Is Poker Luck or Skill? How Much of Each Are Needed?

By David Huber
June 07, 2023

In poker luck and skill both play a part, meaning there are short-term gambling elements as well as long-term competitive elements. There are 52 cards in a standard poker deck, a few players seated at a live or virtual table, poker chips that represent something of value, and poker rules that apply equally to all players in a particular game.

It seems so simple on the surface.

After all, what about poker could possibly be so complex that it requires such an enormous amount of poker strategy consideration in order to consistently increase one’s chances of success over the long term?

How do superior players distinguish themselves over inferior competition in some of the highest stakes poker cash games and tournaments on the planet?

And is it possible for some poker players to be “luckier” than others over the course of their poker careers?

In this article, we’ll delve into the distinctions between luck and skill in poker, how these two terms can be defined for novice players, along with a few basic explanations of concepts such as sample size, variance, and bankroll management.

luck vs. skill

Luck in Poker Makes Short-Term Losers out of Long-Term Winners

There aren’t many games in the universe in which the (provably) least-skilled players can utterly demolish the (provably) best players in a single hand, point, play, game, contest, stanza, lap, attempt, frame, inning, quarter, period, round, or set – especially when real money incentives exist for winners.

Yes… a “pro” might throw a gutter-ball in bowling; might double-fault on a serve in tennis; might drop the baton in a relay race (and so on), but such “unforced errors” aren’t very relevant when it comes to the most highly skilled poker players in the world.

The best poker players don’t actually “beat themselves,” rather they suffer from a lack of infinite knowledge (or a short-term bout of “bad luck”) just as all human beings do.

And so much knowledge is unknown in a single poker hand – despite the most highly skilled players’ constant efforts to gain as much information as possible in the name of increasing one’s profit-based “expectation” or “edge” at the tables.

A “bad” poker player can easily – relative to many other games that pay something of value to winners – defeat a great poker player in one or more hands, days, sessions, tournaments, etc.

But the larger quantity of hands (a.k.a., “examples”) that take place, the more likely it is for superior players to approach whatever positive expectation truly exists over their inferior poker competition, and vice versa.

Crudely speaking, if a low-skilled poker player bests a far superior player in one hand (or over a few hands), it’s not really newsworthy. After all, that’s poker!

However, sooner or later, the most-skilled players are going to outperform lesser competition. Even if it takes some vague amount of time or precise “sample size” number for this to become increasingly obvious to third-party observers (or the players themselves).

How Much Are Skill and Luck Needed to Succeed in Poker?

It depends.

Are you heading to Las Vegas with a $500 bankroll and looking to quadruple your money in a high-rake $2/$5 No Limit Hold’em poker game by the end of a weekend? If so, you’re probably going to require a relatively large amount of short-term luck in order to be successful – regardless of your skill level.

Have you entered a $100+9 buy-in, 10-handed Sit & Go event that’s fully occupied by “go all-in on every hand” opponents in which first place is awarded $500 compared to $300 for second place and $200 for third place? If that’s the case, a fold-to-win strategy might not require much luck (or thought) to realize an overall positive, profit-based expectation for that tournament.

However, the rudimentary examples provided above don’t competently explain how much luck or skill is needed in poker for professional players.

So to put it more bluntly, successful poker players need skill in poker.

The more skill (loosely defined as knowledge or information plus the physical capacity to execute on the wisdom that has been accrued over one’s poker-playing career – from the first hand ever played up to the moment of a decision), the better!

As for luck, well…

Let’s Talk about Poker Luck in an Abstract Setting

A coin flip is generally regarded as a 50-50 proposition (no crooked coins, please) and can be wagered on in a simple manner that can then be moved into the abstract.

You call Heads: the coin lands on Heads, so you got lucky? Or the coin lands on Tails, so you got unlucky?

How about 10 consecutive coin flips? Six land on Heads so you got lucky? Or six land on Tails so, again, you got unlucky? Because the expectation before any coin was flipped was that the odds will eventually even out?

What if the coin lands on the same side 9 out of 10 times? Talk about a streak of good (or bad) luck!

Similar to poker (but far less complex than poker), a coin landing on one side or another over the short-term is not a news item. But if you’re simulating 1 octillion coin flips and 51% of them land on the same side, then the integrity of the software that’s performing the simulations will be brought into question.

Somewhere between one coin flip and a bunch of coin flips resides a mathematical formula, equation, and/or group of insertable variables that will numerically define just how “lucky” or “unlucky” the results are.

Fortunately for non-math people, there exists a broad database of poker-related “how-to” guides that have been published over the years by experts within poker forums and poker books; on poker content websites and social media channels.

So How Much Luck is Needed in Poker?

Whether luck is “needed” in poker at all is a question that can be debated. But whether it’s needed or not, luck (or rather, a gap between long-term expectation and actual short-term outcomes) exists.

Precisely who needs luck in poker then? And why?

Is it professional players who rely on inferior players’ luck in order to keep them returning to a game in which superior players have an edge? Is it the poker game host/cardroom who needs luck in poker so the regulars can justify grinding away without raising too much of a fuss about rake rates?

Is it casual, non-winning players who depend on luck so they can occasionally have a winning session, trip, or weekend at the tables?

It’s unclear to what extent any of this really matters over the long-term, but exactly HOW do we define “long-term” over “short-term?” Especially given the amount of variables that exist in the game of poker?

Can Poker Players Be Lucky or Unlucky Over an Entire Poker Career?

Of course they can! Keep in mind that the fewer hands that are played, the larger the gap between overall expectation and short-term outcomes can be.

Due to potential sample size (amount of hands), live poker-playing grinders are going to be more susceptible to luck (either good or bad) since they cannot possibly see as many hands at a brick and mortar cardroom as they can online.

A poker player might see a total of 20 hands over the course of one hour in a retail cardroom – while a poker player can see hundreds of hands online during that same hour.

This is one reason why so many aspiring players use online poker games to gain the experience needed not only to improve on their skills, but also to more accurately gauge what their long-term expectation might be in a particular format, variant, or stake level.

Can Luck in Poker Be Negated by Cheating?

In this author’s opinion – yes, it can! For a little while longer at least.

And what’s more (again, in this writer’s view), some victimized poker players have inadvertently enabled poker cheaters to abscond with a LOT of money over the years/decades by:

  • utilizing platforms such as forums and social media to publicize their griefs in a manner in which (arguably) converts a potential crime into a personal matter
  • failing to bond-out participants of a poker game through commercial mechanisms such as notarial services, contracts, and agreements
  • refusing by default to actively enhance (or even study) local and state ordinances, guidelines, and codes that relate to criminal cheating in contests in which “something of value” is awarded to the winner(s)
  • ignoring the disruptive nature of poker software (and/or making personal use of it) as it relates to questions involving ethics, premium-only availability, and the inevitability of future technological advances
  • burdening third-party individuals with the task of commercial arbitration and in some select cases, having a supposed grievance overruled (or even proven to be incorrect)
  • opting to participate in unregulated, third-party monetary exchange systems and in turn, bypassing existing infrastructure (for criminal prosecution and commercial compacts) that are based in traditional forms of monetary currencies
  • arriving at partial and/or private settlements with accused offenders for the sake of expediency as opposed to following through with formal evidence gathering plus enforcement procedures for the sake of posterity

So, is there any good news for poker cheating victims (or bad news for poker cheaters who will go to any lengths to bypass the luck element in games of chance) on the horizon?

Subjectively speaking, yes.

As soon as poker cheating accusations veer away from “performance art” and move into the realm of “due diligence,” the incentives for cheating in poker will be reduced (in this author’s view).

But the road to capable deterrence of poker cheating probably STARTS with local and/or state jurisdictions – not with “universal” rhetoric about ethics that get posted (and subsequently debated) on global platforms. Each case is unique, after all.

Is Poker a Game of Skill or Luck?

Poker is a game of both skill and luck. It’s a game that includes competition and fun; work and leisure.

If you’re looking to improve your skills at the poker tables and willing to give yourself a sufficient bankroll to compete, learn, and improve at the stake levels you’re playing, then you’ll have a better shot at a rewarding skill-based poker journey.

What Resources Are Available to Improve My Poker Skill?

Aside from poker forums, books, websites, and social media outreach, poker training sites are a great way to shorten the learning curve and work with experienced poker professionals who can directly relate to (and advise on) the games you’re looking to beat.

You can also join online groups that focus on poker-related topics, including poker strategy.

Other than that, there’s really no substitute for actual poker-playing experience. There’s no other way to become so intimately involved with the game of poker than to actually participate in it – with real money or something else of value in order to satisfy the element of risk that goes hand-in-hand with games of chance.

If you’re on a limited budget and would like to try your hand at a real money poker game, there are large, ultra-popular poker sites on the internet that offer micro-stakes poker tournaments and cash games for pennies.

As a rule of thumb, online poker games offer superior opportunities for budget-minded individuals compared to their retail counterparts. You’re not going to get much (if any action) in a live setting with a $25-$50 starter’s bankroll, but you will have plenty of micro-stakes options online after making an initial $25-$50 deposit.

Make the most of your opportunities to learn how to play poker, improve, and give yourself the best chance of having a positive, winning expectation in the games you play.

Learn to live with the element of luck in poker because there’s nothing you can do about things that are provably beyond your control. It’s better to instead focus on what you CAN control in poker – your own personal level of knowledge, experience, know-how, and skill.

Have fun at the poker tables!



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David Huber poker author
Written By.

David Huber

David Huber has been involved in the poker industry for close to two decades: initially as a professional online poker player and later as an editor, consultant, writer, and forum manager. Known as “dhubermex” online, David’s poker-related work has been heavily published across numerous websites since 2004.

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