Better to be good than lucky at the poker table

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You may recall from last week’s column that GT reader Jay Bingham, a long-time, highly experienced California poker player, originally had emailed me about his disagreement with my viewpoint as to the relationship between skill and luck in the game of poker as expressed in my May 1 column in Gaming Today (“Skills remain essential to real poker,” in which I was comparing Video Poker to games like hold’em that involve competition against other poker players seated at the table).   

In response to Jay’s comments, I wrote Part I of this debate, wherein I took exception to his statement that “Poker (like many things in life) is an 80/20 exercise.”  Eighty percent of a player’s results are a matter of luck, he explained.

Certainly, I agree that luck is a big factor, but I doubt that it accounts for anywhere near 80 percent of the results in the long run. 

Subsequently, Jay modified his original statement, explaining that, “Poker is often as much about luck as it is about skill (so 50:50, 1:1 ratio) even in the long run.” Then, he added, “the analysis of luck and skill in poker is intricately linked to the situations in play . . .  There is not one fixed skill:luck ratio that can be used across all situations.

“There are times when skill predominates. . . and times when luck rules,” he explains.

On this we agree.  What’s more, even when the card odds make you a huge favorite, the unexpected may happen at any time, and your last remaining opponent catches one of the few outs he has.  

When that occurs on the river, we refer to your having been “rivered.”  Don’t blame it on the dealer. Like you, he has no control over the cards. Just call it very bad luck; and get ready for the next hand. Most important, at that point, do not go on tilt. (That would only make matters worse for you.)

Not to change the subject, turning to a related matter, Jay adds:

“No player will ever play enough hands (even online players playing dozens of tables at a time) to put a scratch in poker’s large numbers. Live players, even after decades of play, will still be at substantial risk to encounter never-before-seen runs of bad cards for months on end. I believe this is a big part of why you see so many poker pros go broke after years and years of profitable play.

“They relied on two highly suspect propositions: (1) that the skills they had developed were sufficient to wrestle luck to the ground (partially because that’s what others in the poker community constantly say is doable); and, (2) that they felt tens of thousands of hands, nay hundreds of thousands (millions even) ought to be enough to smooth out all those pesky luck issues . . . as if poker’s large numbers should bow before a decade or two of play. The ‘long run’ is well-beyond a human lifetime. For humans, poker is and shall always remain a high-variance game.”

Then he offers a very wise comment: “But if you regularly target (prey?) on those less skilled than you in poker, you can make money nonetheless.”

Jay makes another interesting comment. He suggests we devote some space to “luck factors.” These are issues strictly related to luck, which I believe is just a matter of chance, over which no one has control.

That’s an interesting idea. I told Jay I would be inclined to devote a full column to “Luck factors” if he would provide a list of these. Meanwhile, I appreciate the time and effort Jay has made, and have arranged to send him a signed copy of my book, “The Art of Bluffing.”  I invite your comments on our “debate” over skill vs. luck. 

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About the Author

George Epstein

A retired engineer, George Epstein is the author of “The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!” and “Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision.” He teaches poker courses and conducts a unique Poker Lab at the Claude Pepper Senior Center under the auspices of the City of Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks and at West Los Angeles College.

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