Poker: A Game of Chance or a Game of Skill?

For many years there has been a debate about whether poker is a game of skill or a game of chance. That debate still goes on today and, in all likelihood, it will probably go on for many more years. The underlying question will perhaps never be answered definitively, although it’s quite possible that the more the game is played and the more data that’s collected, the more likely that the debate can come to an end.

It’s pretty much universally accepted that the game of poker contains elements of luck and elements of skill; there’s no doubt about that. The continuing debate is over which is the most important factor: luck or skill? There are those that believe luck plays only a small part and it’s skill that ultimately determines who wins and loses. There are also those that believe that luck has the biggest part to play and that skill only has a small influence on the results.

On this page we’ve looked at both sides of the argument and offered our opinion on where we stand. First, we have defined exactly what constitutes a game of chance and what constitutes a game of skill.

What is a Game of Chance?

A game of chance is defined as a game where the outcome is wholly, or at least mostly, determined randomly. It’s essentially a game where participants can do very little, if anything at all, to affect the outcome. Therefore, luck is the overriding factor in whether anyone wins or loses.

Roulette is a great example of a game of pure chance. Assuming a fair wheel is being used, without any bias, each spin is basically random. There’s nothing that can be done to influence the outcome of a spin, so there’s also no skill that a player can use to increase their chances of winning. Whether a player wins or loses is determined entirely by luck.

What is a Game of Skill?

A game of skill is defined as a game where the outcome is primarily determined by some form of skill, either mental or physical. There may be some degree of chance involved, in fact there usually is, but it’s skill that ultimately determines the winners and losers in the long run.

One of the best examples of a game of skill is chess. There’s very little, if any, luck involved in chess, as it’s a game of complete information. Both players have exactly the same information to work with as they can both see the board and all of the pieces. The only thing they cannot know is what their opponent is thinking. It is, therefore, the player that out thinks their opponent that will ultimately win.

Luck in Poker

There is, without question, some luck involved in poker. If you were playing in a tournament and you were lucky enough to be dealt the best hand every single time the cards were dealt, then you would probably win the tournament even if you had very little poker playing skills. Ignoring the fact that such a scenario is nearly impossible, it serves to demonstrate that luck is a factor.

Consider another example. You’re playing Texas Hold’em against one other opponent and you both have $100 in front of you. In the first hand, you’re dealt a pair of aces and your opponent is dealt a pair of kings. After a raise and a couple of re-raises, you decide to push all in. Your opponent, reasonably assuming that you wouldn’t bet so much if you have aces, decides he’s probably ahead and calls your bet.

At this point, you’re the favorite to win the hand. However, a king comes down on the flop. You’ve done nothing to influence the situation, nor has your opponent, but he’s now at an advantage. The turn and the river change nothing, so you lose the hand. You’ve done nothing wrong, and yet you’re down $100. This is despite the fact that your opponent only had approximately a 20% chance of winning in the beginning.

Suppose you and your opponent decided to shuffle the cards and deal the flop, turn, and river again to see what happens. Unbelievably he hits a king on the flop again, and with no further ace coming, you lose the hand again. This is obviously very unlucky, but not improbable, mathematically speaking.

As we mentioned, your opponent has a roughly 20% of winning so the laws of probability state he should win roughly once every five hands. Therefore winning two out of two hands isn’t nearly as ridiculous as it might seem. Probability only defines what’s likely to happen, not what will definitely happen.

If you and your opponent decide to shuffle and deal all the community cards again another 10 times, it becomes more likely that your opponent will keep winning. If you deal them all another 100 times, it becomes a lot less likely. This is because over time and with more instances the outcome becomes more likely to be in line with probability. If all the community cards were dealt 100,000 times, then it’s very likely that you would win roughly 80% with your aces and roughly 20% with your kings.

What this pretty simple example demonstrates is that, although luck is definitely involved in poker, its effect gets less the more hands that are played. To put it another way, luck should even itself out in the long run.

Skill in Poker

It should be clear to you by now that not only chance is an overriding factor in poker, but so is skill. The simple fact that it’s possible for a player to make an opponent fold even though they have the better hand is evidence enough of this. If the player with the weaker hand can win, without needing luck to improve their hand, then there must surely be something else at play and that is skill.

Although the above quote could be construed as somewhat arrogant, there’s definitely some element of truth to it. Skilled players, such as professionals, will beat weaker players more often than not, and when they do lose to them it’s often because luck has played a part. That’s not to say that a weaker player can never outplay a better player, as they most certainly can, but the better player will usually be the one doing the outplaying.

Perhaps the single biggest piece of evidence that proves there’s skill involved in poker is the very fact that there’s such a thing as professional players. If a player is able to consistently win money from playing poker over a prolonged period of time, many years even, then that must surely demonstrate that the player is consistently better than his opposing players.

Luck, as we have already shown, can play a part. We’ve also shown, though, that the effect of luck diminishes as more hands are played. It is statistically improbable (if not impossible) that a player could consistently be luckier than all his opponents for any significant length of time, let alone years. Therefore, better, as we mentioned in the above paragraph, must surely mean more skilled rather than luckier.

Now that we understand that there is both skill and chance involved in the game of poker, all that remains is to determine which factor has the biggest influence in poker.

Game of Chance or Game of Skill: Our View

Poker cannot be as obviously defined as the examples we’ve given above of roulette and chess. While there can be no dispute that roulette is a game of chance and chess is a game of skill, it’s fair to say that poker is in an in-between gray area.

It’s our opinion that skill is the most important factor and, therefore, that poker is a game of skill. We hold this opinion because of what we have outlined above; luck will even itself out over time due to the laws of probability and there are poker players that have proved they have the skills to win consistently and for prolonged periods of time.

We simply don’t feel that it would be possible for the top players to get the results they get if skill was not the biggest factor. That in itself is, for us, is a big enough indication that poker is a game of skill. Every single poker player is affected by luck to some degree, but skilled players are able to effectively minimize the impact that luck has on their results.