Luck or skill? Debate grows

Luck or skill? Debate grows

February 27, 2018 3:00 AM


Is poker a game of luck or skill? That’s a question many people often ask themselves. If you have been a consistent loser at the tables, undoubtedly poker is all about luck. If you just suffered a couple of bad-beats, you are even more certain of that.

To my mind, luck is plain old chance. It’s a random event over which no one has any control – not even the dealer. Luck is positive – good luck – when it’s in your favor and, hence, to your benefit. You win the pot. The opposite extreme is negative – bad luck; that can only cost you chips.

My co-columnist, George “The Engineer” Epstein once wrote an article arguing against mega-rich casino mogul Sheldon Adelson’s viewpoint that poker is only a game of luck. Adelson would not consider skill as a significant factor.

My poker buddy, Lucy, and I discussed the matter over lunch the other day. We agree with George, skill and luck run side-by-side; both are important in determining how well you do at the poker table. While no one can control luck (chance), with skill, we can influence it. As we ate, I made a list of the various skills we discussed:

• Starting hand selection is a vital skill. Have suitable criteria.

• Seat selection and position can be very important; be aware and ready to change when appropriate.

• Know your opponents – tight or loose, passive or aggressive, calling-stations, chasers. You can learn a lot about how they plan to play the two cards just dealt to them by simply looking for tells as they first peek at their hole cards; just look to your left. Then, at the showdown, pay attention to the hole cards they turn up. Note their positions. What does that tell you about the hands they play?

• Thin the field by raising when you start with a made hand. (Then an opponent who would have got lucky and rivered you, is out of the hand. Lucky you!)

• With a drawing hand after the flop, always seek a Positive EV – pot odds higher than your card odds. (In the long run, that’s bound to make you a winner.)

• Be deceptive when you want to build the pot while holding a monster. Learn how and when to slow-play, trap, and check-raise.

• Bet for value when appropriate.

• Skill in bluffing and semi-bluffing are essential. When doing so, always use the Esther Bluff (as described in Epstein’s The Art of Bluffing).

• Never chase with a drawing hand with five or fewer outs. Then your card odds are bound to be much higher than the pot odds. (Lucy commented: “Only losers would do that.”)

• Pay attention to the game – not to the big football game being shown on the wall TV; and don’t drink alcoholic beverages. Don’t play – risking your money – when you are tired. Take a break or go home.

As George says, using these skills is bound to give you an edge over your opponents. That’s how skill can influence luck. But, first you have to learn the skills. That takes considerable time and effort. When was the last time you read – better yet, studied – a good poker book? The higher the stakes for which you play, the more important is that advice.

Later that day, Lucy phoned me. She had been thinking about our discussion. “Another skill,” she said, “is the ability to be optimistic even as the cards are going against you. That will help you avoid going on tilt – bound to cause you to lose.” She quoted J. Harold Wilkins (1923-1993) who played prominent leadership roles in several states: “The world of achievement has always belonged to the optimist.”