Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2008) in Poker Player newspaper.
I’ve answered 100 questions so far in this series. If you’re just tuning in, you’re probably wondering what “this series” means.
Recently, these entries have usually focused on interviews of the writer. Me. Except, unlike most interviews where the questions are posed by reporters who sometimes have little understanding of poker, I get to both ask and answer. That pleases me.
The best part is that each column stands by itself. Even though the question numbers run consecutively from entry to entry, there’s really no requirement that you be familiar with my previous self-interviews. You can read just one, some, or all — and in any order. Now it’s time for question 101, centering on today’s word “Skill.”
Question 101: Can you name a poker question that you’re frequently asked for which the answer is unclear?
Sure. But I’ve got to say first that the answer is clear to me, even though it’s probably seldom clear or satisfying to the questioner. The question is posed something like this: “Is poker mostly skill or mostly luck?”
The answer is that there’s no obvious way to define poker that makes it either a game of skill or luck. It’s both and it’s neither. Poker is what it is.
Since it’s obvious that decisions matter in poker and that some choices are superior to others, skill provides an advantage. Luck provides an escape. But because skill gives you an advantage, luck must eventually be overwhelmed. And if you could play the game long enough, skill would prevail with absolute certainty. In the long run, poker is therefore completely a game of skill and not a game of luck whatsoever.
In the short term, though, luck can be powerful enough to humble world-class players, even when facing inferior opponents or even novices. That’s why professionals must think “long run.”
Question 102: Isn’t skill versus luck in poker just an academic argument? Does it have any practical importance?
It has a great deal of practical importance.
For one thing, it’s important that serious players understand the nature of poker. But more critically, legal cases have been decided on the skill-versus-luck question. I’ve been an expert witness in cases when governments have tried to ban poker based on the misconception that it is a game of luck.
Question 103: Is there a way to make poker skill more likely to prevail in the short term?
You could make poker games more complicated. Or you could devise rules to make it more difficult to draw out. Heck, you could even ask me to program a computer to decide who made the best decisions during a hand and award the pot on that basis.
But we don’t want that to happen. We don’t want to take the steep short-term luck factor out of poker. We don’t want the best players to win every session.
At least we don’t want that if we’re serious about poker and about winning. It is precisely the fact that inferior players have a chance to win tonight, despite being out-skilled, that keeps the money flowing and makes the endeavor worthwhile. If you adopt that attitude, you’ll be less frustrated by bad beats, and you’ll begin to understand one of the key necessities to maximizing poker profit.
If all we wanted to do was determine who’s best, we could just take a quiz. I’d win, and we could retire the game of poker as an intellectual puzzle for which the solution were known.
Question 104: But people still play chess, even though it’s purely a game of skill, right?
That’s sort of a good point, but let’s examine it.
People play chess for completely different reasons than they play poker. Financial gain isn’t usually the motive. And weak players don’t bet big money regularly against grand masters. In poker, however, weak players challenge professionals regularly.
But there’s an even more important issue here. Chess isn’t a game of pure skill. Scratch that off your list of common-sense truths.
Chess is a game in which superior decisions are more consistently rewarded than in poker. That’s true.
But there’s still luck in chess. That’s why similarly skilled chess players can and do make wagers. Beyond that, having a little more skill can occasionally backfire at chess. If you see seven moves ahead and your opponent sees only six moves ahead, maybe the game dynamic changes on the ninth move — and you would have avoided disaster if you’d only seen five moves ahead. Strange, but evident.
Additionally, you could easily turn chess into a game of short-term luck. What if you got to choose your best move, but then your opponent could roll dice to see if you were allowed to make it or lose your turn? In that case, weaker players might frequently win. In some ways, it would be like the luck of the cards in poker.
Would that make chess less skillful? No! The same skills would be necessary and the better player would still have the same advantages. But the right decisions wouldn’t be as consistently rewarded.
In many ways, poker is a more complex and skillful game than chess. It’s just that the intermediate luck factor makes correct decisions and deep probing seem less vital. In the long run, the right choices matter just as much.
Don’t let poker’s powerful luck factor frustrate you. Keep making correct decisions and ignore the momentary irritations luck can cause.
Eventually, the quality of your decisions will be magically converted into precisely the right amount of profit. This precision is unlikely to happen in your lifetime, but you’ll probably get close — and it’s worth the wait. — MC