Why Some People Think Poker is All Luck (Sad Truth!)

Why Some People Think Poker is All Luck

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

If you’ve ever told a family member or an acquaintance that you play poker, you probably got a mixed bag of reactions. 

Poker sometimes gets a bad rep in our society, and while you won’t be immediately ostracized if you say you play it, you’ll still run into a lot of people with quite strong (usually negative) opinions on your favourite pastime. 

One of the main objections you’re likely to hear is the perils of gambling, and how it leads to debt, financial ruin, homelessness and what have you. 

If you tried explaining how poker is actually a game of skill and not “technically gambling,” your arguments have probably fallen on deaf ears.

This will be followed by a story about a friend of a friend’s relative who lost his house and wife because of his love affair with slot machines.

This article will take a closer look at why some people insist on poker being a game of pure dumb luck, and why convincing them otherwise is usually quite ineffective.

1. What Makes Poker a Game of Skill, Rather Than Luck?

A game of skill, as the name suggests, is the one where a desired outcome (i.e. winning the game) depends on the player's mental or physical skill.

This is in stark contrast to games of chance, where the outcome is random and outside of the player's control. 

A game of chance uses a randomizing device, such as a roulette wheel, dice, and shockingly, a deck of cards. 

Since poker is played with a deck of cards, it’s easy to assume it’s just a game of chance, and most people do. 

But that’s not really a sophisticated argument. 

There are other card games that are essentially skill games, such as Magic: The Gathering or Hearthstone, even though they also have a luck element involved. 

So the distinction between games of skill and games of chance is not always easy to make. 

What makes something a skill game is that the outcome of the game is mainly the consequence of skill, and a game of chance is the one where the outcome is mainly determined by chance. 

For example: 

You can use your skill to play a hand like Ace King the perfect optimal way as Nathan discussed in his latest video.

Or you can choose to play your Ace King poorly due to a lack of skill. It is always your choice.

Basically, all games exist on a spectrum within the two extremes. Some games are more skill based, while others are more chance based. 

Then there are games that are entirely based on luck, such as roulette. There’s no strategy involved with it whatsoever, and the outcome of the roulette wheel spin is entirely outside of your control. 

Also, the casino always has an edge over the players, making the roulette a game with negative expected value. This means that if you keep playing long enough, you will inevitably go broke at some point.

Poker also has a short term luck element involved, but unlike roulette or dice, players have more control over the outcome of a given hand, because their actions are what actually determines the outcome to an extent. 

While you can’t control what cards you're being dealt, you can decide whether or not to play them, how to play them, how much to bet and so on. 

Since not all cards have the exact same chance of winning (i.e. some cards are obviously better than others), and since no two players will play the same way, there will be differences between the outcomes of a given hand.

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If we go back to the starting definition of a skill game, we can conclude that players are in control of the outcome based on the decisions they make. This makes poker a skill game by definition.

Think of it this way: 

Can you deliberately lose playing roulette or dice? You can’t. Even if you try, you can still end up winning because the outcome is totally random.

But can you deliberately lose playing poker? 

Hell yes. 

It might take you a while, because even if you try to lose, you might “get lucky” for a while, but if you keep at it, you can lose all your money fairly quickly. 

This means that there are better and worse ways of playing poker. If you can deliberately lose, you can also deliberately win if you employ the right strategy.

2. Luck Does Play a Role in Poker, But Only in the Short Term

That’s not to say you will win every time, of course. 

Due to the nature of variance, you’re bound to lose sometimes. Poker is designed in a way that players can sometimes win against the odds.

This is what makes the game of poker so exciting, because even total beginners have a chance of winning even against world class professionals. That’s never the case in other competitive arenas, such as sports. 

If you play a game of one-on-one basketball against LeBron James, all the luck in the world isn’t going to help you. You will lose 100% of the time, no exceptions.

But if you play a game of heads-up poker against Phil Ivey, who knows? You might just win from time to time. 

Keep playing long enough against him, on the other hand, and you will inevitably go broke, and again, all the luck in the world isn’t going to help you. 

There’s a reason there are players like Phil Ivey in the world. He’s not one of the luckiest poker players in the world, he’s one of the most skilled players. 

Over the long run, very few players will have extraordinary results from poker. Most of the players will in fact, be long term losers in the game. 

And yes, this is even despite the fact that there is more advanced poker training programs and great poker software tools available than ever before. 

Most people still won't win in the end.

If poker was all luck though, everyone would have more or less the same results over the long run, because the “luck factor” would be evenly distributed among the population. 

Since that’s not the case, we can only infer that luck does not play a key role in poker results over the long run.

With all that said, it doesn’t mean that luck plays absolutely no role in poker whatsoever. Some poker formats have more variance built into the structure, and the skill edges are less pronounced. 

This means the short term luck element will play more of a factor in your day to day results. 

For example, tournaments have more variance than cash games, and no-limit poker has more variance than limit poker. 

So in some formats it takes far longer for the skill edge to fully manifest. You can’t win a huge poker tournament without a particularly lucky run of cards, no matter how good a poker player you are.

Still, just because skill edges are smaller in some formats, they still exist, and as long as you have an edge in certain games, no matter how small, you’ll eventually come out on top.

And if you play online poker, you can even use a good free poker HUD to get an even bigger edge.

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3. Why Do People Still Think Poker is All Luck, Then?

So if poker is a skill game, why do people still insist it’s just pure gambling?

Well, that question sort of answers itself. Poker is still gambling, no matter how you slice it. Players are still wagering a certain amount of money on uncertain outcomes. 

It doesn’t matter some people do so based on math and probabilities, and others based on hunches and superstition. 

Besides, even if you consciously know poker is all about skill in the long run, it’s hard to think so in a moment where a fish sucks out on you for the umpteenth time in a row. 

But as frustrating it can be, anything that is statistically possible can and will happen over enough iterations. 

Keep playing long enough, and you’ll even get a royal flush, even though it’s statistically unlikely.

The point is, people have a very poor grasp on statistics as a general rule, unless their jobs happen to involve dabbling with numbers and all that math magic.

This is why I recently wrote an entire "cheat sheet" ultimate guide to poker odds. 

For the rest of us mortals, it can be hard to wrap our heads around some concepts like probabilities, variance, law of large numbers and all that jazz. 

Since these concepts are hard to explain, they’re obviously even harder to understand for someone who has very limited previous knowledge on the subject, and very little interest to figure it out. 

Add to it the prejudices people might have about gambling in general, it’s no wonder people think poker is all luck.

When it comes to playing cards, the image of a cold, detached person carefully weighing the risk and reward and making decisions based on odds and probabilities isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. 

When  most people play cards, they do so because they primarily want to have fun, and most poker players are no different. 

In fact, following the fundamental winning poker strategy can be outright boring at times. There’s not really any other game you can win by not playing 80% of the time. 

Yet, that’s what it takes to win. 

Patience and perseverance. It’s also a skill like any other, and like other skills, some people will just be better at it than others. It has very little to do with luck. 

Is It Even Possible to Convince Someone That Poker is a Game of Skill? (Final Thoughts)

So if someone still believes poker is just pure gambling, is there a way to convince them otherwise? 

Well, as with all things poker, it depends. 

If someone is dead set on their beliefs, no matter how misguided they may be, trying to convince them otherwise will often have the exact opposite effect. 

In order to convince someone, they need to be willing to listen, and if they won’t, there’s nothing you can really do about it. 

If someone is willing to listen, on the other hand, just spitting out “facts and logic” is rarely the right recipe to change one’s mind. 

If someone doesn’t have a slightest clue about variance, and you aren’t sure you can explain it clearly yourself, it’s best not to reach for that argument at all. 

You’ll confuse them at best, and sound pretentious at worst. 

A better way is to listen to the objections they might have, and address them in a respectful way. This means not being preachy and sounding like you know better than them, even though you might. 

If you want someone to understand your point of view, you need to understand where they’re coming from as well. Try to understand that first, and explain later.

Now, even if you do so, it doesn’t guarantee that your conversation partner will get it. There’s nothing that can really be done about it. 

As a poker player, you already know that you have to pick your battles. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. All you can do is to smile through and keep on playing.

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Why Some People Think Poker is All Luck