Monday, November 20, 2006

A game of Luck

I had an interesting comment on the blog today from Liam.

Is poker more about luck than skill?

This very question is something that is at the very heart of the whole issue regarding the playing of online poker in the US. So this question is being debated all over the world.

For me it totally depends on the situation.
If you have committed all your chips with 77 and your opponent has AK. You have almost exactly a 50/50 chance of winning.
At that precise moment you will either win or lose - a probablity of 100% or 0%. (Okay there is a slight possibility you could have a split pot, but the odds are huge!) Versus what is as we have said a 50/50 chance.

For that one hand you are either very lucky 100% result vs 50% probability or very unlucky 0% result.

However over time this and given enough situations this will balance itself out.

The skill in this game though is about putting yourself in situations whereby the probablity of winning is great versus the risk involved. I do not look to put myself in 50/50 situations. I may often give my opponent the choice if he wants to go 50/50 with me, but I want my chips in first.

You also only have to look at why the worlds top players are just that, because they are consistenly successful. Liam makes reference to Dan Harrington, well he achieved two successive World Series of Poker Final Tables, that for me proves that this game is based on skill.

Characteristics for a being a Great Poker player.

Discipline - Knowing when to walk away. Managing your bankroll.
Patience - Waiting for the right opportunities, where you have the right odds.
Confidence - Believe in your abilities. Courage/Conviction
Ability to learn - If you not still learning, you are falling behind
Strategy - Changing gears, how to play hands/levels/players/tournaments
Numerical Ability - Know your odds
People Reading - who you can bluff, who will call you all day.
Realism - You can't win everytime, if your not prepared to lose, your not prepared to win.
Luck - Well it helps! Pocket Aces may be between 80&90% to win preflop! Not 100%.

Luck plays its part in my opinion, but there is no way I would be playing this game if I did not think I had an edge and my records to date are proof to that very fact.


ps 14th in the Sunday £40k last night, my best ever performance. My 7s were busted by AK. Now thats just bad luck! LOL!


Liam said...


Thanks for responding to my question, though I was really looking for your thoughts on the quantum of luck involved when highly skilful players participate in the game.

Quite clearly you are very successful, and I respect your ability, but I hope that you will not mind me picking up on one or two of your points.

You say, “The skill in this game though is about putting yourself in situations whereby the probability of winning is great versus the risk involved”, yet I am not quite sure what you mean by that.

The fact is that the probability of winning is actually a measure of the risk involved, since risk is defined in statistical terms as ‘a decision situation in which both the possible states of nature and their exact possibilities of occurrence are known, and where state of nature is defined as ‘a future environment that has a chance of occurring, but it is not under the control of the decision maker. Admittedly poker is a situation where on has to make decisions without complete information regarding one’s opponent’s cards, but that only emphasises the fact that the events are outwith the control of the player.

Nevertheless, I am sure that you will agree with Sklansky when he says, “When you’ve got the best of it, you should make the most of it”. Essentially what this boils down to is when the Expected Value (EV) of all the outcomes is positive one should go ahead and bet, otherwise fold, and every good player, and all good poker authors have said as much.

Turning now to the probability of winning with 77 against AK, it varies between 52% and 55% pre-flop (depending on whether the AK is suited or not and whether the suits are the same as one or both of the 7s), the (EV) for the player with the AK is, in the worst case for him, 45% of the pot before he bets less 55% of the bet he has to put in to try to win it. Thus, depending on the size of the pot after the player with 77 commits all his chips, the player with AK may have a positive EV – in which case he should call, and is correct, mathematically, in doing so. This is not analogous to a fair coin-flip situation where the wager, the prospective reward, and the respective probabilities of a win or loss are 50% respectively.

Another example, this time from Dan Harrington’s book, ‘Harrington on Hold’em – Vol. II’, Hand 10-4 on page 245 where you have Th4d with pot odds of “almost 3-to-1’ (actually 2.60 to 1). Now Th4d against any random hand has a probability of winning only 43% of the time (which, incidentally, is less than the worst chances that AK has of winning against 77), but against 9s9d has a probability of winning only 23% of the time – or, as Harrington says, you are “about a 2.5-to-1 underdog to the nines”. The actual EV of playing the Th4d is EV = 0.77*-$1150 + 0.23 * $4150 = $69. Since the EV of this bet is positive, Harrington is mathematically correct in saying that you should call the all-in bet by the holder of the pair of nines. However, this principle is even more true for the person holding the pair of 9s, who, in Harrington’s example, has an exponentially greater EV (0.77*$1250 + 0.23*-$1750 = $560). This, as do many of the other real-life examples quoted in his books, demonstrates that luck plays a substantial part in deciding on who wins at any particular point in time since the bettor with the highest probability of winning (and greatest EV) frequently does not!

Admittedly, a long enough series of bets with positive EVs should eventually win the pot, but the fact remains that may not be sufficient to overcome all the accumulated losses up to that point; Malmuth in his book ‘Gambling Theory’ covers this point in great detail, and the conclusions drawn are rather depressing when ‘the luck is not with you’ since he concludes that a losing streak could last years – and the corollary is that a winning one could do so as well.

In conclusion, it seems indisputable that luck is a much more important factor than it is generally given credit for, otherwise Dan Harrington would have achieved more than 4 WSOP Final Tables and 2 wins out of his 13 attempts to do so.

How else do you explain your 77s being busted by AK!

You conclude, “Luck plays its part in my opinion, but there is no way I would be playing this game if I did not think I had an edge and my records to date are proof to that very fact.” Obviously you are skilful, as is Harrington, and I do not wish to detract from that, but statistically speaking neither of your records demonstrate how much of that was due to luck – even given that you played totally skilfully – and how much was due to skill per se. Once again, I refer you to Malmuth for detailed calculations.

By the way, I’m sure you know that whilst pocket Aces have an 85% probability of winning against 1 other random hand pre-flop, this drops dramatically as the number of opponents increase, and is only some 31% against a full table of 9 opponents. Nevertheless, AA will always have a positive EV pre-flop, and I cannot imagine anyone laying them down despite the vagaries that luck introduces to the deal!

In conclusion, please don’t think that my comments are in any way a criticism, but I do hope that you will consider them worthy of publishing on your blog.

I wish you every success in your continuing poker career, but especially in the forthcoming CPC!

I look forward to reading your adventures.

All the best,


Anonymous said...


Your comments are very interesting. They seem to me that they come from someone that looks at poker as a pure statistcal model.

When Clinton talks about “The skill in this game though is about putting yourself in situations whereby the probability of winning is great versus the risk involved”,

I believe he is simply saying that you must ensure that your bet will not severley damage your stack if you lose unless you feel that you are overwhelming favourite to take down the hand.

Pot odds are a very strong factor in the game but not one I would absolutely always risk my tournament life on. Taking on a 56% vs 44% in your favour to double your stack should pay off in the long run but in a one off situation being able to lay these hands down to either attempt to find a more favourable situation to increase your stack or to pick a situation you can increase your stack by outplaying/ bluffing an opponent is a very skilled thing to do.

You have to consider that very few hands are actually shown down in poker and more often a positive move in terms of a bet will win you the hand irrespective of the cards you are holding.

The only real situations that you have to be sure of pot odds being in your favour is when you are either calling an all in or putting yourself all in with someone still having to make the decision to call you. If you do this and lose then that is bad luck but there is a big skill in picking these situations and not frittering away your stack on speculative bets.

Clinton is a very skilled player as his record shows not a purely lucky one. I just wish I could be as skilled as he is!

Good post tho