Sign Up For Card Player's Newsletter And Free Bi-Monthly Online Magazine

Luck of The (Table) Draw

The Classic Debate Rages On

by Bernard Lee |  Published: Sep 04, 2013


Bernard LeeIs poker based on luck or skill?

For many poker aficionados, including myself, there is little doubt that skill plays a larger part in poker than luck.  Recently, in August 2012, Judge Jack Weinstein of the United States District Court in Brooklyn, NY concluded that poker was predominantly a game of skill. In his ruling, he stated that, “nor does the definition of gambling include games, such as poker, which are predominated by skill.”

Additionally, Judge Weinstein stated, “while players’ actions are influenced by chance events, their decisions are based on skill.”

However, while skill distinguishes the best poker players over the long run, no one can deny that luck definitely plays a role in poker.

When asked the question, I often suggest that much of the skill in poker occurs when your cards are concealed and betting is taking place. However, once the cards are revealed (such as when there is an all-in and a call) and there is no more betting occurring, this is the time when the luck factor can take center stage.

Most people associate luck with making a gutshot straight. Some players envision flopping a set versus an overpair. Others dream of hitting a miracle one-outer on the river. These lucky scenarios often supersede skill at that particular moment, changing the course of the game.

However, sometimes luck at the poker tables occurs in unexpected ways.

To me, one of the most underrated aspects of poker’s “luck” factor is your table draw. During a poker tournament, you are assigned a randomly chosen seat, and the players that are seated at your table are also chosen randomly. The ability of these opponents and their stack sizes directly affect your performance and subsequent outcome, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse

One positive example in my career was illustrated during my 2005 World Series of Poker (WSOP) main event run to 13th place. Throughout that surreal week, I was fortunate to have great table draws day after day. Although I played against numerous solid players during the tournament, I did avoid some of the bigger names. That year, the final 27 players included the likes of Phil Ivey, Greg Raymer, Tim Phan, and Andy Black. Incredibly, I never faced any of these superstars during the 2005 WSOP main event.

Additionally, I never sat at the same table with poker pros Mike Matusow, Shawn Sheikhan, Tex Barch and Aaron Kanter before that fateful day when the final 27 players reassembled in downtown Las Vegas at the Horseshoe in Benny’s Bullpen to play down to the main event final table. I have no doubt in my mind that these “lucky” table draws during the tournament helped lead me to my near final table performance.

Of course, there have been many difficult situations in which table draws have negatively affected my eventual result. For example, at the 2011 WSOP in the $1,500 deuce-to-seven no-limit single draw event, I was second in chips heading into the final table. Although the table was jam packed with solid players such as Jason Mercier, Josh Brikis, Chris Bjorin and Thomas Fuller, the chip leader and the most aggressive player, Matt Perrins, was seated directly to my left. As I have written before about deuce-to-seven no-limit single draw, position is extremely critical in this game, much more so than even no-limit hold’em. Perrins took full advantage of this situation and dominated the final table. Unable to overcome this table draw and positional disadvantage, I ended up finishing in fourth place, missing out on a coveted WSOP bracelet.

During this year’s WSOP, I witnessed another example of how table draws can affect your outcome. Playing in a $1,500 no-limit hold’em shootout event, I sat down to a relatively unknown group of players at my first table. However, looking around the room, I noticed several tables that were stacked with top pros, while other tables were similar to my situation. Imagine how unlucky for the amateur player to sit down at a shootout table with the likes of Erik Seidel or Bertrand “ElkY” Grospellier (both who won their first table and made it to the second round), along with a handful of other recognizable pros. Although I was unable to get through my own first table, I definitely had a relatively easier situation than some of the other players sitting at much tougher starting tables. For them, the “luck” of the draw was definitely against them.

While table draws are important, this dynamic is not the deciding factor. For example, at last year’s 2012 WSOP main event final table, eventual champion Greg Merson was seated to the immediate right of the chip leader, Jesse Sylvia. However, after a fortunate double up courtesy of Andras Koroknai midway through the final table, Merson became the chip leader and never looked back.

Nevertheless, to somewhat neutralize the “luck” factor of table draws, you can research your opponents, trying to get as much historical information about them as possible. Back in January of 2012, I wrote a column in Card Player about tournament preparation on Day 2s and beyond. To summarize the column, I stated that if you “survive Day 1, you should look up every player at your next day’s table.” You should utilize all the information available, researching “all of (your) opponents’ career stats (including number of cashes, career earnings, number of final tables, number of tournament wins, largest buy-in amount, average buy-in amount, etcetera), news stories mentions, twitter accounts and anything else (you) can gather.” This thorough analysis will allow you to somewhat counteract the “luck” of the table draw by formulating a game plan against your opponents based on their past performances.

So when it comes to poker, “luck” comes in various forms. However, table draws are often not thought of as part of the luck factor, but hopefully it will be in your favor over the long run.  

Therefore, the next time you hear: “Good luck at the tables,” it may take on a whole new meaning. ♠

Bernard Lee is the lead commentator for WSOP Circuit live stream, poker columnist, author of “The Final Table, Volume I and II” and radio host of “The Bernard Lee Poker Show,” which can be found on or via podcast on iTunes. Lee is also a team member of Follow Bernard Lee on Twitter: @BernardLeePoker or visit him at