Luck vs Skill in Poker...

Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English lucke, from Middle Dutch luc; akin to Middle High German gelücke luck
1 a : a force that brings good fortune or adversity
b : the events or circumstances that operate for or against an individual
2 : favoring chance

Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English skil, from Old Norse, distinction, knowledge; probably akin to Old English scylian to separate, sciell shell -- more at SHELL
1 obsolete : CAUSE, REASON
2 a : the ability to use one's knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance
b : dexterity or coordination especially in the execution of learned physical tasks
3 : a learned power of doing something competently : a developed aptitude or ability (language skills)

Much has been discussed about luck vs. skill and how it applies to poker in the blogosphere. I first was put onto the discussion by visiting Biggestron’s blog, where he was commenting on Jordan’s post of luck versus skill. It sounds as if Jordan had really initiated the conversation. Sounds of a suckout blog and F-Train also addressed the issue. On a related note, The Cards Speak broke down successful habits of online players. All these are great reads, by the way. I would also like to “try” to address this whole luck versus skill issue as I see it. I admit I am in slightly over my head with this, but I am going to give it a try.

I am not sure that the “is poker a game of luck or skill problem” is one that has a consistent answer. First, is it the question appropriately posed “is poker either a game of chance (luck) or is it a game of skill?” If posed that way, we cannot answer that question one way or the other with absolute certainty. Poker could be a game of “skill” generally speaking, however if you put ten drunken idiots in a room for a diaper party, none of which have played more than five hands lifetime, there’s not going to be a lot of skill, yet you will see mad skills if the ten greatest players in the world gathered for a game of high stakes poker. These games are close to opposite extremes. I would contend that the high stakes “mostly skilled” game will feature “some” luck. The drunken game would perhaps also demonstrate a bit of skill, as one person, while not skilled in poker, may be a well-established bullshit artist and can knock someone off his or her hand. Bluffing is a skill. Therefore, I guess it (skill vs. chance or luck) cannot be an “either or” problem, thus the statement: “Poker is a game of pure (luck, chance, or skill)” cannot be accurate.

What could be accurate is to say, “Poker is a game of skill with a bit of chance (luck),” or maybe even “poker is a game of luck with some skill.” How do we know which is accurate? Additionally, can we measure to what degree luck comes into play and to what degree it is skilled? How much of an advantage does a skilled player have over a lucky one, or is it the other way around?

At the top of this entry, I put in the definitions of luck and skill, as defined by Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, further defining luck and skill. We determined that poker is not a game of only luck or only skill, so can we measure just how much luck and how much skill the game contains? Let us try.

Each player is dealt two hole cards, which come to us via chance or luck. A round of betting occurs, which I would define as a skilled moment, as the skilled player will take into consideration his or her hole cards that have came (by luck or chance), his or her position, the table make-up, chip stack, blind sizes, etc. A “good” player will consider all of this when determining whether to continue playing, as well as how to play. He will be aware of his opposition and understand what he needs to do to get the ideal situation for his hand to stand the best chance of winning. For purposes of this exercise, let us say a “skilled” player is at a short-handed, 6-max donkey infested table (mostly players who are not terribly skilled). Our player gets aces under the gun. He knows that action behind him has been heavy, often with people limping, and whoever has the button raising the minimum, because “that’s what you do on the button.” So, we go limp limp, raise, fold, call (BB) and action comes back around. Player suspects he can steal or isolate right here by going all-in, but also knows that even the luckiest of people will know for certain, even those who lack skill, if he all-ins. He instead figures putting in a strong re-raise, he can isolate to heads up or three handed and extract more chips post-flop. UTG hero puts in a reraise of six times the blind and the button calls, “because he’s on the button,” and the big blind is committed, so he also calls, “because he was in the big blind and called one raise, so why not.”

The “chance” flop comes. We will say it comes 2-7-9 rain bowed and misses everyone. The big blind checks, because the flop misses him. The hero also checks, because he is certain the button will bet, “because that’s what the unskilled button does.” Additionally, he feels comfortable that he can give a free card without being hurt. If by chance the button bets out, UTG is confident the big blind will no more than call, and there is a chance to get those extra chips in before putting the re-raise in to isolate heads up. UTG checks. Button bets out, putting in a bet that is 1/8th the pot. BB calls cleanly, because he already has money in the pot, and it is cheap, never once thinking about what the next player is going to do. The skilled player decides he can afford to be three handed, so he puts in a slight reraise, roughly ½ the pot. The button calls, as does the big blind, who now does not want to be left out.

Turn card, by chance brings a queen, making the board 2-7-9-Q, all rainbowed now. The big blind bets out hard, sliding all-in. The skilled player thinks for a bit, rather certain the queen helped the big blind. He would not likely have bet unless it helped him. Thinking of the logical hand ranges, BB “could” have AQ or KQ or QJ, but would have re-raised preflop, or at least looked more confident in calling. He is not good at hiding his emotions preflop. He is unlikely to be on a straight draw, as we do not think he would notice that yet. We will confidently put him on Qx, of which x could equal ten, 9, 8, 7,6,5,4,3,2 with great confidence. We have not seen three queens (believing one is in his hand). There is 4 tens, eights, sixes, fives, fours, and threes not seen, and 3 nines, sevens, and twos not seen. It is more likely that he has one queen and another card, probably suited, no danger of a flush and little danger of a straight, if in fact we are correct in our quick analysis. It is more likely, given the incomplete information we have that we are still ahead. We all have equal amount of chips to make this simple in calculation of luck versus skill, so we make the call.

The button folds because we called. The small blind turns over Queen-four suited. A king hit’s the river and we take the hand down. The button reveals he had king-two not suited. We sit confident that even if the BB lucked out and hit his hand, we skillfully manipulated the situation surrounding the round that we got in the most ideal set of circumstances to allow our hand the chance to hold up. We understand aces play better against few opponents. Had we held the other hands (K-2 not suited, or Q-4s) and faced the move the UTG made, we would have released our hand, even if we were representing.

Even if the board had changed to QJ10 all suited to one of our cards and a ten on the turn(say we have kings this time), we have sufficient outs to make a call, knowing that 1 king gives us the nut straight flush, three other kings give us the straight, another ten or one of the two aces gives us a boat. We understand how luck comes into play, and through our actions and posture at the table, we manipulate others into “giving us our way” to allow chance to work in our favor… or at least to not work against us.

If broken down, we have a moment of chance (deal), a round of skill (action), a moment of chance (flop), a round of skill (action), a moment of chance (turn), a round of skill (action), a moment of chance (river), a round of skill (action), and then the showdown (the sum of the universe of chance and skill in this particular hand). This gives us each four chance moments and four skill moments, assuming a hand plays out completely. If calculated by completed hands, we see eight rounds, four chance, and four skill. Is this indicative that luck and skill are 50-50 in poker? I guess that would be the case IF every willing player played every hand from flop to showdown. However, as we saw in the three-handed example above, one player dropped out. Ironically, he “would have been” the one to benefit by chance or luck had he stayed in and called the all-in bet. The skilled player knew “if I call, he probably will not, because he does not know any better.” We think that he thinks that one of us has him beat and it would be incorrect to be three handed and all-in. We also suspect if we had folded, he would have called because “we can’t let him steal now, can we?” Essentially, the skilled player understands how his hand best plays from the position he is in, against the opposition he is up against, with the stack he and everyone else has, and he puts together a strategy to give him the “best chance” of a hand holding up. His presence and mindset at the table reduces the luck factor.

Could we say that despite an equal number of chance occurrences compared to skill opportunities per complete hand, there is more time during the action or skill round, so we can accurately measure the game as being “more skilled” because there’s more time spent on the skill aspect, whereas the luck portion only lasts the duration of the blink of an eye? I would say no to this problem. Although, during the luck flop, turn, and river, even preflop, my eyes are not on the board. Instead, I am looking at my opposition’s reaction to what they are seeing (note: irrelevant in online poker).

So still, we cannot demonstrate “exactly” how much luck versus how much skill a game of poker contains. We might be able to deduce, however, that the longer a game lasts, the less effect luck has on a given hand. Let us keep it simple, and conclude so far that poker is 50% luck and 50% skill. The next problem arises; can a skilled player also be a lucky player?

I do not have to look too far for that result. I consider myself a skilled player. Last night during the shark tournament, I became short-stacked on a garbage hand where the lucky player prevailed. I was dealt 7-5 suited UTG and pushed all-in, hoping for the steal. A player called with Ace-King “not suited.” This player was not skilled by any means, for the record. His king and my seven hit the flop, along with a two. Turn brought a five and the river was irrelevant. I was back in the game. He got “tilty” just as I had appeared (though I was not on tilt), and he went out the very next hand.

Now about my play, I was short stacked. The blinds were coming to me next hand. I did not believe that the hand I received in the BB was going to be stronger than 7-5s. I also believed that even if it were, there would be callers and raisers in front of me, making it difficult for me to isolate. Furthermore, I KNEW I would only be called by hands that were greater than mine, most likely only one or two hands though. I knew my raise would mean more UTG and first to act than if I re-raised from the big blind, supposing a reraise was even possible. Skillfully, I decided to move with seven-five suited knowing full well that if I had a caller or callers, I would be the underdog for the hand and NEEDED to get lucky. Six-four suited was not going to call me, and two three not suited sure the hell was not going to call me. There was a “chance” that no one had a hand that would even call me. This would give me a steal, which was possible and I would not be “as” pressured from the big blind and small blind positions. For me to do this, it took knowledge, or skill. Remember, skill is defined as the ability to use one's knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance.

I skillfully put myself in the best situation to get lucky and/or win the pot outright. Even if by chance, I had aces, I still push all-in right there with that short stack. So, assuming I am considered a “skilled” player, I also demonstrate the ability to be a “lucky” player.
Not being a math guy, I do not know how to represent that in the form of an equation. I am confident, however, that players can be placed into the following basic categories:

1. All luck - novice
2. Some luck, some skill - novice somewhat familiar to the game
3. Some skill, some luck - average player
4. Lots of skill, some luck - expert, a complete poker player

Of course, each category would have several sub-categories (less over-simplification). As stated, I cannot represent the “formula” in equation form, but I am certain that if we stated 100% of the poker game is x% luck plus y% skill, we would not be able to give luck plus skill a static number. I also believe that moreover we would be correct in somehow assigning each player involved a skill number, based on knowledge and understanding of the game and their ability to recognize and manipulate situations. The sum of those numbers would make up the “luck factor” in their particular game.

Overall, I do believe that the shorter a game or a career, the more luck has to do with it. If we are all dealt only one hand, and the winning hand is the champion. No one is ever dealt another hand after this championship hand, then luck is everything (100% luck). No skill involved. We are forced to play our hand that by chance has come to us. We are all in and to the river we go.

If we are only permitted to either move all-in or fold, then luck still dominates (less than 100% luck). Though skill and discipline does come into play, as we recognize for which hands this would work.

If we are allowed the opportunity to lay odds, make plays, and approach the game in a cerebral, calculating manner and we are not in a time restricted situation, skill cuts down the opportunity for luck, assuming luck or chance is evenly distributed over time, of course. Ten seater, luck evenly distributed over each player (each person gets 1/10 of luck). Skill factor on one to ten, ten being most skilled, nine being second most skilled, etc. Over time, the most skilled player will win most, providing the game goes on forever. (10*1/10 luck) vs. (9*1/10 luck) vs. (8*1/10 luck). I guess though this would assume that each person would be proportionately more skilled as the next, and is not 100% accurate. It is enough to show me, however, that the skilled player has the edge over the unskilled player, especially if we take into consideration time. The longer we play, the more of an edge the skilled have over the unskilled.

One more point, and I will end this “rambling of a madman” style of post. A skilled player also has the ability and wisdom to extract full or nearly full value from hands in which he wins (say an extra 10% on average when he wins, to keep it simple), and save 10% on the hands in which he loses by either not calling the river bet when he believes through his skill and wisdom that he is beat, or by not making the bet on the backend when he knows will be called only when he is beat. He is making an additional ten percent on average when he wins, and losing 10% less when he loses. Over time, this adds up, does it not? Does this give him the edge over an unskilled player? Bet your ass it does! I may not be able to demonstrate on paper whether poker is more a game of skill or a game of chance. I might not be able to tell you to what extent poker is a game of skill over a game of chance or luck. Surely, if we sit down at a table, I might be able to show ya.