Luck vs skill debate in poker may go on forever

Luck vs skill debate in poker may go on forever

February 21, 2017 3:00 AM


Apparently, we will never end the luck-versus-skill controversy at the poker table.

The other day at the casino, a player seated beside me complained that poker was just a matter of luck. Staring at me, he emphatically stated, “You need to have good luck to be a winner.”

The way he was playing – and losing – he did indeed need lots of good luck to go home a winner. A terrible player, he paid to see the flop almost every hand. He was just plain gambling.

Where was his skill? – Knowing when to stay to see the flop or mucking his hole cards; knowing when to raise; reading his opponents. I could go on.

In the broad sense, skill is proficiency – the ability to make wise decisions. To accomplish this, it is important to gather as much pertinent information as possible, and to consider all of the key factors. If your sole focus is on your own hole cards – without considering your opponents’ likely hands, without any regard for betting position relative to each opponent, without looking for their tells – then you are relying solely on chance (luck). Wishful thinking won’t win many pots.

Skill allows you to avoid the losing hands – those most likely to be second-best at the showdown. Holding a drawing hand, skill helps you to avoid chasing – investing your chips with just a few decent outs (a Negative Expectation) – bound to be a loser in the long run.

For example, with 10-9 offsuit in the hole, PokerPigeon calls to see the flop from a middle position, with no raises. OK so far. He and three others see the flop: 8-6-K rainbow. The Small Blind, a fairly tight player, opens the betting. The Big Blind, a loose-aggressive player, raises. A skilled player would put one or both on a pair of Kings; but, Pigeon considers only his own cards: He has a draw to an inside straight.

Pairing his 10 or 9 on the turn or river is not likely to win the pot for him. But he never thinks about his chances. Instead, he quickly calls the two-bet to see the turn, hoping for a 7 to fill his straight. With only four good outs, he is chasing. He never considers that, with just four outs, the odds of connecting on the turn for the 10-high straight are about 11-to-1 against him.

Meanwhile, his pot odds are less than 4-to-1. He has a huge Negative Expectation. The potential rewards are too small to warrant taking the risk. He is strictly chasing. (Maybe he also prays to the poker gods.) Chasers are losers.

With a drawing hand, skill helps you avoid chasing – investing your chips with just a few decent outs (a Negative Expectation). Then, too, skill allows you to maximize the size of the pot when you catch a monster hand, one almost certain to be the best. And it helps you to be more successful when you bluff.

What’s more, it takes skill to avoid going on tilt when opponents river you hand after hand – to keep your “cool.” Without these skills, a player is relying on luck (chance) – and is almost certain to be a loser.

No one can control luck (chance), but the more skills you have, the less likely bad luck will do you in. Work on improving your poker skills at whatever poker game and stakes you play. While they share many skills, limit and no-limit games are quite different. Concentrate on developing the skills for your game of choice.

Skills reduce the significance of the luck factor! Don’t depend on luck to ride to your rescue.