There's an age-old question in poker that asks whether the game is based on skill or just plain luck. There's no doubt that the professionals would put the emphasis on skill, but often the beginner can come away the winner. So how much luck do we actually need to be successful?
Just the luck of the draw?
Luck is always going to affect your odds of winning, but there's little doubt that skill plays a larger part in poker than luck. You can't affect the hand you're dealt but you can change how you play it.
Firstly we need to begin by understanding the factors that influence our chances in online poker games. Every player knows you can't do anything about the cards you are dealt, but what you can do is play them in the most effective manner possible. Fold when you know you you've been beaten and take it on the chin.
So if the cards we're dealt determine our success, how can we be sure there's a skill element? If we compare poker to other casino games such as roulette we know that we have the ability to influence the game and therefore our odds. Once the ball is rolling in roulette there's nothing we can do to change the outcome. It's possible to lose intentionally in poker therefore we know that skill is going to be involved.
So even though there is a random factor to poker, what you can do is minimise your losses on bad hands and maximise them on the good ones.
The mathematical edge
The more hands you play, the more your skill as a player will become a factor. If you play one hand then it is more likely your opponent will have greater luck, whereas if you play say 100,000 hands then the luck will even out between players and your skill will be more significant.
In 2015, computer scientists claimed they had made a computer algorithm called Counterfactual Regret Minimisation, that would play a near perfect game of poker every time. It's 11-terabyte database of every possible combination of hands, plays and outcomes means that it is almost unbeatable. The fact that researchers have been able to create this algorithm shows that playing successful poker is not just down to luck but your skill and knowledge of the game.
When considering the relationship between luck and skill in poker the key thing to remember is that this relationship can change as the sample size varies. This is to say that when you play your first hand of poker it is very much a game of luck with a small but present element of skill. However if you were playing your 100,000th hand then you would probably describe it as a game of skill, with an element of luck.
The maths behind this is relatively simple, in one hand it is almost guaranteed that one player will have a much higher chance of success due to the hand they have been dealt, regardless of their skill. However if you play 100,000 hands, probability dictates that all players by this point should have had similar luck with regards to the cards dealt, therefore, skill is a much larger factor as the odds have become a lot more even.
The focus is on variance
Variance is the difference between how much money you expect to win on average over the long run and the results you are seeing in the short term. Luck is the cause of variance over the short term, so don't be fooled by a winning streak.
We have established that luck should even out the more hands you play but be under no illusion, poker will always remain a game in which luck plays a part. But, computer simulations can be run multiple times showing the best and worst possible results over hundreds of thousands of games, which end up showing a huge variance. From this you can see that it's possible for players to go on big winning streaks but in the long run they are actually a losing player. The only way you could really ensure that your luck would be completely even would be to play an infinite number of poker hands and let's be honest, no one has time for that!
Cards don't' have memory
Your losing streak won't last forever. So keep playing, as statistically the odds will eventually be in your favour.
When we play online poker we need to remember that a little bit of luck can only get us so far. If you want to win big money then you need to hone your skills, knuckle down and make sure you're in it for the long haul. Besides, it only takes the next hand for the odds to be in your favour.
When playing poker it's common to ignore your own ability or put your efforts down to luck. Where it is impossible to win at poker in the short term without at least some degree of good fortune, you must remember that your actions are always having an impact on your opponents.
Variance is something that should not be forgotten. When you're on a roll with a big winning streak, make sure that you understand that there was at least some luck involved and you're unlikely to sustain that win rate in the future. Similarly, when you're experiencing a losing streak, don't just put it down to bad luck but look to improve your mistakes. This will become easier with the more hands you play as the luck between you and your opponents will even out and your skill will play a greater part in your success.