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Is Poker a Game of Skill?

Is poker a game of skill? If you ask a seasoned player, they’ll tell you “of course it is.” In fact, many of my poker playing friends, the ones who make their living at the game, are so sick of this question that they will walk out of a room if it is raised. They know that it is a game of skill because if it wasn’t they wouldn’t be able to pay the bills, put food on the table and, in some cases, afford that new Porsche in the driveway.

Case closed, right? Well, maybe, but then again, not so fast. I’m a scientist by training, nearly fifty years in the trenches: labs, classrooms, conferences, granting agencies … all that stuff. And one thing that keeps us science types going is our devotion to data, to empirical foundations for our claims. So, no matter how deeply my poker playing friends know that the game is one dominated by the skills of the participants, the scientist wants to see the data. And, importantly, legislators, judges and juries, are not impressed by poker junkies stamping their little feet and repeating “It’s a game of skill. It’s a game of skill.” They too want to see the data.

Not too long ago there was media flurry (even the Wall Street Journal had coverage) over the findings of a study that presented what some called definitive data proving that poker is a game of skill. Luck plays a role of course in the impact of the random turn of a card, the flukiness of the flop, the unlikely river card but in the end, skill dominates.

The study made a real contribution and, interestingly, it raises important issues. The study analyzed 103 million hold ‘em hands played at the micro- and low-level games on the largest online poker site. Of these a mere 24% of them went to showdown (where the cards are revealed and the pot awarded to the player with the best hand). Even more remarkably, in only 12% of the hands was the pot won by the player who actually had or would have had the best hand.

Magazines, web sites, bloggers, chat rooms and, of course, the Poker Players Alliance (of which I am a card-carrying member) greeted these findings with the claim that they show that the game must be one of skill. If the cards are irrelevant fully three-quarters of the time, then, heralded one publication: “The player could be holding two pieces of blank paper and it would make no difference.”

Actually, the data don’t really back this statement, though they raise other, more interesting issues that show why poker is such a fascinating game. In those millions of hands, the players who acted sufficiently strongly to force their opponents to lay down what was, perhaps, the stronger hand, likely did so because they started with good cards – in which case cards do matter.

This point hints at important, but unacknowledged elements in the study: the stakes are important and belief rules. In these micro- and low-stakes games, players who make aggressive moves by betting, raising and re-raising, typically believe that their hand is either best now or is likely to become the best. The ones who “muck” their hands (toss them away) when their opponents bet or raise do so because they believe that they do not currently have the best hand and that they aren’t likely to end up with it.

In short, if you play low-level poker, there’s a decent amount of luck in the skill/luck balance. Because the players with the strong hands bet them and the ones with weak hands believe them when they do, the guy who “got lucky” and was dealt good cards tends to win the hand.

But if you play at the mid- or higher-levels things change. Belief is still the critical factor here, but people are more likely to lie. At these levels there is far, far more betting, raising and even re-raising with so-so or even weak hands. This ploy has two advantages. First, it makes your opponents think that maybe, just maybe, you do have a strong hand. Second, you can (and will) on occasions get lucky and win even with a weak starting hand when the cards that come later are kind to you.

Playing this way puts your opponents in a quandary. Sometimes they believe you have a strong hand when you bet or raise, and sometimes they believe you are weak when you take the same actions. This kind of aggressive play has two monetary advantages, immediate and future. If your opponents fold, you win the pot right away. If they call, there is more money in the pot for when you end up best. It also has an even more important psychological advantage: your opponents’ belief systems lose a lot of their validity. They don’t know what to believe any more.

So, what does this tell us? It confirms what the pros “know” is right; poker is a game of skill – at least at the higher levels that they play at. But at the lowest levels, where the stakes are not steaks but hamburgers (or maybe not even that …. tofu? lettuce?), it’s not so clear.

Reader Comments (1)

Having played more than a million hands online and a smaller number live, I am interested to know Mr Reber's views on luck. It has been my experience so far that luck occurs in different quantities to different people in different walks of life especially in poker.

With the notable exception of Dan Harrington , I have had no luck patterning my play on the advice of others because my luck level is different. I have made money playing poker ROI 13% over 7 years but mainly it was the skill in when to persuade my opponents to fold. To win at showdown requires more luck usually than my allotted quota I am interested to know if others have thoughts on my assertion that different people have different luck allotments which may well last over a whole lifetime.

October 27, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterhugh cameron

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