It seems like a few times a year some study is released or a regulator makes a decision about whether poker is a luck game or a skill game. The answer is yes.
It’s our dichotomy-obsessed society that wants to put everything in an either-or box. But most things, poker included, aren’t entirely either one thing or its opposite, they exist somewhere on a spectrum.
In the gambling world, some games are closer to pure luck and others are closer to pure skill. On the luck end of the spectrum is the slot machine. It doesn’t matter how you play them or what you do, it’s entirely luck. On the opposite end we could use the example of chess. It is sometimes played for money, but it is purely a test of skill. Somewhere in the middle is our beloved game of poker.
Is poker a game of luck? Yes. Is poker a game of skill? Yes.
This question requires context. How much of a sample is being considered when asking this question?
If we look at a single hand of nine-handed no-limit hold’em poker and ask if it’s a skill game or luck game, the answer is way closer to the luck end of the spectrum. It’s going to be very significant what cards each player receives and which ones are dealt to the board. The distribution of cards will play a large part in the outcome of that one specific hand.
The more hands that are considered, and as the sample size grows, poker becomes very close to chess as a skill game, or maybe even equal. If you look at a million hands of online poker, the variance of luck will have balanced itself out and skill will be the determiner of the win (or loss) rate.
There is also a very significant difference between poker tournaments and cash games. Let’s say that you play 500 hands in a single cash session. You will realize your equity in real dollars all 500 times. If you play 500 hands through the course of a single tournament, there are many more factors in how you will realize your equity. The variance is multiplied when playing tournaments just due to the fact that you receive a payout (or not) once. This doesn’t mean there is more luck involved in tournaments, it just means an even larger sample is required to get past the variance of chance.
So when the Amsterdam Court of Appeals declared poker a game of chance last year after another court in the Netherlands declared it a game of skill, they’re both answering a vaguely defined question.
So what? Why is this even a question that needs an answer? Well, it matters to regulators and policy-makers. They need to get this right so they can make appropriate rules about how the game can be played in their jurisdiction. And there is still a social stigma around poker that equates it to other casino games, which is inaccurate. So an adjustment needs to be made in how the game is understood among the broader population.
When you’re looking at a single night out for a poker night, the luck and skill balance is likely somewhere around 50/50. That’s definitely up for debate, but both are very much a factor in the outcome of the evening. However, when you look at a poker player’s entire career — years of playing and millions of hands online — luck has almost no bearing on their results.
So before we answer this question that seems to continually haunt poker, we need to clarify just what it is people mean to determine when they ask it.