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Luck Vs. Skill: How To Look At The Variance In Your Game

by Greg Raymer |  Published: Jun 16, 2021

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I am frequently asked about the amount of luck involved in poker. Usually, the question is something like… “How much of winning in poker is skill, and how much is luck?” Those who ask this question are making the assumption that luck and skill are on a linear scale with one another, like this.

A game like chess, that involves all skill and has no luck involved, is on the far-left-end of this scale, and a game like roulette that is all about luck and involves no skill, is on the far-right end. People want to know where poker falls on this scale, as if the game is 70% skill, and 30% luck, for example.

The problem lies in the question’s assumption of this linear scale, where more luck means less skill, and vice versa. This assumption is completely mistaken! Luck and skill are not opposites. More of one does not mean less of the other.

Imagine you added a huge luck factor in a game like golf. Each time a player takes a stroke, the officials spin a wheel. Most of the spaces on the wheel say zero, and nothing happens. But 20% of the spaces add a stroke to the player’s score, and another 20% subtract a stroke. This would add a huge luck factor to the game.

However, who would be the best golfers in the world after this change? It would still be the same players as now. This change would have a huge impact on results, and the winner of each tournament would largely be the player who got lucky that week. But if your skill at golf wasn’t world class, you still would have no chance to win. And the very best players would still have the greatest chance of winning.

In reality, skill and luck are completely unrelated, and are not on the same scale at all. How it really looks is more like this.

Skill is on one axis, and luck on the other. You can do things, like my golf example above, and increase the luck factor in a game. But this change in luck does not necessarily do anything to change where that game lies on the skill axis.

On this X- and Y-axis graph of skill and luck, there are four points indicated, A through D. Point A is tic-tac-toe. There is no luck in this game, but it also involves almost no skill. You can teach a typical five-year-old how to play this game perfectly.
Point B is chess. It is also a game that involves no luck, but it requires great skill to play it well.

Point C is roulette, a game that is all about luck, and involves no skill at all. Every bet has the same house edge, so for every dollar bet, you will average a loss of a little over five cents. Which bet you make will impact your variance, but the house edge is still about 5.2% whether you bet red, black, odd, even, the number 12, a group of three numbers, a group of six numbers, whatever.

Finally, we get to Point D. This is poker. There is a huge luck factor in the game. In just my own personal results, in my last cash game, I played nine pots where my opponent or myself was all-in with cards left to come. I won about $9,000 from those pots. If the results had been “average,” I would have won about $18,000 from those pots. This net result, $9,000 below average, was simply due to bad luck that night.

Every player who ever won a poker tournament got lucky, no matter how well they played. Yet, there is also a lot of skill involved in playing poker. If I go online and click buttons at random, my result will likely be a significant loss. However, in the short run, I might win. In the long run, the more skillfully you play, the better you will do.

But the short-term variance is huge, and the long run takes a lot longer to reach than most players realize. As such, you must learn to understand this luck factor, the variance, that exists in poker.

But don’t let this luck factor fool you into thinking this game is all about luck, or even half about luck. It is not. Poker is all about skill, learning more, improving your game, and making better decisions. It is only through skill that you can become a long-term winning player.

Have fun, and play smart! ♠

Greg Raymer is the 2004 World Series of Poker main event champion, winner of numerous major titles, and has more than $7 million in earnings. He recently authored FossilMan’s Winning Tournament Strategies, available from D&B Publishing, Amazon, and other retailers. He is sponsored by Blue Shark Optics, YouStake, and ShareMyPair. To contact Greg please tweet @FossilMan or visit his website.