Skill versus Luck in Poker
Most people today misunderstand poker. Let's be frank: most people know poker from the low-stakes games they now play (or grew up playing) with their family and friends. In these lowstakes home games, luck often plays a much bigger role than skill.
The money to be gained or lost in a home tends to mean next to nothing, and everyone at the table plays almost every hand to the end. The dealer's choice games are often nonstandard, even bizarre variations (often fun) where, for example, deuces, black kings, or one-eyed jacks (or all of them) are wild. In this type of poker game, people just put their money in the middle (in the "pot") and hope to make the best hand. Often, there doesn't seem to be much strategy or thought involved. When the evening winds up, everyone seems to agree that "Johnny sure was hot tonight!" You don't hear anyone saying, "Boy, did Johnny play great tonight. I sure am afraid of him at the poker table."
One reason why luck has such a big role in home-style poker games is that many of the skills we use in pro-style games just don't come into play in a home game. For example, three of the more important skills that we use are being patient in determining which starting hands to play, bluffing, and reading people. Patience, like discipline, is a virtue in many areas of life, and poker is no exception. It is in the nature of professional or tough high-stakes poker games that it is mathematically correct to fold a lot of hands right away. If you are playing too many hands (which equates to too many bad hands) in a tough poker game, you will often find yourself "drawing mighty thin," that is, trying to win by catching particular cards that are in short supply.
The plain fact is that if you play too many hands in a prolevel poker game, you just cannot win, certainly not in the long run and probably not even on just one given night, no matter how lucky you are. But if you're playing a lot of hands in a home poker game, you may be in good shape anyway, because the sheer size of the pot will wind up offering you odds sufficient to draw to an inside straight (add a nine, for example, to your 7-8-10-J hand) or another "unlikely to hit" hand. You'll usually lose, but when you do manage to hit the card you need, you're going to win a huge pot.
Further, the number of cards that can complete what you need in the late rounds of a hand in a home game is often larger than one sees in the pro game, because the dealer has designated various wild cards or rules that allow you extra draws or give you chances to buy another card or replace a card.
Because you don't see these big pots and people paying you off with weak hands in a pro poker game, patience is crucial there. In the traditional home-style poker games, patience not only is not as important but may actually clash with the "spirit" of the game -- that "We're all here just to have fun and gamble." Playing a more technically informed style may win you more money in a home game, but it might also mean that you're not invited back the next time the game is held! In a casino poker game or an online poker game, of course, you don't need to be concerned that you might not be invited back.
Another key difference between home poker games and the games that the pros play is that bluffing actually succeeds in the pro-style games! In a home game, it's extremely hard to pull off a bluff, because you usually can't bet enough money on the last bet to get your opponents to fold. For 25 cents, someone who is convinced he is beaten is nonetheless willing to throw the two bits into the pot, just to see what you have, and, oops, there goes your attempted bluff.
Author: Phil Hellmuth
Phil Hellmuth, Jr. is a ten-time World Series of Poker Champion and all-time leading money winner at the World Series of Poker. In addition to appearances on the Discovery Channel, E!, ESPN, and Fox Sports Net, he has been featured in Sports Illustrated, Time, and Esquire. Phil also contributes to Gambling Times Magazine and writes for many poker websites. He lives with his family in Palo Alto, California.
"Phil Hellmuth gave me the best poker lesson I've ever received." - Matt Damon, actor and co-star in the movie Rounders
"Phil Hellmuth is the best poker tournament player that I have ever played against." - Johnny Chan, Seven-time World Champion of Poker
"Play Poker Like the Pros is the best poker strategy book ever written. - "Amarillo Slim" Preston, Hall of Fame inductee and poker's greatest ambassador.
"From the moment I first played poker with Phil I knew that I was witnessing something special." - Doyle "Texas Dolly" Brunson, Poker legend and eight-time World Champion of poker