Ways to flip poker luck into poker skill

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Previous columns challenged business tycoon Sheldon Adelson’s claim that luck is the major factor in playing poker, and skill plays only a “negligible role,” rendering poker just a form of gambling. In response, I provided indisputable evidence and logic to prove skill is the key factor, as ruled in two significant court cases, plus a math model showing the interaction between luck and skill.

Now, let’s examine the essential skills in overcoming the luck factor to be a winning poker player – not a gambler.


Know your opponents; “read” their hands. Paying close attention to the poker game rather than watching the football game on the TV screen, the skilled player can better learn his opponents’ playing traits – tight, loose, passive, aggressive, calling-station, deceptive; so, he has a better idea of what hands they might hold and how they would likely bet. That information gives him an edge. Luck becomes less important.

The skilled player looks for inadvertent tells from his opponents. Then he can make wiser decisions. He avoids drinking liquor at the poker table. Let the others do it to their heart’s content. A clear mind is essential. His skill reduces the luck factor.

Starting-hand Selection

Preflop, the skilled player uses the Hold’em Algorithm (or an equivalent process) to decide whether to invest in each hand dealt to him. Avoiding poor starting-hands, he is less likely to lose – less dependent on luck.

In addition to the strength of his holecards, he considers his betting position, whether there have been any raises, the number of opponents staying to see the flop, the types of players involved and the game texture. He looks to his left for tells before betting. That’s skill – not luck.

Consider the Risk

Like a successful businessman, the skilled poker player takes appropriate steps to reduce risk. Example: Having been dealt a made hand (A-A, K-K, or Q-Q), he bets/raises to reduce the number of opponents staying to see the flop – preferably not over three. Then his hand more likely will hold up to the river. It’s a matter of inviolable statistical probability. Toward that end, he uses the Esther Bluff or similar psychological tactic. That’s skill – not luck.

Positive Expectation

Post-flop, the skilled player often estimates the card odds and pot odds to decide whether to invest further in that hand. He is seeking a Positive Expectation – a return-on-investment. Likewise, he might use the money odds to increase his winnings. Pure skill.

Build the Pot

A skilled player knows how to build the pot size when catching a monster hand. Instead of betting – and forcing out opponents – he is skilled at deception, using tactics such as slow-playing and check-raising to build “his” pot, thereby increasing his profit. There’s no luck there.


Bluffing can permit the skilled player to win pots while holding a “losing hand.” (Perhaps he was drawing to a big flush, and did not connect.)

The Esther Bluff tactic is a powerful tool for reinforcing his bluff – getting into his opponent’s mind. (Ref. “The Art of Bluffing”) Knowing your opponent’s playing traits, and “reading” his hand, helps too. The semi-bluff is another strategy that can pay off handsomely. That’s skill – not luck!

Don’t Chase

Skilled players avoid chasing with a drawing hand that has only a few outs or is likely dominated by an opponent. That would be costly. They don’t depend on getting lucky.


There are many reasons for raising. It’s more than just a matter of building your pot or forcing out opponents. Skilled players understand all of these – thirteen in all – and use them to their advantage. That’s skill – not luck.

Free Cards

Skilled players know how to get a “free card” with a mediocre hand, while making their opponents pay to play. Skill – not luck.

These are some of the ways to render luck less significant, making poker more akin to wise investing – rather than gambling. Skill makes the difference.

I hope Sheldon Adelson is listening.

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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