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What's Luck Got to Do With It?
Luck plays a significant role in poker. Luck plays an insignificant role in poker.
These two statements are not contradictory, largely because we haven't specified the time frame. If we're talking about relatively short, limited time frames, then luck is a huge element.
The general consensus among top pros and seasoned amateurs is that it accounts for 80 to 85% of their outcomes in single sessions lasting less than five or six hours.
Most of these same folks also feel that if you look at a time frame like a week of full-time play (about 35 to 45 hours) it likely is still accounting for some 30 or 40% of their results.
If you extend the temporal window out, to a year's full-time play (roughly 2000 hours), they estimate that it accounts for somewhere in the neighborhood of 5% of their ultimate bottom line -- a number that many of you may find surprisingly high.
However, many, and this includes top professionals, don't seem to grasp what it all means.
Let's take one of poker's favorite 'guys you love to hate,' Phil Hellmuth. Phil is on record for one of his classic one-liners delivered as he stomped out of the room, "If it weren't for luck, I'd win every tournament."
You can find him screaming this on YouTube at some poor bastard who had the temerity to suck out on him.
I think Phil actually believes this since his ego is roughly the size of Kansas. But, fascinatingly, if it were true that except for luck he would win 'em all, it would be the end of Phil's life as a poker professional.
If luck were not playing the significant role that it is, the best players would be the first casualties simply because Phil's prognostications would come true. He would win every tournament and the game would die.
Who would be willing to sit down and play with someone when you know you're going to lose to him?
Sure, some with egos the size of Montana might but, frankly, no sensible person is going to want to pony up the entry fee when they know they're playing for second place money, at best.
The truth is that poker has just the right amount of luck. It is one of the reasons why it has become so staggeringly popular.
If luck played a lesser role the weak players would go broke too quickly; their winning sessions would become too infrequent and too far apart. They would lose interest and stop playing. If there were no 'fish,' no 'contributors' the game would wither away.
If luck played a larger role it would diminish the likelihood of a skilled player becoming a long-term winner. It would lessen the motivation to become good at the game and fewer solid players would be able to win consistently enough to keep them coming back.
On the flip side, if the impact of luck were larger, variance would go up and it would become more difficult for the skilled player to discover that he or she actually was a skilled player.
I know this may seem odd but it isn't. When I started playing seriously I found myself winning with some regularity. I was having dinner with Mason Malmuth and asked him if he thought I was a winning player.
He asked how many hours I'd put in. I'd been keeping records for about 150 hours at that point.
Mason laughed (yes, he does laugh from time to time) and said, "Put in another 500 to 800 hours and then maybe, just maybe, we can begin to feel a little confident about the answer."
He was right, and if the luck factor were increased significantly, that 500 to 800 hour window would have to be increased significantly.
Luck, in fact, is one of the reasons why Hold 'em has become the game of choice around the world. It has just the right balance between skill and the random draw of a card. Luck is also why 5-stud isn't played any more.
The luck element is far less and the skilled players so thoroughly dominate the lesser that they quit playing.
Luck is also the reason why duplicate poker is unlikely to become popular. Duplicate poker is based on the protocol used in tournament bridge; the cards are dealt and "set" in advance and everybody plays the same hands.
When everyone has to play the same hands the luck element is dramatically reduced. Reduce it too much and the game will die.
It is also the reason why heads-up cash games are often played for the highest of high stakes and by the very best players. Here the luck element is lessened. Play is focused and intense.
More hands are played which smooths out the impact of chance and skill tends to dominate. As we've seen, when this happens weak players quickly abandon the game because they get cleaned out too quickly. So the games tend to be played by those whose skill levels are close to each other.
Luck also plays important psychological roles. It provides a ready-made excuse. The weaker players can blame 'bad luck' for their ill fortune but cling to the myth of skill when they win.
Without such easy rationalizations the fish would have to admit that they were, indeed, fish. A diminished role of chance would force self-insight much more quickly and unambiguously than it currently does.
Luck is also a go-between of empowerment and self-status. Those who don't believe that they really are the masters of their own fates tend to believe in luck and assign causal roles to the random turn of a card. Those with a higher sense of self see luck as what it is: 'random error' in a multifactor world.
They are apt to assign causal roles to their decision making, take personal responsibility for the outcomes and do not invest luck with any long-term causal role.
So, what's the real role of luck in poker?
Answer: 'c' of course, which is very cool.
Arthur Reber has been a poker player and serious handicapper of thoroughbred horses for four decades. He is the author of The New Gambler's Bible and coauthor of Gambling for Dummies. Formerly a regular columnist for Poker Pro Magazine and Fun 'N' Games magazine, he has also contributed to Card Player (with Lou Krieger), Poker Digest, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Titan Poker. He outlined a new framework for evaluating the ethical and moral issues that emerge in gambling for an invited address to the International Conference of Gaming and Risk Taking.
Until recently he was the Broeklundian Professor of Psychology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Among his various visiting professorships was a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Now semiretired, Reber is a visiting scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.
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