they’re playing, and know that variance goes both ways. 

Sometimes you lose more than you would expect, but you also win more than you expect from time to time. They learn to take the good with the bad. 

Since they know that they will sometimes basically print money against their less skilled competition, they also accept that sometimes they’ll get the short end of the stick. 

But that’s precisely what makes the game profitable in the first place: the fact that everyone thinks they can play and everyone can win. But that’s not the case. 

Poker is a zero-sum game, which means that in order for someone to win, somebody else has to lose. And most people do.

In fact, at least 70% of people who play poker will end up losing overall in the long run. That is the cold hard reality of the game.  

The few that don’t lose aren’t the ones that are inherently luckier than others, but the ones that understand the nature of variance, and make it work for them instead of using it as an excuse for their bad results. 

When things go bad to worse for them, they don’t bemoan their luck and blame the rigged RNG. They wonder in which way they are complicit in their bad results. 

If they realize that variance indeed played a crucial role in their results, they’ll shrug it off and continue playing their best. 

But more often than not, they’ll realize they have made some sort of mistake, and then they’ll do what they can to fix it and not make it again.

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3. Winning Poker Players Constantly Improve Their Knowledge

Everyone has leaks in their game, and nobody is born an expert. 

The ones that did become experts are the ones that went through their whole game with a fine-toothed comb, and actively looked for ways to improve.

In other words, they had humility. Poker is deceptively simple, and it’s easy to assume you have it all figured out, and it’s just a matter of time before you’re playing high stakes or you win a bracelet. 

In fact, I’d argue this is probably one of the biggest reasons most people lose money at poker, period. It often doesn’t have to do with their technical game knowledge. 

With the abundance of poker related material available online these days, everyone can learn pretty much everything there is to know about the winning poker strategy.

The easiest place to start is just to read Crushing the Microstakes for example. It provides a complete step by step strategy for a beginner to get winning quickly.  

But being able to learn something and to actually master it are very different things. Knowledge is difficult. It takes time, dedication, and effort, and there are no shortcuts. 

And the biggest detriment to actually mastering something is thinking you already have it figured out. How can you learn something new if you don’t even think there is something new to learn? 

It’s often the case that the more you learn about a certain topic, the more you realize how much there is to learn, and how little of it you actually know. This is the paradox of knowledge.

This might seem discouraging, because it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the amount of information out there. 

But that’s the first step to becoming an expert. To paraphrase the great Fedor Holz: it’s not about having all the right answers. It’s about asking better questions.

So realizing you don’t have it all figured out is the first step to improvement. Realizing how little you actually have figured out can be outright debilitating, but don’t get discouraged. 

Simply asking a question such as: “what is it that I don’t understand?” can get you on the right track.

And if you want to simply learn from the best poker players in the world, there are tons of excellent high level advanced poker training programs available these days.

Why Some People Win at Poker, But Most Don't (Summary)

So are the few people that manage to win it big inherently luckier than the rest of us mortals?
Well, it could be. 

Luck does play a part in everything you do in life, and poker is no different. You can’t take down a huge poker tournament without a particularly fortunate run of cards, for example.

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But luck is only a part of the equation, and there’s a lot more to being successful than being lucky. 

Ascribing everything to chance is neither true nor helpful, but people tend to use it as an excuse nonetheless.

A better approach would be acknowledging that there is randomness beyond our control, and choosing to focus exclusively on the things we can control. 

In poker, you don’t choose the cards you’re dealt, but you choose how to play them, as well as how to react to them.

Some people do it better than others, and that’s why some people win, while most lose. 

Poker is a zero sum game, so it’s natural for most people to stack at the bottom, i.e. lose money, while most of the money will pour right to the top of the pyramid. 

It’s a law of nature, and there’s no way around it.

The players at the top aren’t inherently luckier than others. They just put far more effort into their game than most people would even consider doing. 

And they didn’t do so for the prospect of getting filthy rich (for the most part, at least). They did so because of their love for the game. The money was just an afterthought.

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Why Some People Win at Poker (But Most Don't)