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The controversy continues: Is poker a game of skill or just plain luck?

Skill is knowing and using all the strategies and tactics essential to going home a winner after your day at the casino. One of my seniors poker group members asked me the big question: “If skill is so important, why do I so often see some of the best players get busted?”

It’s a fair question with a long answer.

There are two kinds of luck: Good luck is when the results are favorable – you win the hand); and bad luck – you lose. In the long run (infinity), everyone gets the same amount of each.

But we are playing poker right now, so the long term doesn’t really matter to us. You have no control over luck. Even praying to the poker gods won’t help. It’s strictly a matter of chance.

You are strictly gambling when you risk money (i.e., make a bet) depending only on chance (i.e., luck). Often it is best to use a familiar analogy when explaining a rather complex situation. For example, you would be foolhardy to invest in a new business venture without a deep understanding of that business and a strong business plan. That would be gambling!

A good player, a smart player, a winning player – he has skill. The more, the better! Playing Texas hold’em, he knows when it is best to call preflop, depending on several factors including rank of his hole cards; whether they are paired-up; suited or connectors; how many opponents are staying to see the flop; whether there has been a raise – or several; the types of players he is opposing; and the table (game) texture.

He knows and uses the Hold’em Caveat when appropriate. After the flop, the skilled player can quickly decide whether to continue in the hand – or fold (saving chips). To do so, with little delay of the game, he easily estimates his card odds and compares it to the pot odds; with a positive expectancy, he is ready to continue in the hand to see the turn and then, perhaps, the river.

There are many other skills. Reading your opponents; using their weaknesses to your advantage; observing and using opponents’ tells – gaining an edge; bluffing, slow-playing, and check-raising when appropriate to build the size of the pot; even deciding when it is best to take a break, change seats at the table, or move to a different table.

The gambler has few of these skills. He is usually a very loose player, investing in hands he should have mucked before the flop; he is prone to chase with only a few outs; he pays little attention to his opponents; some never (or very rarely) bluff – not even a semi-bluff.

Quite often, he fails to consider betting position or his opponents’ traits when making decisions – be they potentially costly or highly profitable. He does not understand the Hold’em Caveat – and doesn’t bother to find out.

While neither the gambler nor the highly skilled player has any control over luck (that’s just a matter of chance – it’s random), the skilled player will make well analyzed decisions so that luck (chance) is less of a factor. That is even more so the case, as the skilled player gains experience and uses his skills to a greater extent.

Getting back to the original question, even with a highly positive expectancy – pot odds much higher than his card odds – don’t be surprised if the highly skilled player still prays to the poker gods. Variance – the inevitable ups and downs – is inherent within the game of poker.

No one has control of the cards. The more skilled the player, the more he can influence chance. But, influence is not control.

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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