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Luck vs. Skill
CEO "Rocket Boy" 10.15.2007

"Luck is where opportunity meets preparation."
Seneca the Elder (ca. 54 BC- ca. 39 AD)

Of course there's a luck factor in poker. You double up when your KJ cracks AA and you go on to win a tournament. Or you are so card dead in a cash game that you try one too many bluffs and you end up with a losing session. But you could say that there's a luck factor in almost anything you do. Would you have met your s.o. if your car had a flat tire that day? Would John Travolta be flying his own Boeing 707 if Quentin Tarantino had become a novelist instead of a film director?

While it is possible to play poker as a pure game of chance, it is also glaringly obvious to poker players that your skill level determines your long-term profitability as a player. Yet some people who aren't familiar with the game see only three things: cards, money, and deception. From far enough away, poker looks almost like blackjack with lying.

You can try to convince them that skill gives the better player an edge. But skill in poker is very hard to explain. You could tell them about your math skills with "I was getting correct implied odds to call that bet, even though I knew I was an underdog." To a doubter this sounds a lot like "I bet on a longshot at the racetrack because I could make more money if my horse won." Sounds like you're a sicko gambler.

Or you can explain your reading skills by saying "The tight-weak guy limped under the gun and checked the rag flop. His hand range must have been either a weak ace, an underpair, or two big cards, so I took down the pot by betting my jack-six." To a doubter this sounds a lot like "I decided to stand on 16 hoping that the dealer would bust." Still sounds like you're a gambler.

Or you can tell them that the top pros are heavily favored over amateurs because of their superior skills. And the doubter will ask "Then how could Jerry Yang beat 6,358 players, including hundreds of top pros? He's an amateur." To which you'd have to reply "Well, there's some luck involved." To which they'd say "See? Poker really IS gambling."

"To know how to hide one's ability is great skill."
  François de la Rochefoucauld (1613-1680)

Some professions are surrounded by an aura of skill. Brain surgeons, airline pilots, NBA basketball players, and violin makers all posess rare talents that we can all see and understand. But most highly skilled poker players benefit from hiding their talents. Underestimating your opponents at the poker table can be costly, so highly skilled players would prefer that you underestimate them. If everyone else in a cash game is paralyzed with fear when a top pro is in a hand, the pro won't win much. (This is different in tournaments of course, when the pro would be able to steal at will.)

It's almost like being a pool hustler. The pool hustler needs to con his victims into believing that they can beat him even after the stakes go up. He'll win the sucker's money with superior skill. But if he reveals too much of that skill, he's (appropriately) accused of "sandbagging" and won't get any more challengers. And if he's exposed as a hustler, all the local players will avoid him. He'll need to either move to a new hunting ground or switch professions.

Of course, now there are professionally managed pool tournament circuits where the top players can compete against each other. For big money. And yes, there are several very well-known poker players who began their adult lives as professional pool players.

But skill at a pool table is far easier to see and understand than skill at a poker table. Pool is a game of complete information. Poker isn't. You can see all the balls and pockets in pool. You can't see all the cards in poker. So if you're watching poker, either live or online, it's hard to know exactly what's going on unless you're have an understanding of the skill involved.

Try watching a rerun of the 1997 WSOP main event on ESPN. Stu Ungar is by far the most skilled player at the final table. He breezed through to a deceptively easy victory. But because we only saw the cards that players took to a showdown, we don't know if he was bluffing or not when there wasn't a call. Or if he got lucky and had the nuts every time.

Now think back to 2003 and Chris Moneymaker's WSOP main event win, and the beginning of the hole card cam era. He did really bluff a lot, and against a field that big, you're going to have to. But do you remember what Sammy Farha said when Moneymaker made his most famous bluff? "You must have missed your flush, eh?" Sammy had correctly deduced that Moneymaker was bluffing. And if he had acted on his read, he might have been the 2003 World Champion.

Both players showed skill there: Moneymaker detected weakness and bet into it. Farha suspected a bluff but decided to try and wait for a better spot. To use, you guessed it, his superior skill to beat his rookie opponent. Didn't happen. But the point is that we saw both players' hole cards, so we knew who was doing what.

In the 21st century the mass media is at last showing a little more of the skill involved in playing poker. Seeing skill (or the lack of skill) in poker decision-making makes the game more entertaining and adds weight to the skill side of the argument. Value betting the best hand, bluffing with air, making huge laydowns correctly, reading opponents, using your image, and a thousand other moves are being revealed for all to see.

There are still doubters, of course. But more and more they seem to be biased against poker because it rewards deception, which could be misconstrued as reinforcing immoral behavior. I, for one, think that anyone who needs to impose their own moral structure on others has got some pretty deep problems. No luck vs. skill debate will change their opinion.

I think Al Alvarez, author of "The Biggest Game in Town" and "Poker: Bets, Bluffs, and Bad Beats" among other books, has said it best:

"Serious poker is no more about gambling than rock climbing is about taking risks."
Alfred Alvarez, 2001