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The Luck Conundrum

I've been thinking a lot about luck as of late. Poker has been fairly good to me. This is partially because of the luck inherent in the game. My 2nd place finish in the PSO blogger freeroll would have been impossible if I actually lost one of the first 8-10 hands when I pushed all-in preflop. If you recall, I actually sucked out on numerous occassions during that early run, beating AK with QJ and 35, and AQ with Q8, as well as a few other lucky hands.

At my most recent 5-Diamond home game, I asked the players what percentage of the game is luck and what percentage is skill. I got a variety of answers, with the high end being about 80% luck, and the low-end at about 20% luck. Overall, I think the concensus was 40% luck, 60% skill, with the "good" players in general agreement. But let's take a look at the full spectrum of possibilities and see what luck actually means in the big scheme of things.

The Rookie Optomist
When I first started playing poker, I thought luck was paramount. Many of you did as well. I heard the quotes, though, and knew that it wasn't all luck. Otherwise, you wouldn't be seeing the same players at the final table. But it was gambling, the same as craps or blackjack or slots. If I could get lucky, I could win, and win big, potentially.

You also see it all the time online at the lower stakes. Players will call your all-in preflop with QTd, upon the misguided belief that the two cards can make a royal straight flush, and are therefore worth their entire buy-in. These players place an undue amount of faith in luck, probably because it is all they have. And when they do hit, they often get paid big, because the wise players know that they should be mixing it up with Mr. QT.

So, what if this is the case? Is it all luck? It's a possibility, and one that I will go into a bit more as we move on. For now, just remember that this is the usual domain of low limit rookies, who still have no grasp of the nuances of the game.

The Skilled Optomist
Much like the Rookie Optomist, the Skilled Optomist sees poker in a way that fits their play. After learning the game from the ground up, the skilled optomist has seen that luck is a factor, but skill is what will consistently win money. The skilled optomist has read up on the game or has played enough to understand concepts like pot odds, implied odds, the importance of tools like check-raises and slowplays. In all of this, the skilled optomist has been reinforced into his beliefs by moneying in tournaments or winning at cash games.

With wins comes an inflated sense of, not just skill, but also the importance of skill. Oddly, however, some of these skilled optomists will pat themselves on the back for making a great call, only to have their donkey opponent suck out. At those moments, the skilled optomists damn luck. But they suck out on their opponents much less, often due to superior play, and therefore never get to sing luck's praises.

These general players believe luck is less than 50% of the game, and may even think it is as much as 60% of the game. But they are confident that, whatever luck determines in the short run, they will come out on top in the long run, because they have skill and skill beats luck.

I would suggest, hesitantly, that a great many poker bloggers are skilled optomists. I sure am/was. But I'm slowly creeping into the third category, which I think may be the most accurate.

The Skilled Pessimist
As stated, a skilled optomist thinks that his skill is so superior to luck that luck is really only 60% of the game at MOST, and more likely considerably less. The skilled pessimist has all of the skills of the optomist, and potentially a lot more skills. They also see things in a different light, where the edge between a skilled and unskilled player is a lot thinner than a skilled optomist would believe.

I don't think I can point to anyone who embodies this idea right off the bat, but you might be able to point to someone, especially if, as I'm assuming, they are probably posters on forums like 2+2. The general idea is this: Luck is a HUGE part of the game, to the point that even the most skilled player can only beat the game for a small amount relative to the blinds.

I've heard that a skilled Limit player should make about 1 big blind per hour. I'm sure some estimates go higher, maybe even to 3 BB/hr. No Limit will likely yield higher numbers, perhaps up to even 5 BB/hr. Now, I could honestly use some help with these numbers. Perhaps you can turn me onto an article or forum thread that addresses this directly. But from my understanding, 5 BB/hr is considered pretty damn good in NL play over the course of a career.

Going over these numbers is what led me to believe that maybe the Rookie Optomist is closer to the truth than the Skilled Optomist. Maybe the truth is that luck is 75% of the game, or even 90% of the game. That thin, thin edge that we get from our skills only nets us 1-5 BB per hour, and how could that possibly mean that skill accounts for 50% of the game. This becomes even more apparent when you consider that you may be playing at a table filled with skilled players. Suddenly, skill has been nullified, and luck plays an even larger role in how the game ends.

What is the answer? I think that it is definitely more luck than skill. Sorry, folks, but poker is a game of luck with skill components, as opposed to most other games like football, for instance, which is a game of skill with luck components (playing conditions, coin tosses for possession, injuries, and the like). Luck plays a larger role than many of us want to let on.

But, hey, I'm just thinking aloud. There may never be a way to actually quantify the luck/skill ratio in the game. But it is something worth thinking about. Drop your two cents in the comments. I'd love to see what some other players believe.

posted by Jordan @ 11:36 AM,


At 1:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Without rake the skill in poker at medium limits would be a lot more obvious. Losers will stick around longer, and winners won't get drained $18/100 hands at 3/6.

At 1:23 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Ah, rake! That is a very good point that I did not consider! But how far does that tip the scales? If you win 10 hands per 100 at a full table, and all are max rake of 10% up to $4, you lose all of $40/100 hands! That is a significant amount. However, let's assume you get 50 hands per hour, which is not likely live, but is more generous, rather than less. That's about $20/hour you are losing, or a little over 3 BB per hour. Maybe that is a significant amount, come to think of it...

Thanks for your thoughts dbrider.

Anyone else?

At 2:06 PM, Blogger Buffalo66 said...

The main reason I play split pot O8, 7CS8, and pineapple 8 is skill. It takes more skill to play these games, and they pay off better than HE (for me, anyway.) All the split pot games give you more info to work with.

If poker is a game of decision making based on incomplete information, than stud hi/lo is the game to play: more cards, more pots (hi and lo), more rounds of betting. All that equals more information to make your decisions, which gives the skilled player a bigger advantage.

At 2:19 PM, Blogger SirFWALGMan said...

I agree with Buffalo's comments..

I think poker is 80% about luck. I mean that is the best you can get pre-flop right? The skill comes in all of the intangables.. knowing when to fold, staying in your bankroll, shrugging off the good/bad luck you might have, all of the aspects outside of what cards fall on the table is where the "skilled" playahs make money.

At 3:22 PM, Blogger FloppyJT said...

I believe that poker is 100% luck..and 100% skill. I think I may have ripped that quote off of Allen Cunningham, but it has stuck with me and the true answer certainly lies somewhere in between.

At 3:22 PM, Blogger Hammer Player a.k.a Hoyazo said...

I do not at all agree with someone saying that poker is 80% luck. Poker is a lot of luck, no doubt. The best player in the world can't do much with bad cards. Or worse yet, with consistently 2nd-best cards all day. Anyone is going to lose a lot of chips when they're dealt KK to someone else's AA at a crucial point in the tournament. So luck is obviously a huge factor.

But to suggest that it's 80% luck, that really doesn't explain how some people (say, Doyle, Phil Ivey, Dan Harrington making three WSOP final tables, Stu Ungar winning three WSOP main events, etc.) consistently perform better than others. I would say that a truly skilled poker player can win most of the time without getting any great cards over a three or four hour period. Luck is still a major factor, don't get me wrong. I tend to think of it more like 67% skill and 33% luck.

I just don't understand how a guy like Waffles, with a very solid sharkscope sng rating, is saying poker is 80% luck. I know he doesn't really think that, given his record. Skill plays more of a role than luck in nlh over the long term.

At 3:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, you beat me to it! I actually wrote a long comment but I am just going to suck it up and post it on my own site with props to you for breaching the topic.

At 4:47 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

DP may have hit upon something that must be addressed. Are tournaments more luck-based than cash-games, or are they the same luck/skill ratio? Hopefully, I'll go into this tomorrow.

At 5:59 PM, Blogger jjok said...

Any single tournament requires luck. Any 100 tournaments played requires skill.

At 11:38 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Over the long haul, though, DP, if a player moneys in 20/100 tournaments with 10% payout structure, he is beating the odds/luck. It's the same longhaul issue. But it's not about whether skill IS or IS NOT a factor. It's about how much of a factor it is. Even if it is not luck that allows Joe Pro to money in 20/100 tournaments, are maybe 10 of those wins attributable to luck, where he got in with the worst of it and sucked out early in the tournament or on the bubble?

At 12:56 AM, Blogger CJ said...

Gotta say, F-Train's latest post on luck capsulizes my thoughts exactly.

People who complain about luck forget it affects all of us equally... it's called math.

At 1:37 AM, Blogger jjok said...

Being successful in a single tournament requires luck and skill. Being successful over the course of 100 tournaments requires alot more skill.

Anyone who says that having tournament success over a long period of time is due to luck alone is retarded and should be playing blackjack on party poker......

Luck is a big factor from tourney to tourney but skill also plays a big part in tournament success. Luck brings you the cards, but how you use them is the skill. Assessing your opponents is the skill. Maximizing your payback in a hand is a skill.

I look at what CJ has said and can't agree more. Luck is directly tied to math. You will get AA once every 220 hands over the long haul. You will lose to 2 outers on the river 5% of the time over the long haul. Math is probabilities and is directly tied to our play each and every hand, as it affects our decisions.

The percentage of the balance is the question Jordan is asking......and I think that's a pretty valid one. Unfortunately, I just don't see how anyone could correctly put a % on either.

At 10:12 AM, Blogger Hammer Player a.k.a Hoyazo said...

I agree totally with jjok here. For even the best player in the world, whether or not they are going to win a particular tournament involves a whole lotta luck. No doubt. You need some good cards, you need to suck out a few times, you need someone to donk you some chips a few times, you need to be dealt KK when someone else at the table gets QQ a few times, you need to fill a few straights and flushes on the turn, etc. To win an entire large tournament involves a ton of luck, no doubt whatsoever.

However, a highly skilled MTT player will almost definitely outperform a less skilled MTT player over, say, 100 MTTs. No doubt about that either. Because your skillz as an MTT player will allow you to get more luck and to take better advantage of your luck along the way as you play these 100 tournaments, and to still be in the tournament when your lucky run of starting cards finally hits. I'm sure that's the point that jjok is trying to make, and it is right on. I don't think it can be argued, given the consistent MTT success of some of the biggest names in the poker playing world.

Winning an individual MTT requires a whole pile of luck. Winning generally over a year of playing MTTs requires a little bit of luck, and a whole pile of skill.

At 2:40 PM, Blogger SirFWALGMan said...

I didnt know my 80% was going to be so contraversial.. lol. Ok, I really think Poker is all about getting into the right situations with the right people.. over time all the luck math will work itself out.. Keep playing the worse players at your level to make money, and keep watching the best players to learn how to win..

At 1:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was at your game when you posed me the question and my initial response on the luck skill debate was that it was 60/40 skill over luck, but after further analysis I think it isn't the kind of question that can be answered on a scale of one to ten.

I have several theories so I'll seperate them this may become a long post but its my first so it was bound to be. First in response to Tom (10,000 days) and the question of whether skill is more of a factor in cash games or tournaments I would say that purely poker knowledge is more pertinent to cash games, but there are exclusive tournament skills that have nothing to do with the gam that can make or break a novice regardless of his cards. Tournaments put a lot more emphasis on stack size, especially when considering psychological factors of bubbling and blind increases, while the decrease in ratio between stack and blinds increases the luck factor, the knowledge of when to push with any tow, or any premium or when to go in allin mode, are not concepts of luck but rather skill. I would say that it seems the skill of tournamnet play supercedes cash game skill but strictly mathematical, pschological and strategical poker knowledge play a greater role in cash games, where not only the stakes but the players are likely to be the same longer.

Now my take on the skill vs luck debate is that while math is fair on all of us, getting aces 1 hand in 220 may not be spread across if u play varying limits and getting aa v kk when ur sitting in a 10-25 nl game is more profitabl then during a 5.50 sng. That kind of luck is a huge factor when cards are compared to stakes ambiguously and the skill of choosing the stakes is inadvertant unless maintaing consistency is regarded as a skill. Also losing as a 4 to 1 dog for 80% of ur stack in a tourny and the doubling through twice on suckouts seems to mathematically equate you, but ur stack even after two oucky triumphs has not bee replaced, not only the games, but the timing within them of hands in succession is a luck factor.

So my theory I suppose mirrors in some regard the evolutionary debate of nature vs nurture. While luck is a factor, it appears to be a multiple that is put into ur skill level, in fact worse players will recieve more from luck than better players, soley because they are allotted more oppurtunities. How many would be suckouts have skilled players missed for folding in the right spots, those were luck oppurtunities that were foiled because of skill. Folding tptk to bottom two is a skill but if the board comes running kings that hand was urs and only the novice will reap that benefit. I feel that skill is exponentially decreasing while luck is linearly decreasing giving the appearance that in fact as you get better luck plays MORE of a factor. If you are choosing yours spots better than you are losing all of ur suck out oppurtunities while ur opponents are capatalizing on there's...this is NOT TO SAY that you are losing because your opponents are lucky, it is only to say that your wins are attributed to skill and there wins are attributed to luck or vice versa, there losses are attributed to lack of skill while ur losses are attributed to lack of luck. Beginner's luck is not a superstition it is a mathematical phenomenon.

Wow that was quite a diatribe I wonder if anyone is still reading. The moral of the story is that while many say that poker has a large factor of luck, what in fact has is a large middleground of race situations. 19 to 1 horses hit all the time, Floridia was a 45 to 1 dog to win the NCAA this year, when was the last time u were a 45 to 1 favorite in a poker while it apppears that ur 7 to 3 edge getting snapped is unlucky unfortunately it is a mathematical certainty, and by not embracing ur 30% oppurtunity ur winning 70% of the time after all the cards are dealt when u are a favorite and losing 100% of the time when you are an undedog if u make all the right plays (pot odds considered ect.) But ur opponent is winning 30% of ur hands and 100% of his, 65% of hands to ur 35% he has a 2 to 1 luck edge, but fortunately ur skill edge is greater than that. So in my mind that means that skill plays in this scenario at least over a 2 to 1 edge over luck if it is compensating for it plus whatever you are winning. Maybe my math is flawed, but I feel that poker is a skill game, but much like nurture many of the wins attributed to luck, rather than nature or skill is because everyone has a skill level above zero and it is is the difference of skill on an exponential scale over the luck difference on a linear scale...We all share many "poker skills" to be better than the player you either must be more finely tuned in aspects of the game or know pieces of it he has not these debates, luck is a factor yes, but only because most poker players reside in virtually identical enviornments in their poker knowledge and can only be seperated by luck...I think I'm going to try to deduce a mock equation, but I've already rambled on enough and hopefully this will be the first post of many.

At 11:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, this is quite a discussion J has started here. I like Matty's POV on the issue. I am wondering how you would represent the skill factor of that equation. Would it be a bell curve? Or maybe a cluster sampling with a variation factor attached? I have often thought of this issue myself. More so lately, when playing PLO but that is a who other story. Good stuff everyone. Good stuff.

Looking forward to more on this topic.



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