Poker as a game of skill with elements of luck
Poker is a game of skill with elements of luck, but it is not considered to be gambling
Poker players consider poker to be a game of skill with elements of luck, but they would not qualify it as a gambling game, where the outcome is determined by luck. The first significant difference between poker and other casino games is the fact that the casino does not participate in the game. Most of the casino games are based on a battle between the player and the casino and the latter one has some kind of advantage which is a part of the game rules. Roulette allows you for instance to place a bet on the red or the black color and if your bet is successful, then you will double your stake. However, the red/black color occurs in less than 50% of the times, because zero is neither red nor black. Similar games, which have incorporated a disadvantage for the players into the game rules, cannot be profitable for the players in the long-term.
There are several casino games which are inspired by poker, but it is not real poker. One of such games is for instance Caribbean poker, where the players create various poker combinations in order to defeat the dealer, who has a mathematical advantage comparable to roulette. Similar games allow sometimes gaining an advantage thanks to card counting (especially in Blackjack); however, such players are disqualified from the game.
In real poker, the casino (or the poker room) does not participate in the games, they are responsible for the operations of the games: by providing rooms, tables, chips, dealers, floormans and other personnel. Furthermore, the games are monitored by cameras in order to prevent any cheating. The casino charges for these services a fee, which covers the costs and generates a profit. For example, the profit of a poker tournament depends only on the number of participants and not on the course of the games, which is not influenced by the organizer. The players compete against each other and nobody has an advantage, so everyone can use his/her skills without any limits. If you look further into this matter and think about the skills that are required to play poker, you will get a long list abilities, which should by mastered by every poker player:
- The ability to calculate combinations and probabilities – experienced players are able to assess in every situation the probability that a specific combination occurs; they are able to determine how many better or worse combinations are being eventually held by opponent and they know with which combinations they should enter into a game from various positions.
- The ability to determine whether to bet, raise, call, fold or set the right amount of bets – all players receive in the long-term an equal amount of good and bad combinations. However, better players are able to win with their strong combinations more chips and simultaneously do not lose so much chips with bad combinations in comparison to less experienced players. So at the end, their overall results are much better.
- The art of bluffing – if we would bet only with strong combinations, our game style would be very transparent. Therefore, it is necessary to bluff from time to time and to learn the right ratio between strong combinations and combinations, which are being used to bluff in a specific situation. Bluffing should be adjusted also to the game style of the opponent and it should incorporate also psychological factors.
- The ability to watch closely the game of the opponent and to implement a counter-strategy. The observation of body language is one of the key factors during live poker matches. However, in online poker there are also various behavioral factors that should be observed more closely, such as the speed of decision making. The observation of the opponent´s game style and the identification of errors in his/her strategy are in both cases the key factors, along with the identification of the betting patterns of the opponent (such as the frequency of bluffing; the impact of bluffing on the value of the stakes; calling in situations when there is an insufficient probability to win, etc.).
- Other important factors are patience, discipline, focus, an efficient financial management and the reduction of risks and many other attributes. Very important is also the preparation at home, the analysis of played games with other experienced players; the study of various situations with the assistance of mathematical software and the testing of new ideas and strategies.
A certain degree of chance has also an impact, however luck or bad luck are distributed equally among all the players in the long-term, so the luck factor is more or less eliminated after a sufficient number of game rounds has been played. Moreover, even pure skill-based games require a relatively long time until the skills of a person can fully display. In this regards, we need to mention the legendary match of the World Championship in chess between Karpov and Kasparov. According to the game rules, the first player who wins 6 matches will be crowned as the World Champion. After 48 game rounds, the overall score reached 5:3 for Karpov, but the president of the International Chess Federation had to call off the match in order to protect the health of the players. The match was played from the 10th of October 1984 until the 8th of February 1985. It is therefore no wonder that in Poker, where the skills are masked also by an element of luck, a very large number of games must be played as well; however, this does not change the fact that the skills will make the difference at the end.
Poker – a game of skill or luck: what do scientists say?
The question, whether poker is a game of skill or luck, has been the subject of many scientific studies. Regular readers of our website know AKQ poker, which is a very simple game with only three cards. However, if you know the right strategy, which is based on the identification of the frequency of bluffs, you can gain a significant advantage over an inexperienced opponent. This variant of poker was studied by T. S. Kuhn already in the year 1950. At that time, similar questions were studied by the legendary mathematicians John Nash and John von Neumann, however the subject of studies were mostly model variants of poker.
The main idea is as follows: if a game depends only on chance, then a strategy to play a game absolutely randomly is as good as any other strategy, which is not based on chance. If a player will bet randomly on roulette, then the expected result will be always a loss of 5,3% (which is the advantage of the Casino at American Roulette). Any other non-random strategy is however not able to achieve a better result, which means that roulette cannot be considered to be a game of skill. A similar experiment can be conducted for poker.
Let´s imagine a duel between two players. One player makes his decisions whether to bet or not on a random basis and the second player plays a simple strategy, which is however not random - he always bets or raises and if it is not possible to raise, then he makes a call, but he never throws away his cards. This strategy is very primitive, because it does not take into account what cards we hold in our hand; however it is superior to a random strategy. For instance in the Limit Texas Holdem variant, the strategy focused on raising wins 97,8% of all games. The reason for this is based on the fact that a random strategy chooses very often to fold the cards in a game phase (preflop, flop, turn, river) - only if this strategy chooses to call at every opportunity, then there is the possibility to win, but due to the fact the cards are dealt randomly, the chance of winning is only at 50%. The strategy focused on continuous raising wins therefore all games, where the random strategy folds the cards and furthermore half of the games, when the cards are being shown. The non-random strategy is able to win over the random one without any doubt, so poker has a significant element skill.
There are also studies, which were statistically analyzing played games with the aim to determine, whether the results are influenced primarily by skill or by chance. The main idea is that random games do not require maintaining any kind of efficiency or skill. For example a player who was in the past very successful at roulette will not have better winning chances in the future than any other player who was losing in the past. Games of skill are however different, because success in the past indicates better skills and therefore better chances for the future. This principle is also applied to analyze the performance of sports teams or even managers of investment funds. Two studies analyzed the results of poker tournaments and both came to the conclusion, that there is an element which requires keeping efficiency and poker has therefore a skill-based character, which was compared by one study to golf and by the second one to baseball. Another study analyzed data from 456 million played online cash games and it drew the same conclusion that poker requires to maintain a certain degree of efficiency and skills, provided that a larger number of games will be played.
Recently, scientists who work in the field of artificial intelligence have shown their interest in poker as well. They have been creating computer programs, which aim to play poker in an optimal way and they have even organized tournaments with poker robots as participants. At the end of the year 2016, two scientific teams have created such artificial intelligence, which was able to win over human players for the first time in the poplar poker variant No Limit Hold'em. Their success in the field of artificial intelligence is a milestone, which can be compared to the win of the chess program Deep Blue over Garry Kasparov.
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