Daniel Cates

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Dan Cates

The impact of luck on the game of poker

I have been playing poker for about 7 years, the first 4 on-line only and the last 2 both live and on-line. I have read the books, Brunson, Reuben & Ciaffone, McEvoy, Sexton, Caro and Harrington. I have been a winning player in the last 2 years. Yes, I have delivered some horrendous beats as well as received my share. I have made my share of Donkey calls and have made WSOP quality reads and plays only to be hee-hawed all the way to the rail.

After all the bad beats, both given and received, the influence of luck has begun to dominate my poker strategy thinking. I can't seem to shake the need to better understand its impact. I feel almost irreverent since all the pros seem to have come to terms with the impact of luck and feel comfortable with the concept that poker is a skill game. I mean who could question Texas Dolly when he said (and I am paraphrasing): on any given day poker is 90% luck and 10% skill, Over a year its 90% skill and 10% luck and over a lifetime it's 99% skill. Well at least Doyle as well as the other pros agree that luck plays some roll in the game of Poker.

Doyle had it right, but how does his quote translate into day to day play at the poker tables. So on any given day poker is 90% luck, as a poker player what expectations should I have based on this. Well one thing is for sure, that whatever skill I have will not be very apparent on a day to day basis. Dang! How frustrating a concept to have to internalize. In this "I want it now" instant gratification world of today that is a tough pill to swallow. Kind of like trying to swallow a whole Alka Seltzer! So if you really, I mean really, understand this then when your skill is flushed down the toilet of the Poker Gods men's room by your AA being beaten by a 6, 8 off suit then you will be at peace with it.

Now of course 12 months after that Donkey herding fest you can invite them all out for dinner since your bank roll should have swelled considerably by then based on Doyle's 90% skill and 10% luck over the period of a year concept. The problem is I would have to feed at least 18,000 plus players just from Poker Stars, hey I ain't that good! Seriously the point here is that it takes a long time in poker to see how well you are doing, not sure I have the patience for it. Plus this all assumes that you are a good player. What a bummer to find out after 12 months of grinding it out at the tables that you suck! Ouch. You also can't ever get away from the luck factor. There will always be bad and good runs and streaks so 12 months might not be long enough to tell.

Luck Has Many Faces2

Luck in poker comes in many forms. Most of us think mostly of luck when we get 2 outted or runner, runnered, but there is more. Just think about it. The cards you are dealt both good and bad is one form of luck. The cards your opponents are dealt is a form of luck. How the cards fall on the flop turn and river. In tournaments which tables you are assigned and moved to and the skill of the opponents as well as the players stack size at those tables. All these things are out of your control and have a huge impact on the outcome of the session.

How many times have you hit a set on the flop and your opponent catches say 2 pair and you double up? Was that really your skill that accounted for most of those chips, not really it was the random way the cards fell. Sure you preflop play had to be correct but most of the time it was not a crucial factor. The luck here was not so much that you hit a set but that your opponent hit a hand big enough to make a call. On the other side of the coin how many times have you hit a set, only to have everyone fold and receive no reward? Again it's the luck of the cards.

Skill Variance Effects Luck

OK after all that bad news there is some ways you can improve your skill percentage over luck. I have this theory, a theory that I believe will hold water. Get ready, are you ready? Here goes, "Lucks impact on Poker is directly proportional to the variance of the skill of the players". The idea here is that if 2 players have equal skill then the outcome of a session of poker is more likely to be determined by the "luck of the cards" as opposed to players having unequal skill where luck will have a lesser impact. If you play players that are of similar skill as you, you will notice that the cards will almost always determine who will win the session. I notice this all the time while playing some league games on a couple of forums I play at as well as some home games. Keeping in mind that Doyle's statement says luck is 90% on any given day. So if the theory is correct you can lower that 90% by playing less skilled opponents. Even when playing less skilled opponents I believe Luck, in even given session, will still be the primary factor.

I know Doyle was just making a point by this statement and the numbers were not arrived at by real mathematical formulas but it is still a good basis to discuss the issue. What, this means I am suppose to actually go looking for Donkeys? Yes, I guess it does! I will say that the swings in your bank roll will be more pronounced in a donkey rich environment, but for every 50 steps backwards you will surely take 53 steps forward. Man, that's 103 total steps just to gain 3. So you can see, by my superior mathematical and analytical skills, getting ahead in poker can be a long and arduous process. So if you really want to win at poker be prepared to walk backwards a lot and keep a cool head while you're doing it.

What's Skill Got To Do With It? - Is it a second hand emotion?

Well if Poker has so much luck involved what the hell is the use to try to play skillfully? Because skill is the only way to consistently win at poker over the long haul. Skill will not double your bank roll week to week, but will build it over time. It will allow you to retain more of that profit you made last week win you had that lucky run of cards. It will keep you from losing your entire buy in, in some sessions. It will stop you from sitting at a table to long when you end up facing more skillful players. It will almost never be the sole reason you win those monster pots.

Your skill will only make subtle, almost unperceivable differences in your outcomes, but that is where the profits are. Here are some places skill makes the difference:

  • Those blinds you steal when the conditions are just right.
  • Those well timed bluffs against the right player at the right time.
  • That river bet you saved by making a big lay down on the river.
  • That few extra dollars your opponent called by betting the right amount.
  • That reraise you made after reading your opponent as weak when he folded.
  • By chasing your draw when the pot odds were right to do so every time.
  • That big preflop raise you made to win the pot right then with a big hand after six people limped in.
  • That time you folded the best hand when you knew 2 other players had big draws and they were the favorite.
  • By understanding lucks huge impact on the game that kept you off tilt.
  • Playing at the right levels because you understand bankroll management.
  • That hand you didn't limp with in early position cause you knew a big raise was coming.

This list can go on and on but you can see that skill almost never makes a big short term difference, it is just baby steps over time and before you know it you have walked a mile. It is all about making the correct decision every time regardless of the outcome of the hand. If you make enough correct decisions you will be a wining player over time, and the more incorrect decisions your opponents make the more profitable you will be.

Cash Games vs. Tournament Play

One note concerning cash game vs. tourney play. This article was written mostly from a cash game perspective but I believe most of this applies to both. I do believe the Luck Factor has a bigger impact on tourney play since the blinds force the action and the play. Many times when the tourney gets to the final table the blinds are at such high levels that it is a matter of mostly luck and stack size. Don't get me wrong, skill is still very important in both type games. I believe that skill in tournament play is what allows you to get lucky and have a shot at winning. This Pokerism rings so true "To win a tournament your Ace / King must win and you must beat your opponents Ace / King.

The River! (closing)

Have I convinced you that your skill most likely will have little to do with you daily, weekly or even monthly bankroll swings? Will you quit posting those ranting bad beat hand histories which add little to your or anyone else's poker knowledge? Instead of posting a Hand History of someone's obviously bad play, post one that ask the questions did I make the correct decision or how could I have played this differently. Will you now just congratulate that donkey that just sucked out a big pot on you instead of scolding him for making a bad play and watching your money leave the table never to return? When you blame your losing session on bad luck, will you give the luck the credit when you win? If this has made you think and question the game of poker and what it takes to win, if It will keep you off tilt just one time, if you will sleep better after taking that bad beat then my work was worth while.

Playing skillfully means that on those days you get Lucky you will win a little more and on those Unlucky days you will lose a little less and in the long run your bank roll will swell!

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