If there was ever a question to divide the world’s poker playing community right down the middle, this is it.
Understandably, the vast majority of professional poker players will tell you that it’s all about skill and experience. Rather than simply relying on blind luck, those who excel in the art of professional poker will (of course) insist it’s a game of pure skill.
By contrast, you’ll also find millions of less established poker players who believe the exact opposite. They argue that as nobody can accurately predict the turn of even a single card – let alone the actions of other people – there’s actually very little skill involved. Instead, it’s a case of fate determining the outcome, leaving little room for influencing what happens next.
Whichever way you look at it, one of the best things about poker is the fact that anyone can get involved. Irrespective of whether you’re into the casual game or intend to eventually go pro, it’s a comprehensively accessible and enjoyable game that’s worth getting into.
But in terms of the whole debate regarding skill and luck, there’s at least some evidence to suggest both camps have logic on their side.
Chance vs Skill
There have been comparatively few studies carried out into the true mechanics of how the average game of poker plays out. Nevertheless, one relatively big study was recently carried out at the Erasmus University Rotterdam and Martijn van den Assem at VU University Amsterdam. By factoring in hundreds of millions of observations – equivalent of a full year of online poker play – the researchers were able to draw certain connections between skill and success.
For example, those who performed best throughout the first six months of the study also performed best during the subsequent six months. By contrast, those who performed badly during the first half of the study showed little to no signs of improvement for the duration. Roughly translated, the study suggested that there was some level of consistency involved among players performing at both high and low levels.
If poker was simply a game of pure chance, it should have been a pretty even mix. As in, just as many poor performers during the first six months should have performed better during the subsequent six months as those who performed well at the beginning of the study. Hence, this suggests poker cannot be about chance and chance alone.
The Dominating Force
Nevertheless, this doesn’t provide any indication as to whether skill or chance is the dominating force in poker. It’s clear that skill plays at least some kind of role, but does it play a more important role than chance?
Investigating the issue, researchers found that over a series of around 1,500 hands, skilled poker players performed better than those who rely on chance more than 75% of the time. This would suggest that skill does indeed significantly outperform chance as the dominating force in poker.
Or to put it another way, relying on chance alone simply isn’t a way to get ahead. If you want to take your game to the next level, you need to build the skills, knowledge and experience necessary to make it there.
No Guarantees or Certainties
Still, none of this means that chance doesn’t play an important and unpredictable role in the game of poker. It does – in fact it’s chance alone that makes poker a viable game in the first place. If it was all about skill, there would be no room whatsoever for amateur or unskilled players – they’d be completely dominated at every turn by those who know what they’re doing.
In the game of poker, ‘skill’ refers to a player’s capability to make informed and educated decisions, in accordance with the way the action pans out. They take into account the actions and behaviours of their fellow players, the cards on the table, the cards in their hand and the state of their chip-stack at the time. Through a combination of logic and intuition, the skilled poker player is able to decide what to do next.
Nevertheless, there are absolutely no guarantees that any move made at any time will be the correct move. There never has been and never will be an effective way of predicting the turn of the card or the behaviours of a fellow poker player with 100% accuracy. Each and every decision represents a risk and the outcome is ultimately left in the hands of fate.
Even if the odds of things not going your way are a thousand-to-one, there’s still a chance it could happen. Hence, to insist that poker is a 100% skill-base game is nonsensical.
Strategic Risk Management
At its heart, poker is a game of strategic risk management. You calculate the risks of the various moves you could make, you decide which suits your risk appetite and you play your hand accordingly. Risk can be managed and controlled, but can’t always be eliminated from the equation.
This is why the most successful poker players are those who accept that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. While it’s impossible to get ahead without a decent set of poker skills, you can’t always rely on your skills to get the job done.
If you’re serious about taking your game to the next level, practice makes perfect. Or if not perfect, as close as you’ll ever get. Studying the art of professional poker is one thing, but nothing can compensate for practical experience. It’s only by playing poker that you’ll get to know how things really work when put into practice. Not to mention, how your playing style, preferences and risk appetite affect your game.
Last but not least – don’t make the mistake of thinking that playing for chips or virtual currency is the same as playing poker for real money. When the stakes are set to zero, there’s no risk involved and no real consequences for making poor decisions. Free-play poker can be great for picking up the basics, but doesn’t paint an accurate picture of how real-money poker plays out.