Chance vs Skill – The Great Poker Luck Debate

The Great Luck vs Skill Debate In Poker Has Been Around Since The First Hands Were Dealt
– Here I Examine The Arguments

Even the recent revelation by Dutch Professor Ben Van Der Genugten that poker is a game of skill – at least in Dutch legal terms – has done little to stifle the great debate about the relative roles of luck and skill on both the real and the virtual felt. While we normally focus on Poker Tournaments here at SNG Planet, the arguments in this debate are clearer when using cash games as our example.

The key to understanding how much of poker is down to luck is to look at this in terms of time. That is to say that over time a game of skill should reward those with expertise relative to their opponents.

We can start by imagining a ‘perfect poker game’ in which, based on the limited information available through betting patterns and so on – 10 people of exactly the same superior skill level battled it out over a long time period. What you would see here is short-term fluctuations in chip stacks, but a longer term balancing of the chips. If this group played a million hands we could probably statistically show how a large proportion of the difference in stack sizes was down to the chance elements in the last 2,000 hands or so.

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Two points come out of this imaginary situation:

  • Over time the skill level of players is the principal factor.
  • All else being equal the random flow of the cards will have the biggest effect in the short-term.

Here is another way of explaining skill vs chance in poker – based on the number of hands dealt between you and a player who has never played before in their life!

  • 1 Hand: Here the chance fall of the cards will explain almost all of the results (along with position to a smaller extent)…
  • 100 Hands: Now you have had more time for your poker skills and knowledge to come into their own, yet the chance deal of just a few hands with big pots would have had a large effect on the outcomes.
  • 1000 Hands: Now we start to get to the point where the deal evens out further, but imagine that you lost 1 hand with Kings against Aces when your opponent would have called the same bets with queens – this is a big difference over 1000 hands and shows that luck still plays a significant role.
  • 10,000 Hands: The effect of any individual reversal is now significantly diminished. Here skill starts to take the upper hand, with small margins for error the chance fall of cards would still have an effect – but a far smaller one than before.
  • 100,000 Hands: Skill is now the major contributing factor, though luck would still affect the rate at which you have won. It is unlikely that a losing player would win money over 100,000 hands against solid opponents, but still statistically possible. As it is for a winning player to break-even across this size of sample.
  • 1,000,000: Hands, Skill is now the only significant factor involved.

So, next time someone asks you what role chance or luck play in the game of poker you can happily tell them that poker is almost entirely luck – but only if you intend to play just 1 single hand!

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