Skilled poker players will hit the right hands eventually
July 12, 2016 3:00 AM
by Elliot Frome
Many, many years ago, in a former career that I had (as a senior director of IT for a Fortune 50 company), a colleague remarked to my boss how it was better to be lucky than good.
To be clear, she was talking about work. I remember my boss telling me about this conversation and needing to be calmed down. That boss, who is still a good friend of mine, is a person I consider to be one of the very best at what he does. The notion that someone would rather be less skilled but lucky drove him nuts.
Quite frankly, it didn’t do much for me either.
In the roughly two decades since that conversation happened, I’ve found myself thinking about that phrase many, many times. Usually, when some piece of dumb luck comes my way. I’m dealt four Deuces on the top line of a Multi-Strike game and I’m thinking how “lucky” I was. But, this really isn’t luck.
I’ve played thousands of hands of video poker (potentially millions by now). I’m going to get dealt some Four of a Kinds off the deal. It is going to happen. Now, perhaps it was a bit fortuitous that it was Deuces in a Double Double game on the top line of Multi-Strike as my number of hands on that game is far smaller. But, even that is not completely luck.
It is possible the only reason I still have a bankroll at the point I’m dealt this hand is due to the skill I use in the prior hundreds (or thousands) of hands. So, in the end, perhaps what I’m really thinking about is how my skill helped to bring about this short term incident of luck. Couldn’t this then be the case for everybody? Is luck a component of skill?
I think the answer to this is “no.” Gambling is part luck, especially in the short run. Even the best poker player might get beat in a hand by someone who by all reasonable poker playing should fold early, but chooses to make the call and winds up pulling some absolutely absurd Turn and River cards.
Over time, the better poker player will prevail. You can’t make stupid call after stupid call and get away with it. Most times you’ll get burned and lose your bankroll. Once in a while, you’ll just get lucky despite your skill or lack of it.
Earlier, I used the example of being dealt Quad Deuces on the fourth line of a Double Double Multi-Strike game. But what if, instead of being dealt the Quad Deuces, I get them on a draw? What if I was dealt a garbage hand, appropriately discarded all five cards and then drew the four Deuces? What if, instead of doing this, I just to keep a 3-Card Inside Straight that was part of the mess of a hand I was dealt? I’m never dealt those Four Deuces as a result.
In this case, my choices would be to play the hand the right way and get rewarded with the Four Deuces. This is hardly the average hand I would expect to draw, but it is part of the expected value calculation that drives us to discard all five cards. Similarly, I could play the hand the wrong way, and in essence, get punished for doing so by not being dealt the Four of a Kind. Of course, I’ll never know this is what happened.
Now, perhaps the end result of me holding that 3-Card Straight is I’m dealt the Straight. Now I’ve been rewarded (but not as strongly) for doing the wrong thing. A single Straight will not leave me with much of an impression, but what if playing the hand the wrong way leads to a big win? What if I choose to hold a single Jack over a Pair of 2’s and I wind up drawing a Royal Flush?
It is this situation that brings me back to the true essence of the conversation from two decades ago. Would you rather be a player who makes all the wrong moves and have it turn out great or would you rather be a player who knows how to play the game?
At the moment you hold that Jack at the expense of a Low Pair and wind up with a Royal, you’d rather be lucky than be good. But, few things in life are that short term. If you’re a regular video poker player (or any type of gambler), in the long run you’ll be better off learning how to play the game the right way instead of relying on dumb luck to save you from yourself.