What percentage of poker is luck versus skill?

Apr 5, 2011 6:00 AM

What is luck? It can be good or bad. Perhaps the best definition is that luck is chance or fortune.

You are fortunate when it’s good. When the cards come your way, you were lucky. Make the nut flush on the river when the card odds were 4-1 against you and it’s luck.

But what if that card also paired the board, and an opponent with a set now has a full-boat and beats you out of a big pot? It cost you lots of chips. Perhaps you weren’t lucky after all.

Influencing luck: We recognize luck as a big factor at the poker table. "What percentage of poker is luck versus skill?" There have been columns written in poker magazines on this question.

Frankly, the question has little meaning. Although, while pulling in a big pot, I have often said "I’d rather be lucky than skilled." That’s meant only to sway my opponents’ mindset to think I’m a lucky player.

Really it was skill. Nevertheless, like it or not, luck does play a big role in success at the poker table. You cannot control the card the dealer places on the board on the river or luck. Who hasn’t experienced the utter frustration of getting "rivered" when holding the best hand up to that point? That was bad luck for you, good fortune for the player who won on the river.

To some extent, though, you can influence luck in your favor. Yes, that’s exactly what I said. You cannot control it, but you can influence luck.

Unlike a lover, smiles and sweet words won’t woo luck in your favor. It’s a matter of skill. Perhaps most important is "reading" your opponent, understanding how he plays hands and what he is most likely holding.

Example: You hold a medium two-pair on the river. In a middle position, thinking you have the best hand, you raised after a bet from a loose-aggressive player to your right. Then the button re-raises!

You have observed her play, knowing she is tight and not prone to bluff. Unless the pot is huge, a fold is the best decision. The player to your right calls so you get to see the showdown. The lady on the button shows her cards. By folding, you were lucky not to lose a bunch of chips. The other player was unlucky have the second-best hand.

Let’s examine another example where you influence luck in your favor. Consider similar circumstances as the previous example, except the player to your right checks to you. Then you bet for value, believing your medium two-pair may be the best hand.

This time the button is a young man who is a deceptive player and prone to bluff. When he raises your bet, you think to yourself: "I know he likes to bluff. What’s the chance he is trying to pull off another bluff?

Based on his previous actions, you guess about 50-50 – a coin flip. Your pot odds are about 8-1, favorable based on your assessment of this player. You would get a Positive Expectation by calling his raise.

You were 100% correct and took a good-size pot another, less skillful, player would have folded. You were lucky! Certainly you didn’t control the cards or your good fortune, but you did influence luck by using your skills in making the correct decision.

You can get lucky. Can you identify an example where you have influenced luck in your favor? Send me a short description of such a hand. The best example will win a copy of the Hold’em Algorithm. The judges are Esther Fayla Epstein (creator of the Esther Bluff) and me.

(Submissions must be received within two weeks after the April 5 publication of GamingToday.) E-mail to [email protected] Include your mailing address. We may publish the winner’s name.