Poker and Luck

By Tom “TIME” Leonard | February 19, 2010

The debate over whether poker is a game of luck or skill has raged on for what seems like forever. The premise that poker is a game of skill is the central issue in attempting to get the UIGEA overturned in the United States or at least having poker exempted. I believe that if you are on this website and reading this article your general feeling is that there is more skill than luck involved in succeeding at the game of poker. Even so, I’m sure you have come into contact with people that are not devotees to poker and believe you to be just a gambler. I always chuckle at these folks because even if it was true – so what, buzz off, mind your own business, take a hike and kiss my something or other!

Many prominent people in the poker industry have weighed in on the issue and have expressed some diverse and entertaining points of view. A top name in tournament circles and a former WSOP main event bracelet winner, who I can’t name but whose initials are Phil Hellmuth (oops), has put forth some opinions on this subject. My favorite Phil Hellmuth quote is “Poker is 100% skill and 50% luck”. Hellmuth has never aspired to win the world’s humility contest as evidenced by his most famous quote on the subject of luck in poker – “If it wasn’t for luck, I guess I’d win every tournament”. My favorite quote on the subject comes from British author Anthony Holden in Big Deal, “Poker is not a form of gambling; on the contrary, gambling is a style of playing poker – a loose and losing style, at that”.

As the debate goes on, many times the general populace lumps poker along side other games of chance such as casino games which have a built in house advantage such as roulette and craps. We should all acquire simple, yet insightful, arguments to defend the game we love from these hooligans that just don’t understand how much skill is really involved. I, Tom “TIME” Leonard, will, in this article, share with you the quintessential answer to the skill versus luck debate when comparing poker, a game of skill, to casino games with their built in house advantage.

We’ll get to the promised quintessential answer but first let’s explore the reasoning in support of the answer. In any game that involves a degree of chance, a player’s knowledge of the underpinnings of the game, coupled with the discipline to control one’s emotions, will enhance the likelihood of prevailing. The primary difference between casino games with built in house edges and playing poker is simply the number of trials embarked upon. In poker, if you are a knowledgeable, disciplined player, the longer you play the better the chances that the short term luck, which is inherent in the game, will flatten out. Conversely, in the play of casino games, the longer you play the more certain it is that you will lose. That is why Las Vegas and other gambling venues have been able to build their Palaces of Chance. The chance part relates to the player not the casino owner. In fact, many of the casino industry’s most popular games only give them a very slight edge but it is the extraordinary number of trials that assures them their profit. In their poker rooms, which are only offered as a necessary accommodation to their client base, they only profit from either cutting the pots or assessing a time charge. They also hope that when you’re done playing poker you will participate in one of the house games.

There is no question that the magnitude of luck in poker is tied to two criteria. One is the number of trials and the other is the skill level of the participant. Weak, undisciplined players must rely on luck because they do not bring enough skill to the table. While one can never beat the casino’s games over the long haul, the same dynamic is at play in terms of your level of knowledge about the game. If you know little about the game and are not disciplined, you will just lose your money much quicker than your knowledgeable counterpart. The difference is the certainty of losing over time. It is the reason there really is no such occupation as a professional roulette or craps player versus a professional poker player.

I promised to share with you the quintessential answer to the luck versus skill debate and here it is. If you are truly a knowledgeable and disciplined poker player, you have to be unlucky to lose, while in a game of pure chance you need to be lucky to win. Certainly there is an element of luck involved in poker and in part that is what makes it so much fun. However, if you continue to work on your game and the skills which are necessary to become a winning poker player, you won’t need to be lucky to win. In fact, as you continue to deepen your knowledge of the game and hone your skills, you will distance yourself from the legions of weak players and you will actually have to be unlucky to lose!

So, the next time a friend, neighbor or family member questions your dedication to the game of poker, implying you might be a degenerate gambler, you now have a reasoned response. If that doesn’t work, you can always just tell them to frig off!

By Tom “TIME” Leonard

Tom has been writing about poker since 1994 and has played across the USA for over 40 years, playing every game in almost every card room in Atlantic City, California and Las Vegas.


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