Poker, especially the specific Texas Hold'em variant, is a game often seen as something winnable through luck rather than wits. With 52 cards randomly being dealt by a dealer, the chances of your hand lining up to make you win a round truly is a bit low.
But would you believe that studies do show that winning at poker would require more skill rather than chance working in your favor?
It Depends on the Poker Variant
The elephant in the room here would be the fact that some poker variants publicly share cards with the entire table, while others don't. With some parts of the hand being shared publicly on the table, it gives enough information for all players to turn the game to their advantage. A good example of this would be variants under the community card category, in which even a losing hand can turn into a win for the round with just enough skill.
On the other hand, keeping cards to oneself would require people to win the game through luck as no one has any idea how their opponent is faring throughout the game. A good example of these is the poker variants under the "draw poker category", as only the player would be aware of what their hand contains.
Mathematics of Poker
There's also the power of arithmetic that one can use to their advantage to win every round of poker until they win the game overall. Commonly used by professional poker players, the maths involved in poker push people to make do with numbers for them to strategically bring the chances to their favor.
The specific branch of mathematics that holds useful in these kinds of games is probability. Indeed, it easily gives concrete deciding factors that help a player in determining their best next strategic move. If you hear about outcomes, odds, pot odds, implied odds, and expected values, this is where it all actually comes into play.
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Professional Poker Players Consistently Win
Professional poker players exist for a reason. They prove that the game can be won by skill rather than aiming mindlessly until you win yourself a pot. Pro poker players use the mathematics of poker to their advantage at every round, making them clear winners by the time the game concludes.
For a game to have professionals and for it to be played at a very competitive level only suggests that luck can easily be set aside for anyone to win a game. That is, of course, if the player in question does have the smarts and skills to bring to the table.
Higher Stakes Increases Skills
A casual end-of-the-week game of poker doesn't really push anyone to excel especially that all the players know it's nothing serious. With no money being lost and no rank being diminished, the players of this casual game would rather depend on luck than to think hard for them to win a round or the entire game itself.
On the other hand, a high-stakes poker tournament would push any professional player to their limits. These are the kinds of games that would have all the players in the table tabulating probabilities all throughout the game, making sure that losses are at a minimum while they also slowly creep their way up to success. It's a tour de force of skill and wits in action, making sure only the best would prevail in the end.
Even though professional poker players make use of forward-thinking poker strategies to win a game, they also follow through with the same logic for their careers. Amazing as it may seem, these people are able to tangibly calculate when they should win or lose. The endgame here, of course, would always be with the player having more value and a higher rank despite strategically "losing" a few games along the way.
Poker Is Played Against Other Players, Not a Casino
For casinos to thrive and keep on existing, they should have cash going in despite their games requiring them to gift some of the winnings back to their players. Complicated as the system may be, there exists a house edge or house advantage that makes sure the odds are slightly tilted to the casino's favor. In most casino table games, like Blackjack, the person representing the establishment would be the dealer at every table.
Competitive poker games on the other hand only make use of dealers as orchestrators and referees, making the game fair for every player on the table. This set-up pushes the players to use their skills to go against one another knowing that they don't have a common enemy. With the "every man for themselves" mindset, a fight or flight instinct would be put into play. This makes sure all players make use of their skills to their most capable extent.
Casinos make money with poker cash games by simply raking in a small percentage of every pot. For tournaments, they simply hold a percentage of the entire prize pool.
One of the larger problems brewing for poker as an honorable game with legitimate winnings is the fact that most people still don't accept it as a game of skill. The problem with most country's lawmakers is the fact they don't believe that poker is unbiased of luck despite the numerous pieces of evidence and studies that were brought up in court.
A good divisive example of this would be how the UK doesn't tax professional players on their winnings, while the US on the other hand considers an online game of poker illegal ever since the 2006 bill has been passed.
Answers to common questions about the share of chance and skill in playing poker.
Is Texas Hold'em poker a game of chance?
A game of Texas Hold'em would be driven by chance if the stakes are low enough for the players to strictly care about who's winning or losing. Otherwise, skills and wits can be used to form a strategy and have the game work to one's favor over several hands.
What makes poker a game of skill?
There's a lot of math and psychology involved in a serious game of poker. Arithmetic heavily relies on counting odds and outcomes, along with determining expected values at every round. Psychology, on the other hand, goes into play whenever a player reads through the tells of everyone at the table or if the player attempts to shift their play style depending on a game's stakes, rules, or style.
Do poker players bluff randomly?
Bluffs in-game are highly informed decisions. A player would decide to push through with such a risky move after figuring out some obvious "tells" of the players around the table.
When bluffs are made by new poker players, they're only most likely copying off the moves of the pros in hopes that their randomized tactics would succeed.
What makes poker a game of chance?
The main reason why chance is considered a part of poker is the fact that every player still gets to have some cards randomly dealt to them in every game. The ability to win a round or game would ultimately depend on how the player would adapt to the situation given their current hand.
What poker variation requires more skills than luck?
Poker variations that offer a part of the hand to be publicized (such as that of community card variants) can have players make use of their skills to take advantage of the situation.
Overall, it is indeed safe to say that, ultimately, poker is a game of skill rather than luck. The game more or less focuses on minimizing losses and maximizing chances, turning any bad hand into a good round with the right amount of skill at any player's disposal. With all the evidence and studies proving how skill-based poker is, only time would tell if it would become a universally accepted truth.
This article was published on November 22, 2020, and last updated on October 26, 2022.