Readers weigh in on luck versus skill in poker

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My recent column in Gaming Today from May 1 about how skills remain essential to real Poker brought some feedback.

Reader Jay Bingham disagrees with me. A life-long Californian, soon-to-be 60, he has been playing poker since his youth. With a college degree majoring in finance, he is quite familiar with probabilities and statistics that are so important in the game of poker.

Referring to my column, he suggests that, “Poker, like many things in life, is an 80/20 exercise.” Eighty percent of a player’s results are a matter of luck. Yes, luck (chance) is a big factor. But I don’t think it accounts for anywhere near 80 percent of the results.

If that were the case, when you add in the cost-to-play, hardly anyone would ever win in a casino. As a matter of fact, I have observed that some players do win more often than others, suggesting that skill must be playing a significant role.

For example, they realize that poker is a game of variance — ups and downs. Thus, the smart/skilled player will “quit while he is ahead.” That’s not a matter of luck.

Here’s another way to look at it:

Imagine a chart with a horizontal line representing time. Luck can be depicted as a sine wave, the area above the horizontal representing good luck, and below the horizontal, representing bad luck, both areas being equal. In the long run, luck — good and bad — evens out. Be patient.

On the other hand, skill is always above the horizontal; the level depends on degree of skill. As a player hones his skills, the level increases with time. Superimposing the skills level on the luck sine wave, the skills level reduces the negative impact bad luck, while enhancing good luck.

The greater your skill level, the less you lose when bad luck strikes; and the more you win when good luck is with you.

How skill helps — here are some examples:

• The skilled player recognizes a mistake (none of us is perfect), and won’t repeat it.

• When he catches a monster hand, he knows how to build his pot.

• He knows when it is a good time to bluff or semi-bluff; and he uses the Esther Bluff to enhance its effectiveness.

• Starting-hand selection is a vital skill.  Unskilled players are too anxious to play the game, and call to see the flop much too often. Most likely, they are not aware of the Hold’em Algorithm or charts that help select starting hands depending on many factors.

• The skilled player often relies on the concept of pot odds vs. card odds to decide when it is best to muck his hand or call a bet/raise.

• He often “reads” his opponents and looks for their tells.

• With a marginal drawing hand, the skilled player relies on the Hold’em Caveat, giving him an edge over his unskilled opponents.

• He understands that table and seat selection can make a big difference.

• The skilled player focuses his attention on the poker game and the players at the table, not the football game being shown on the big TV screen up on the wall.

In short, the unskilled player usually relies on luck and is destined to be a loser. The skilled player constantly hones his skills, and is bound to enhance his results over time.

Indeed, there are so many skills that can help to overcome the luck factor, it is hard to justify Jay Bingham’s 80/20 percent luck-to-skill ratio. That ratio could well apply for unskilled players, but certainly not for those well skilled in the game.  The same applies in business and life.

The bottom line is, as the smart player gains greater poker skills, he is bound to win more frequently — and win bigger pots when he holds the best hand. I dare say, he will win considerably more than 20 percent of the time.

After sending a draft of this column to Jay, he had several quite pertinent comments which we will discuss in Part II.

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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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