It’s been a long-running debate for some time now: is poker a game of luck or skill? Which one is more dominant? The movies would make us lean towards a game of skill — and poker players would likely agree that it is. Non-poker players and casual observers of games, however, may say otherwise and say that luck is simply on your side because you get winning cards from the dealer. This article studies poker and the different elements and aspects of the game that suggest it’s all about luck as well as the ones that make the case for it being a game of skill.

Why it could be a game of luck

One of the biggest problems when it comes to clarifying whether poker is a game of luck or skill is the fact that the dealer shuffles the cards. This introduces a significant element of chance into the game, and it can have major consequences for players and anyone who runs a poker game, especially where the law is concerned. The laws of a lot of countries forbid games of chance. Anyone on trial for playing or facilitating an allegedly illegal game of poker could come in for some serious punishment for the law, depending on whether the judge or jury, as applicable, considers the game to be one of chance.

There is research that has muddied these waters even further, by finding there’s a tipping point at which poker transforms from a game of chance into a game of skill. You have to play a fair few hands to get there, though: approximately 1,471 hands. From that point on, a relatively skilled player can expect to gain the upper hand over less skilled players.

Other research has pitted ‘expert’ poker players against ‘non-expert’ players, based on the participants’ interest in the game. The researchers had deliberately rigged the cards so that the participants could consistently get good, bad or neutral hands. To cut a long story short, the ‘experts’ didn’t accrue much more money than the ‘non-experts’, which suggests that skill had no real influence on the outcome of poker games.

Why it could be more a game of skill

When you play a game of poker, whether you’re in the casino or just at home with friends, you’re not playing against the house; you’re playing against other players. The house just provides a means of playing the game. You can keep your eye open for players making mistakes and capitalize on them. Recreational players are the best ones to target, in this regard. There are so many different aspects of the game and if you’re going to stand any chance, you need to have a good understanding of the terms within poker. The amount to learn certainly suggests the game is more than just chance!

Bluffing is another important skill in poker, and it can help you to steal the edge even when your cards aren’t working in your favor. Bluff convincingly enough, and other players may fold despite having a better hand than you. A player must learn to read when others are weak or not feeling confident — they won’t make it obvious to the table, of course — and strike.

The math of it all

There is a consistency element to poker as well. By observing a player (or players) over a set period of time and tracking their progress, you can predict how well they’ll do (or not do) over the next block of time. This is not possible in a game of chance. There’d be no correlation between the winnings and the players, which clearly suggests that poker is more a game of skill than chance.

And although there’s no denying that there are elements of luck in poker, it’s just as much a game of mathematical know-how and odds. Understanding the odds and the math of it all will help you to form your strategy. It’s a simple strategy at that: when you have a statistical advantage over the other player(s), you put more money in the pot; when you’re at a disadvantage, you put less in.

You might also see players win with certain hands or pairs of cards that are lower than yours, but mathematically, if they have two queens and you have two aces, in the long run, you’re still going to win more. The odds are in your favor, statistically.

Playing the long game

Poker is really a long-run game. Players don’t just play a hand, win and then get up from the table. They spend several days sitting at a table and just getting down to business. In the course of their careers, they’ll play thousands of hands — maybe even millions — and can have the best hand but still walk away without the winnings on many occasions. It’s frustrating, but they learn to cope it. All the hours spent playing allow them not just to improve their game, but also to build up the experience to handle the psychological demands of playing poker involves.

Play the game long enough, and you can develop your skills and read other players to determine the best way to play against those opponents. If they’re a stronger opponent, you could adopt a more cautious approach; if they’re a weaker player — although they could be bluffing and pretending to be weak — you could adopt a more aggressive playing style and try to bully them at the table.

There is an element of luck in poker. There’s no denying that. No player can decide what cards they receive, but then good players will learn how to work best with the cards they get and when it’s best to fold, when it’s best to raise or call, when to bluff and, generally, how to turn the game in their favor. The one thing that’s certain is that if you don’t play, you can’t win. Nothing can change that.