How Much of Poker is Luck?

LuckyThe luck factor–how much luck is in poker? Depends on the sample size. In one hand it’s huge, but over a million hands it has a tiny effect on your win rate. It also depends on the game, your style, your skill advantage and a host of other things. If someone quotes a percentage, like, “poker is 70% luck,” they don’t know what they are talking about.

The real reason the luck factor is so important is that fish wouldn’t play with us without it because it allows them to win sometimes and mediocre players who think they are good blame their mediocre results on running bad in big spots. They blame bad players, the dealer, the fates, anything but their own skills.

How much of poker is luck?

If a self-proclaimed expert gives you a straightforward answer to that question like, “about 50%,” I can assure you that they don’t know what they are talking about. The answer to this question is vague and convoluted and depends on a host of factors. The most important of these factors is sample size. Over a million hands in cash games, luck has very little effect on your win rate, while if you just look at one hand, luck is a huge factor in determining the outcome.

The other factors include your playing style, the game you are playing, your opponents, your skill advantage over your opponents, changing stakes and whether you play tournaments or cash games. I have a large enough sample size in online No Limit Hold’em cash games to know approximately what my win rate was in some of those games, but I have only played about 30 WSOP bracelet events, so my sample size is much too small in them to have any idea what my win rate is.

The sample size required to know your real win rate is large enough in most games that, by the time you reach a sample size that is significant, the game has changed and you have almost certainly improved and changed your game. If your game hasn’t changed at all and you haven’t learned anything over a million hands, there is no chance that you are a winning player anyway, so we’re not worried about a win rate.

Most players hate the variance in poker, blaming bad luck for their losses. Even many strong players seem to hate that the variance and blame bad luck for their occasional losses. The truth is that the luck factor in poker, the variance that allows bad players to win so often, is the only reason that skilled players make any money at all. If the best player always won, bad players would get tired of losing pretty quickly.

This luck factor is a big part of the reason that there are probably more people who play poker professionally than any other game. Whoever the 100th best poker player in the world is, they make more money than 100th best tennis player, the 100th best chess player or the 100th best marathon runner. Players in the big four sports, as well as, soccer might make more than some poker players down to about number 1,000, but below that poker reigns supreme again, even without big TV contracts and stadiums full of spectators.

Not only does luck give bad players a chance to win and a chance to remember those wins and continue to play with us, but it clouds the issue enough that literally hundreds of thousands of people think they are in the top ten or twenty percent of all players. Almost every player in the card room think they are in the top half. How many people think they are a top basketball player or a top chess player?

In almost any competitive endeavor that becomes popular, luck is a significant factor. If there is not significant variance, the best competitor wins so often that the competition becomes boring very quickly. This is why the 50th best chess player in the world can’t survive on what they make playing chess, while the 50th best poker player makes an excellent income.

Think about golf. When someone tells me that poker is mostly luck, I use golf as an example of luck in a competitive sport. When the best golfer in the world enters a tournament, how often does he win? One in 50, maybe? One in 25 at best? This alone indicates that luck is a huge factor. How well the player is feeling on a given tournament day can have a huge effect on their chances of winning.

Even more than how the player is feeling, the random occurrences that can change the game completely have a big effect on golf. A great player can make a great shot and get a bad bounce because of a stone or a tiny lump in the fairway that he could never see from 300 yards away. A sudden gust of wind that couldn’t be predicted can change the flight pattern of a ball. Even the best balls and clubs have small variances in how they perform.

Without all this variance, golf would have the same problem that chess has. If the best player won most of the tournaments they entered, golf would plummet in viewership on television, sponsorship dollars would dry up and the popularity of the game would drop. Many people golf because they enjoy it and not in the hope that they can play professionally, so the game would certainly survive, but it wouldn’t be as popular as it is today.

The amount of money that professionals in competition earn is usually from one of two sources, both of which require a luck factor to keep things interesting.

Spectator Value

The value of a competitor to spectators is a big part of the income for sports like football. Most amateurs have very little interest in being tackled by an NFL player, and certainly wouldn’t wager money against a pro in hopes of beating them at their own game. If football wasn’t fun to watch, the sport would be so small that you may never have heard of it.

Poker may never have the spectator value that football has, but we can definitely improve upon it. Poker has the same amount of tension about who will win and just the right amount of luck factor to keep things interesting. With hole card cams and good announcers, the game drew a good number of fans for television broadcasts a few years ago and some broadcasts still draw a nice audience. With better coverage, more interesting characters and players who understand how to interact with a fan base, the spectator value could increase significantly and poker pros could make more money.

Participation Value

Some games, like golf, racquetball or long distance running, have participation value that is significant because the activity is fun for many participants, even if they aren’t very good. This is poker’s primary source of income. People may watch poker videos on YouTube, but they would much rather be playing.

If we can bring poker to the masses by making the game as friendly as possible, being pleasant to beginners at the tables and not belittling bad players, the participation value for serious players could increase drastically. The game needs to be fun all the time for recreational players and we need to make absolutely sure that the players who help us pay our bills are not driven away.

Be nice to the fish. Don’t make a new player feel uncomfortable and never shame a player for making a mistake. I think we’ve all done it but we need to do our very best to avoid it, because as the spectator value has dropped, we need those participants to be at the tables with us. Without bad players, there isn’t much money in the game at all. Without bad players, I would need to find a new job, and I’m too old to get serious about golf and too out of shape to try out for the NFL.

So what do we learn from all this talk about luck and bad players? We learn that we need to be thankful for the “luck factor,” it’s the only reason bad players are in the game, and over a large enough sample size, the luck factor diminishes to a tiny influence anyway. We learn that we should treat bad players well and be kind to them. The next time someone asks you how much luck there is in poker, you can answer like I do.

“It depends on the situation, but I’m grateful for every bit of it.”

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Chris Wallace

Chris Wallace is a professional mixed game player and coach from Minnesota with 31 final tables to his record. He won the 2015 WSOP $10,000 HORSE Championship for his first bracelet and co-wrote “No Limits – The Fundamentals of No Limit Hold’em.”
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