SKILL VERSUS LUCK

The harder you work on your poker game the less lucky you will need to get.

okay, you just won a big tournament, you’re all pumped up, and you can’t wait to play another event. you played well—you had to read situations correctly and make some key bluffs and some key laydowns, but you also undoubtedly won a number of all-in confrontations, some of which would have resulted in elimination. It’s important to realize that there are two components to winning—your skill level and luck.

Luck undoubtedly played a significant role in your victory. It’s easy to forget, as you wish to beat your chest and declare yourself the greatest, but the truth is …you were lucky! Now this doesn’t mean that luck alone will take you to the top because it won’t—skill, experience, and adept decision-making put you in position to get lucky. Tournament poker combines short-term luck with long-term skill. you need both to win. My Kill Phil co-author, Blair Rodman, won a coveted bracelet in a $2,000-buy-in NLHE event at the 2007 WSoP. In a number of previous tournaments he got unlucky in key hands and got knocked out. This time, he admits that he got lucky in key spots. What a difference! Fortunately, luck has a way of balancing out. He didn’t play any better or worse than in previous events, but this time he got the cards he needed when it counted.

Luck comes in various guises. When you’re dealt a slightly better hand than an opponent, such as Jamie Gold when he was dealt QQ several times versus JJ in the 2006 WSoP Championship Event, that’s lucky! When I was dealt KK in a high-stakes 6-handed $120,000 winner-take-all event while heads-up against Jason Gray who held QQ, that was lucky. Not only was it lucky to be dealt the better of two powerful hands, it was also fortunate that the opponents in the above hands didn’t improve and win.

Twice in the 2006 Aussie Millions Main Event that I was fortunate enough to win, I was all-in with pocket kings against Kenna James, who held A9 and AQ, respectively. Both times my kings prevailed. Did I have the best hand both times? Absolutely! Was I lucky? Absolutely! The chance of me surviving both encounters was about 50/50—a coin flip. Heads I’m out; tails I go on to win the Aussie Millions.

How much of tournament poker is skill and how much is luck? overall, I’d say it’s about 75% skill and 25% luck. In any given hand, though, luck is a big factor. Even if you’re a 3-to-1 favorite, such as with AK versus AQ, you’ll still lose 1 out of 4 times. That’s a fact. Having a 75% chance of winning is a big edge, but it’s not a lock. Some players act as though their opponent has just won the lottery when their AQ prevails over AK. Far from it. Statistically, you’ll lose 25% of the time with this match-up, so it’s more constructive to take losing with it in stride, maintaining your equanimity.

There’s a famous Court case that dates back 20 years or more, in which Billy Baxter, a poker player, took on the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. tax authority, at a trial. The U.S. tax office refused to accept “professional” poker as an authentic profession, claiming that it was all luck, no skill. After hearing the evidence, the judge in the trial in Reno, Nevada, looked over at the prosecuting attorney and asked him, “Do you really think that playing poker is all luck?” and the trapped attorney responded, “yes, your Honor.” To which his Honor responded, “you may think that you’re telling the truth, but I can guarantee you that if you sit down at a poker table with Mr. Baxter, you have no chance of winning!” The reality is that in years past, the novice had no chance of beating a professional poker player at the pro’s own craft. Currently, though, a lot of information is out there—instructional books, articles, and DVDs; final tables reported hand for hand; television shows where you get to look at the professional players’ hole cards; and Internet games that click by so fast they can make your head swim. online services, such as cardrunner.com, or cardacademy.com, allow you to watch pros playing in real- money situations, while explaining every move they make. The learning curve for a novice player has accelerated off the top of the chart. A young gun can now learn in months what older competitors might have needed decades to achieve. To a great extent, the game of no-limit hold ’em, by its very nature with a prevalence of all-in bets levels the playing field for fearless new competitors, increasing fluctuations that, in the trade, are referred to as “variance.”

A wealth of knowledge is available in books and columns that only the pros used to know. When I write a book, I try to present as complete a picture as possible, much to the chagrin of some of my colleagues. I reveal secrets the pros don’t want you to know. Why? Because the continued growth of poker is good for everyone. The game will continue to evolve and there will always be a hierarchy of players with varying levels of skill. Through the miracle of the Internet, we all have more information literally at our fingertips than exists in the Library of Congress. It’s just a matter of knowing where to find it and how to use it.

To become good in anything takes study. you have to study the work of those who’ve gone before you, watch the moves they make, play many hours in your game of choice. Talk, though beneficial, is cheap. Until your rear end is in the chair and your money is actually on the line, it’s just talk and theory. How do you feel when you have an oK hand—not a great hand, but an okay hand—and your opponent makes a large bet? How do you feel when you know you’re supposed to bluff at a pot in a particular situation? Can you pull the trigger? If so, is your breathing controlled? Is your heart racing? Are your eyes blinking too frequently? Are you fearless and intimidating? or are you a tender flower that wilts at the first
sign of heat? Do you have the courage to evaluate yourself? These are serious questions for aspiring poker players. of course, poker is also a great form of relaxation. online play avoids many of the tough questions above. By selecting tournaments with buy-ins that are within your budget, you can relax, have fun, and learn.

I’ve noticed that repeat winners are those that not only have the desire and competitiveness to keep on winning, but also actually work on their game. It’s oK, even welcome, to be lucky, but if you want to be a great player, make sure you put in the required time. Lady Luck may love you, but she likes to see some sweat on your brow…

Here are a couple of examples of luck in tournaments. In my first major tournament win at the St. Maarten open, when down to three players, I was the short stack and moved all-in with 9h 8s. I was “insta-called” by a player holding pocket tens! The flop of J77 looked hopeless, but a 6 on the turn and a 5 on the river gave me a miracle straight (note that a ten was no good to me, as it would have given my opponent a full house). From there, I went on to win. My good luck!

While playing a no-limit hold ’em event at the Aviation Club in Paris, France, a couple of years later, we were down to 5 players at the final table of a 1,000-euro-buy-in event. I’d been raising aggressively and the other 4 players were getting tired of it. I’d come from fourth in chips to second and was now on the button, having raised unchallenged the 3 previous pots, when I picked up two red aces! I raised again, but this time, the chip leader decided to take a stand and call. The flop: Ks 3d 2d.

No matter how good you are you’ll get lucky and unlucky at the same rate as everyone else in the long run.

To my surprise, the chip leader pushed all-in! I called and he showed me Qc Js! He was on a total bluff. Winning this hand would have given me 80% of the chips, making me the overwhelming favorite to win this event. The turn: As; river Tc! His Broadway straight topped my trip aces. My bad luck! Just the opposite side of the coin from when I made that 9-high straight in St. Maarten.

In the long run, luck balances out and skill prevails, so no matter what result you achieve in your first tries, be modest and realize that you have a lot to learn. If you get to the money or even win an event, it means that you were lucky at the right moments. It’s a great accomplishment, but just the beginning. Try not to forget, in your moment of glory, that you’re a student of the game, not yet a master. The

best players know that there’s always more to learn and never stop studying. Stay focused and study. Regard poker as both a science and an art. The more you learn, the more you’ll realize how much more there is to learn.

The more you learn the more you’ll realise how much there is to learn.

Summary

  1. winning a tournament requires both skill and luck.
  2. Luck comes in many guises. Getting the right hands at the right times is crucial.
  3. You need to play well to position yourself to get lucky.
  4. Even the court system of the United States has had to recognize that poker is a game that requires a significant amount of skill.
  5. Poker is about information. The more information you have about the game and the other players, the more successful you’re likely to become. Read and play as much as possible.
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