Just How Much Luck Is Involved with Poker?

by , Jun 10, 2020 | 2:46 am

Luck versus skill is one of the most talked-about subjects in the world of Poker, but in most cases, arguments are based purely on a sole personal opinion.

Few people who assert that luck is more important than skill (or vice-versa) will take the time to break down the micro elements of Poker that lead to victory, and their ratios of luck to skill.

On the most basic level, those elements are: the cards dealt, the game type, the calibre of opposition, and the experience needed to vanquish said opposition…

Cards Dealt 

( >50% Skill – ratios vary between disciplines)

Assuming a level playing field, the cards dealt are mostly luck based, but only in the short term. This is an opinion reflected famously in 2016 by a well-renowned micro stakes Poker player Nathan Williams (alias: ‘BlackRain79’), who stated in his personal blog:

Poker is 100% a game of skill in the long run. However there is a large element of luck in the short term. Professional poker players mitigate the luck aspect by consistently making mathematically superior decisions and therefore winning in the long run.”

The implication from this – along with similar assertions – is that as games progress, the element of skill becomes more apparent. So too does the psychological warfare associated with high stakes live games, which further contributes to the luck/skill ratio’s already-volatile nature.

In any case, the ratio of luck to skill largely depends on the type of Poker being played. Texas Hold-Em, for instance might have an average ratio of about 70/30 in favour of skill, whereas games like Five-Card Stud demand less of an ability to ‘read’ the opposition, thereby putting the ratio of luck to skill close to, perhaps, just 60/40 in favour of skill.

While luck undoubtedly plays its part, however much or little, the best are ‘the best’ for a reason. This leads to valid arguments that the tilt in favour of luck is far lower than many people believe, even in types of Poker where the player has less control over their fate.

Opposition Quality 

( <40% Luck, >60% Skill)

The calibre of a player’s opponent further clouds the mythical ‘true’ ratio of luck to skill involved in card dealing across all types of Poker, in addition to other types of games, such as those found on Unikrn.com which involve some form of opposition.

Nonetheless, the fact that opposition quality is such a cornerstone element of how Poker games can turn implies that skill remains the dominant force in this metric.

Indeed, while any amateur or new pro can theoretically beat a seasoned pro, the importance of skill continues to amplify the existing disparity in live earnings between seasoned high rollers and ‘rookie’ pros.

Because of this, it seems as though putting ‘40% luck’ as the upper limit for the luck element within this metric is hugely generous. However, knockout tournaments with a round-by-round draw or pre-set bracket undeniably boost the existing element of luck.

For instance, a player with eight years of pro Poker experience, but average body-reading ability, may be the default favourite after being drawn against a player who has just four years of pro experience.

However, the latter player would likely compensate for their inferior hand analysis skills with a good head for deception. That once again shifts the emphasis in favor of skill for this metric, and such clashes invariably make for an intriguing spectacle, potentially sparking a major shock in the Poker world.

Playing Experience 

(<20% Luck, >80% Skill)

Of course, experience is the key to getting to the top, and not even famous greats like Daniel Negreanu got to where they are today without losing and learning. There is a lot of truth in the fact that you need some form of early success, in order to get the motivation needed to gain the level of experience that turns humble amateurs into Vegas warriors.

As evidenced by countless video highlights of drastic turnarounds in live land games and tournaments, there is no such thing as a watertight gameplan, even if there have been attempts to create one.

Even so, skills honed over many years can certainly tip the balance drastically in the devoted player’s favour, much in the same way an experienced Blackjack or Baccarat player can neutralise the banker’s ‘edge’ found in most casinos.

Ultimately, luck certainly plays its part, and there has never been a hand played in which luck did not account for at least 0.01% of the result. It is generally agreed that skill is the dominant factor in the long run though, with some even going as far as to assert that luck has nothing to do with the highest levels of Poker at all.

Whatever the party line, the best players will uniformly agree that the real skill comes from learning and adapting to all manner of situations – even if that only equates to winning casual games with friends, rather than conquering Vegas.


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