How Much of it is Luck, Really?

4 years ago
Is There any Luck Left in The Game of Poker?
09 Dec

Though some lawmakers would disagree, I believe playing poker is a game of both luck and skill. But playing poker today is not like it was 10, 20, or certainly 100 years ago.

At some point in the distant past, your ability to play poker was determined purely by your personal knowledge of the game and the cards you were dealt.

These days, with calculated odds, free HUDs, and professional coaching, one has to wonder how much luck is left in the game. Have we solved poker as far as we are able, or is there more that we can iron out mathematically?

For a professional poker player, how much of it is luck really?

Calculated Odds

Probability Theory, the basis for all of our odds calculations, originated in the late 1400’s with Fra Luca Paccioli accredited as having written the first book on the subject, published 1494.

Work was continued over the next hundred years by famous mathematicians Blaise Pascal and then Pierre de Fermat. However, the theory’s application to poker was achieved by a less well known name, Chevalier de Méré.

Méré was an avid poker player and good friend of Pascal’s. Seeking to make himself wealthy by playing the game, he attempted to calculate the odds of winning using Pascal’s work.

While de Méré never solidified a successful formula for the game, his insistence and perseverance pushed Pascal to continue the work. Today, professional poker players across the world rely on derivations of those original formulae.

At first thought, the idea of calculated odds seems to be the thing that puts the biggest stopper on the luck factor when playing poker. One thinks, ‘what does chance have to do with it if I make the calculated best play possible?’

The answer is: Everything. You see, when we calculate our outs, the appropriate wager, and the chance of winning, we have pretty much solved our hand as well as it can be solved.

If that is true, and there is no more information we could use to better inform our decision, then what is left but luck to decide the winner? For proof, check out the most amazing cooler I have ever seen:

What a way to hit the rail!

Both players calculated their numbers, played their hands, and did everything correctly. At the end of the day, someone still lost with four aces. What made the difference?


A HUD or Heads Up Display is a simple application that runs as you play online poker. While many different apps exist, they all serve a similar purpose, tracking numbers. Pokertracker, for example, does the following:

    While all of this information is available as hands come and go, having a program keep track of it all has been criticized by some big names in the poker community.

    While I won’t weigh in with my own beliefs, I will say that this is another example where I believe modern innovation is actually reducing the skill required to play poker.

    There is a strong argument that memory is a part of the necessary skillset for a good player. You should be able to remember you opponents tells, their playstyle, and their bluffs.

    An HUD removes this skill from the player and leaves it to a perfect machine.

    However, another counter argument appears: just because you have the information doesn’t mean you know how to use it.

    One could as easily suggest that compiling all of the info allows players to bring out more of their real skill based on how they put that information to good use.

    Professional Coaching

    While the pros have taught young protegees for years, it is only recently that we have been given access to the massive libraries of poker videos and coaching sessions that are now available online.

    I am glad to say, there is no luck to be found here, only hard work and skill. While any pro can give you suggestions on how to play your game, only you can utilize what you have been given and put it to work on the felt.

    I am a big fan of coaching videos. I find them to be one of the best ways methods of learning for new and old players alike. I think what I like most is that there seems to be a video for every unique situation you might be in.

    While you obviously can’t look up ‘How to Play QQ Versus Resteal Preflop

    The crucial thing here is that a coach can show you the way, but they can’t do it for you. YOu have to be the one to apply what you learn and hence, coaching adds skill alone.


    Overall, the advent of modern technology has changed the way we play poker. It has added elements that take away some aspects the of the game in order to add focus to other parts of it.

    While it’s hard to tell if this is good or bad, it does seem as though some things intended to aid skill have really just increased our reliance on (or our deference to) luck. So how much of it is luck, really? Tell me what you think in the comments below.

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    Paul Nirenberg is a burgeoning author and long time fan of games of skill and chance. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, he has been an avid poker player since he was given The Little Black Book of Poker at age 13. He now spends his time writing freelance while accruing short stories for a science ...Read more


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