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Poker: Luck vs Skill

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Poker is one of the most popular games in the world. Thanks to the glamorous image developed by the likes of James Bond and the rich and famous in Monaco and Las Vegas, as well as the simple learning curve and minimal equipment that allows anyone who can count the opportunity to play, poker has gone from strength to strength over the last century and a half or so.

Poker has grown from a simple hobby used to pass the time into a multi-billion dollar global industry with televised live events and tournaments with pots and stakes in the millions of dollars. Events like the World Series of Poker and thousands of leagues, tournaments that take place all over the world, along with endless lucrative online gameplay, has turned some players into celebrities, necessitating a rankings system and an almost sports-like feel to modern poker. In fact, many people now have the opinion that poker is actually a sport, rather than just a card game. And they might have a point.

Becoming a good poker player isn’t particularly easy. Of course, there’s the gameplay itself which needs to be learned, as well as the rules. This is the easy part however, and it’s the other elements of the game that sort the weak from the strong.

The key part of a game of poker is betting. At all times, players are either backing themselves, or throwing their cards down and folding if they aren’t feeling the hand they’ve got. This is where both maths and knowledge of the game through experience really start to make things interesting.

But, even if you’ve got your maths, betting skills and odds theory down, there’s yet another element of the game that need plenty of attention. As you may already know, you don’t always need a good hand to win. This is where skills like bluffing can turn the tide of a game, or really throw your opponent off the scent. Simply put, you lie to the rest of the competitors, either in a brash way or more subtly. Celebrity players like Mike ‘the Mouth’ Matusow and Phil Hellmuth have made careers out of bluffing, trash talking and sometimes even bullying to try and get one over their opponents. However, all of this is meaningless if you can’t keep a good hand under wraps.

Control over your body language is yet another key skill needed to become a decent poker player. If you get dealt a couple of aces for example, then it’s going to be extremely difficult to hide any excitement, especially in a game that has plenty of money in play. This is where the poker face comes into play, a way of masking any emotion by keeping all body language, facial expressions and even things like eye movement totally neutral. This is why you’ll often see people wearing sunglasses, sitting with their hoods up or covering their mouths or faces with their hands from time to time as they play. The best players in the world will spend many hours working on these ‘tells’, and hiding any excitement, derision, anger or disappointment becomes yet another weapon in the poker arsenal.

Even if a player manages to master all of these poker skills, there is still however the element of luck. Many people argue that poker can never be real sport, because as well as the lack of physical exertion, a lot of the game rides on an outcome that can’t be controlled by anyone. And this is where the argument that poker is just about luck. No matter how good you are at tracking deals and hands, hiding emotion or bullying players off the table, you can always get dealt a row of bum hands that leave you high and dry.

As the following infographic by 888poker.com shows, there are a number of different views on poker around the world. For example, the UK do not tax the winnings as it is viewed as a game of luck. Conversely, the Brazilian Ministry of Sport recognized poker as a game of skill in 2012. When it comes to China, poker is only legal in Macau, the sovereign Chinese region consider it as a game of luck.

It couldn’t be more true that the way the cards are dealt is completely random, and anything could happen. From great hand after great hand to a run of utter drivel that can empty your wallet within the hour, every poker player has bad nights and good nights. But the best players can actually do something about it.

Concepts like odds theory make knowing all of the possible outcomes that could happen a huge advantage, and players who can do this whilst keeping track of the game can begin outsmarting less ‘intelligent’ players. If you got given a 2 and 3 in different suits, then many players would throw these cards way before getting to the flop. However, if you’ve been keeping an eye on the last few hands and have done your maths correctly, you can actually figure out the odds of a few more 2s and 3s coming along. If the odds are good, then bet. If it’s looking slim, then fold. You can get naff hand after naff hand, but if you know the likelihood of something useful coming along, then you can bet on that happening.

So how do you deal with someone else who keeps getting great cards and flops that keep them winning? Well, they aren’t just lucky, they’re probably making their own luck just as often as they’re getting a decent hand. If you get the opportunity to play against a good player, then use it to your advantage. Watch them play if you’ve folded, or stay on to watch them if you end up bust. You’ll soon realise that they know exactly when to fold, they’ll often blag a win with a poor hand if they feel they can get away with it, and they’ll absolutely go for it in the most subtle way possible if they have a decent pair of cards. Luck soon just becomes an added bonus if you know exactly what to do with every hand that comes up.

So our verdict is that luck is only an element of poker. But try and tell that to anyone in Las Vegas. The amount of lucky socks, superstitions and people telling you to go away if you turn up to the table and say you’re a beginner going to show that plenty of people still think luck is the most important part of their game.

 
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