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Part 2

Skill versus luck… In Part I, we discussed business tycoon Sheldon Adelson’s strong rhetoric, claiming poker is primarily a game of luck while skill plays a “negligible role.” On that basis, poker would be regarded as just another form of gambling. I am sure most good poker players do not agree. In fact, skill plays a major role.

I responded to Adelson’s perception in a broad sense, to the effect skill is what makes the difference between winning and losing over the long run.

Yes, luck does play an important role, but it is skill that makes the big difference. Any game or activity becomes strictly a gamble when luck is the dominating factor.

This applies to business ventures and other endeavors as well as the game of poker. Did you know eight out of 10 new businesses fail within the first 18 months? Their leaders likely lacked the essential skills.

To help prove our point, we cited two court cases wherein, after considering all the evidence and facts, each of the courts ruled skill predominates in the game of poker. Otherwise, how could so many people make a living playing the game?

In that regard, did you know Jason Mercier has finished among the top ten in WSOP tournaments 18 times in the past nine years, including five first places? 

It has to be more than sheer luck.

Without skill, there is only luck; and that would be just plain gambling. To go one step further, I promised to provide a detailed explanation in support of our unfettered belief that poker is, in fact, a game of skill.

First, understand that skill is expertise in a special field, a high degree of proficiency – like that of a doctor, a professional athlete, or a successful businessman. Adelson is very successful because of his business acumen – his skill. Likewise, there are many highly successful poker players.

I agree with Adelson that luck is a significant factor at the poker table – just as it is in making investments or other endeavors. As he says, you cannot control luck; but, I would interject, you can control how you play your cards and interact with your opponents. In so doing, the savvy (well-skilled) player makes the decisions and takes appropriate actions that substantially reduce the significance of the luck factor.

A couple of years ago, I developed a math model for the game of poker. (This model could also be applied to other competitive endeavors.) Luck is either good or bad, more or less so; in the long run, everyone gets his fair share.

It’s like a sine wave passing over and under a horizontal line, representing time. Superimposed on this is skill. At the beginning, the player has little or no skill – so he loses consistently, except when he gets lucky. As he studies and gains experience over time, his skills increase. Add skill and luck together, and skill is bound to predominate in the long run. (We are neglecting the cost-to-play, if there is any.)

In the final part of this series, we will explore the factors that define the highly skilled poker player. What are the major skills one must develop in order to overcome luck and achieve long-term success (i.e., win) at the poker table?

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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