The importance of luck in poker


Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2007) in Bluff magazine.


Some say luck doesn’t matter in poker. They’re wrong. They say that if you keep making smart plays, everything will even out over the long run – the cards will eventually break even. Most likely, they won’t. Let’s examine common notions and misconceptions about luck in poker. Let’s do it in a logical and scientific way. Ready?

Over a decade ago I was an expert witness for the card casinos, pitting them against the California attorney general. The case was about jackpots – a promotional practice in which casinos awarded a huge cash prize to the loser of a pot when a very strong hand, such as four-of-a-kind, got beaten. The attorney general argued that jackpots were illegal, because there was no skill involved.

Although I did the best I could in support of the casinos, I was secretly rooting for the attorney general. How come? It’s because, while intellectually I believed the casinos had every right to offer jackpots and that there was certainly skill involved, I hated the jackpot concept. Jackpots were bad for poker, because they caused players to make strange decisions in pursuit of the prize and because money was taken out of each pot to build that prize. It wasn’t pure poker.

Another thing I hated about jackpots was that they removed money from the poker economy. When players made small, reasonable, everyday wins, they’d likely bring that money back to the tables and it would be recirculated. But when you awarded a $2-limit player $50,000 all at once, that money would disappear from the games, being used to buy vacations and refrigerators. There’s nothing I hate more than to see someone show off a new refrigerator bought with jackpot money. Sell that sucker and come back to the games like a responsible adult!

Good for business

The card clubs adored their jackpots. Over the years it became apparent to management that most of their middle- and lower-limit customers wanted jackpots. It seemed clear to them that jackpots were good for business. What they overlooked was that they were asking only players who were at their club, already playing jackpot poker. I’d noticed that since jackpots had become the norm in the late 1980s, most of the previous regular players had ceased playing. I suspected it was partly due to the fact that these players didn’t like jackpots. So by being swayed by the opinions of the customers who frequented the clubs, they were failing to do something important – ask the players who weren’t there.

Since I’m temporarily off-track, let me tell you another strange thing about the jackpot case before returning to today’s discussion about luck in poker. Under oath, I testified that there was skill in jackpots. You had to decide in what ways to modify your normal tactics in accordance with the remote chance of hitting a jackpot. That added an additional level of complexity and increased the skill. I also pointed out that the most skillful players would win fewer jackpots, simply because they were more selective and were more likely to fold hands that might claim the prize. I said this was the same as in standard poker, where the tighter players are more likely to win money overall, while taking down fewer pots.

Although we initially won the case, we lost on appeal when a judge – incorrectly citing my testimony – said that even Mike Caro claimed that the most skillful players won fewer jackpots. He reasoned that this meant there must be no skill involved. This was specious reasoning. There was skill, and it resulted in profit, just as correct strategy usually means winning fewer poker hands.

Mostly skill or luck

Now, back to today’s point. I was also asked if poker itself was mostly skill or mostly luck. I responded that in the short term, your fate was mostly determined by luck. If you only played one hand in your lifetime, then your outcome would be primarily due to luck. But the more hands you played, the less luck mattered and the more skill prevailed. In fact, if you could play forever, your outcome would be entirely determined by skill.

Here’s where people get confused. They think that because luck evens out in the long run, and skill prevails, that over their career of playing poker, they’ll get almost exactly the same opportunities as everyone else. This just isn’t so. A lifetime isn’t long enough for the cards to break even.

Sure, if you play 10 hours a day for 50 years, you’ll get approximately the same proportion of top pairs, flushes, full houses, straight flushes, and everything else that others get. Some folks call it the law of averages or the law of very large numbers. But it doesn’t tell the whole story. You need to consider which games you’re playing when you hold that royal flush and how many players are throwing big money against it. Are you competing for big limits at the right times? Were you on vacation when the billionaire came to town and dumped millions in your game?

And what about tournament winners? A top pro can go years without winning a tournament and another with similar skill might win four times in one year. That’s luck, and – trust me — it won’t even out in 25 years of play. Skill matters a lot, but not enough to definitively determine who’s best – which is another reason I seldom play poker tournaments. I already know I’m best and if I simply declare it, some folks will believe me. If I play hundreds of tournaments and don’t win, they’ll begin to wonder. See?

Unfair

Life isn’t fair. Some people spend a lot of time in hospitals. Some businesses fail for unforeseen reasons. Your life equates to a single session of poker. Luck won’t even out for you. But the more you steadfastly make good decisions, the better you’re likely to do with the cards you’re dealt.

One exercise I provide for students is to have them clip 10 people’s photos out of magazines and arrange them in a circle. Then I ask them to deal 10 starting hold ’em hands and give each hand to whomever they like – over and over. The object is to be fair in the long run, without taking notes. Maybe an hour goes by and then they’re bored with the exercise. So, I ask: “Do you want this job.” And they say, “No.”

And that’s the point. You shouldn’t want that job, either. You shouldn’t be concerned with who’s getting better or worse luck than you. Leave that job to fate. Your job is purely to make good decisions. — MC

Published by

Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.

10 thoughts on “The importance of luck in poker”

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  1. Nice article. Bad luck you can’t do anything about. You are trapped in a losing hand so there is nothing you can do except suck it up and it can go on for years. Concentrate on winning the maximum and losing the least. Missing opportunities is the biggest cure for bad luck. Do you know the implied odds on each call or raise you make? The 2 7 off suite may make correct call on the button in a very large pot. Notice that your biggest wins may be what you consider an unplayable hand and your A’s and K’s are your biggest losses because after the flop you may be drawing practically dead and not know it. Just hope your opponent isn’t smart enough to know how to trap you into losing your whole stack.

    Thanks for the mind clearing. I won a tournament yesterday.

    Charlie shoten

  2. If you measure your results by the year, and not by the moment, then luck is an insignificant factor.

  3. Last night I played in a mid stakes game ($5/$10 NL) where one guy was crushing the game with any 2 cards and I couldn’t hit a flop to save my bare behind.

    No one can tell me luck doesn’t play a huge factor in poker.

    1. It’s not necessarily who gets lucky and who doesn’t. Its more like who does good with the type of luck they get. Who loses the less when they are getting unlucky, and wins the most when getting lucky.

  4. Nice article, yet again. Now it’s only up to us to learn how to make the right decisions.

  5. Just the column I needed Mike! I’ve been getting destroyed the last 9 months – fortunately all low stakes where I believe thinking players are few & far between. I go back, look over the decisions I make & am satisfied for where I am, but I sure would like to see some of that luck factor turn my way. It’d make the decisionmaking so much more pleasant.

  6. Then the statement that I hear all the time is wrong. “Luck has nothing to do with it!”

    1. Hi, Stan —

      Well, it’s theoretically possible that the declaration, “Luck has nothing to do with it,” is used correctly and can be taken literally. But that doesn’t happen often.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

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