Poker: Skill versus Luck
People keep having the same discussion on which I will now shed my own opinion: ‘Poker: Skill versus Luck’. First and foremost, it’s important to know that poker is a game of skill with aspects of chance. This means it’s a combination of both aspects and should be treated as such. I’m going to break it down into the following topics:
– Different Poker speeds
– Poker compared to gambling
– Poker compared to skill games
Different Poker Speeds
I like to break it down into 4 categories: normal, deep (sometimes referred to as ‘slow’), turbo and hyper. These structures represent the speed of the blind levels and the stack sizes. I maintain the structures that PokerStars uses with their software to represent the speed levels.
Normal: 15 Minute Blinds ( 1500 Chips or more )
Deep: 30 Minute Blinds ( 5000 Chips or more )
Turbo: 5 Minute Blinds ( 1500 Chips or more )
Hyper: 3 Minute Blinds ( 300 Chips or more )
In general it’s safe to say that the deeper the stack the more poker is being played. This is also reflected in the M-Ratio that poker players use as a guideline on how to play an optimal strategy.
|M-Ratio||Zone name||“Optimal” strategy|
|M ≥ 20||Green zone||Most desirable situation, freedom to play conservatively or aggressively as you choose|
|10 ≤ M < 20||Yellow zone||Must take on more risk, hands containing small pairs and small suited connectors lose value|
|6 ≤ M < 10||Orange zone||Main focus is to be first-in whatever you decide to play, important to preserve chips|
|1 ≤ M < 6||Red zone||Your only move is to move all-in or fold|
|M < 1||Dead zone||You are completely dependent on luck to survive, the only strategy is to push all-in into an empty pot|
Harrington on Holdem: Volume II The Endgame
The regular tournament structure. Players start with 1500 Chips or more and blinds will start low at 10/20 or 15/30. This means you start with an M-stack of ≥ 20. If we look at an hour of play, assuming that the levels are 10/20 – 15/30 – 20/40 -25-50 (most MTT’s), then with blinds at 25/50 you’ll still have an M-Stack of ≥ 20. (Assuming that you will have 1500 Chips after an hour of play)
The slower tournament structure. Players start with 5000 Chips or more and blinds will start low at 10/20 or 15/30. This is very deep-stacked poker with an M-stack of well above 20. After 2 hours of play blinds are 50/100, which still means your M-stack is way above 20. This structure enables the most poker skill. (Assuming that you will have 5000 Chips after an hour of play)
The faster tournament structure. Players start with 1500 Chips or more and blinds will start low at 10/20 or 15/30 with the difference that the levels will increase way faster. Most of them have 5 minute blinds, which mean you start off with M-Stack ≥ 20 but after an hour of play you will have to play blinds of 150/300. This means your M-Stack is now 5 and you are in the ‘red zone’. (Assuming that you will have 1500 Chips after an hour of play)
The most extreme form of fast poker. Players start with 300 Chips or more and blinds will start low at 10/20 or 15/30. The blind levels are only 3 minutes, which means you will have a low M-stack in no time. After 30 minutes play, blinds will be 400/800. This is more than your starting stack! A lot will depend on luck.
I’ve broken down the skill versus luck factor for each speed, this is my own opinion.
|60 % Skill||75 % Skill||50 % Skill||25 % Skill|
|40 % Luck||25 % Luck||50 % Luck||75 % Luck|
If we assume that everyone has the same luck in the long run, than skillful poker players have the most edge in deep-structured tournaments followed by normal structured tournaments. However, even in hyper games the most skillful players will win more in the long run. No-one can rely solely on luck for a long period of time. We can therefore conclude that skillful poker players will win more money in the long run, than poker players that have been running good (luck). It is therefore more than possible to become a professional poker player if a player’s skill level is high.
Poker compared to gambling
People that aren’t familiar with all the aspects of the game, often ask me whether or not poker isn’t gambling. And as a result, if being a professional poker player isn’t the same as being a ‘professional’ gambler. The answer is: NO. I can safely say that poker is a skill game and therefore not a game of chance. Studies have also shown that poker is game of skill:
“In a study released on Friday, it was revealed that Texas Hold’em, statistically at least, is a game of skill. The research in question investigated 103 million hands and found that three-quarters of them did not go to showdown. In essence, they were won due to betting by players.”
Poker however does have an aspect of chance. Having the best hand pre-flop doesn’t necessarily mean you will win at showdown. You will only win AK to AQ, when all-in pre-flop, around 72 % of the time with about a 4.5 % chance to a tie.
Figure 1: Poker Calculator (in Dutch) AK vs. AQ
Let’s look at it at a more advanced way. Let’s say, you have AK on a K 10 8 7 rainbow board. You’re quite sure that AK is the best hand at that point, but you know it’s vulnerable. There any many cards that could complete a straight on the river ( A Q J 9 ) or give someone a winning two pair / three of a kind. The skill factor lies in knowing what to bet to price someone off a draw. Let’s assume that you’re up against QJ, meaning an A or 9 would beat you. There are 7 cards left in the deck that could give your opponent the winning hand ( A A A 9 9 9 9 ).
Figure 2: AK vs. QJ on K 10 8 7
Math shows that AK will win around 84 % out of the time. Your opponent with QJ will need pot odds of about 7 to 1 to make his call worthwhile in the long run. To simplify this reasoning based on math, we’re not taking implied pot odds into account. So, if AK bets 200 into a pot of 400 then QJ will have to fold, because his pot odds are only 2 to 1. If, however, AK bets 50 into a pot of 400 then QJ will have to call, because his pots are 8 to 1. To understand the math and adjust your decisions accordingly is skill.
Of course, the chance factor is also a factor in this situation. Let’s say, your opponent with QJ goes all-in on the turn. His reasoning might be that you can fold the best hand (if you’re unsure about AK or have a worse hand than that) and if you call he will always have outs (in this case 7 cards). If you call and the river brings 1 of the 7 cards, then you’re just unlucky despite making the right play (mathematically). The best player and/or the best hand, doesn’t necessarily win in at an all-in situation.
Poker compared to skill games
Poker is a game of many variables and decisions. Personally, I like to compare it with chess. The games show a similarity in strategic thinking. You have to think ahead and adjust to your opponent(s). It’s basically a line of thinking like: ‘if I do this, he will do that and if he does this than I will do that’. It’s a constant psychological game of you against your opponent(s). The key difference is that chess doesn’t have an aspect of chance, meaning that the best player will win every time (if he doesn’t make a mistake).
In poker every decision has a reaction and this varies per different poker player. A more conservative player will play more passive and a loose player will play more aggressive. They will react differently to your bets and knowing the difference between them and adjusting to it is a basic skill. Chess maintains the same principle: play offensive versus a defensive player and defensive versus an offensive player. (In poker it’s passive versus aggressive and aggressive versus passive)
Poker is primarily a skill game with an aspect of chance. The game has a high level of strategic thinking. Skillful poker players will win consistently over a longer period of time. There’s more luck involved in the faster structured tournaments as well as the shorter stacked tournaments, because your M-stack will be lower. For this blog I’ve kept it very basic regarding Texas Hold’Em Poker and it’s optimal strategy. The purpose of this blog is just to give my opinion regarding the Skill versus Luck factor in No Limit Texas Hold’em Poker (online) and it’s different tournament structures.
With kind regards,
CEO, Co-Founder & Poker Coach for
 Harrington on Holdem, Volume II, p129
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