I’ve been studying a lot of No-Limit Holdem Poker theory lately. “Huh? Study? Why?!” is the reaction of some people. Because they still think the game depends on the luck of the draw – much like any other card game. Rest assured, though, that it’s not that simple. So let’s jump into the age-old debate: Is poker a game of luck – or can you win by developing skills?
Getting Lucky with Holdem Poker
Obviously, you can guess that I lean towards the skills view. (There would be little point in writing about poker strategy otherwise.) I fully agree, however, that luck can play a big role in the game – in the short term.
(Clarification: when I say ‘poker’, I usually refer to the variant of No-Limit Holdem Poker, unless stated otherwise.)
An important point must first be understood about probability and statistical analysis. It’s a sensible study, and perhaps knowledge that’s “good to know”. But to be meaningful, it requires large amounts of data. So one could argue that it doesn’t really apply to the individual. Because an individual’s experience would constitute just a tiny subset of that data.
True, there are exceptions. Say you’re a tourist on holiday. You see a casino and decide to place a one-time-only, double-or-nothing bet of $1,000. You place your wager on Red at the Roulette table. Just know then that roughly half the time you’ll double up, and half the time you won’t. You don’t need to analyse it any deeper than that.
No doubt, getting lucky is a big part of gambling. But when you start playing Holdem Poker professionally, you begin to see that “luck” has got nothing on you. In poker (and math) terminology, “luck” is nothing but “variance”.
What The Luck?
What’s variance? Simply the “short-term” volatility of data from the mean. For example, you have a graph that appears to be steadily rising when you look at it as a whole. But when you zoom in, you see something else. You realize that the seemingly steady rise is actually a series of tiny points going up and down. You also notice some places where the up-and-down movement is more than normal. That’s the deviation from the mean – the variance. Let me illustrate this with an example.
Suppose you’re dealt AA, and you’re up against an opponent who holds A7. For whatever reason, your opponent goes all in, and you obviously call. Probability states the chance of you winning that hand – before any card is even dealt – is 93.6%. So if you play this hand a hundred times, your results graph will no doubt be a steady climb. However, there’s still a 6.4% chance that you might lose. So, as expected, there’ll be 6 or 7 points in the graph with a little up and down. But suppose there end up being 10 such points instead. Those 3 extra points constitute the deviation from the norm – and that’s the variance.
The more data you collate, the more accurately the true odds will be reflected. Conversely, a tiny amount of data would produce an extremely inaccurate figure. Take, as an extreme example, playing just one hand. It so happens that your opponent’s A7 beats your AA. Your graph would then show that A7 beat you 100% of the time.
When Variance is a Bummer
Variance can be a real pain when it isn’t on your side.
In my first live Holdem Poker tournament, I flopped a set (I held 44) on the flop of 4 5 9. I was first to act, so I bet. This was promptly met by an all-in shove – exactly what I was hoping to achieve. That’s because my bet was disguised as an attempt to steal the pot on such a harmless-looking flop. I obviously called, and my opponent turned over K5. The turn dealt a K. Then, to my dismay, the river landed yet another Killer K – and I was eliminated.
The odds of my opponent beating me on the flop were less than 2%. I hadn’t been in that situation before (when I was supposed to win 98/100 times). But it happened the very first time – which made it 100% of the time for me, at that point.
The good news is: if I were put in that situation 100 times, I’d likely win about 98 times. And probability dictates that out of 1,000 times, the number would edge even closer to 98%.
Here’s how the Pros do it
Why am I telling you all this? Because this is precisely how poker professionals play. It’s not a game about luck when you’re dealing with the big picture. It’s a game of math (and also strategy – but more on that later). Professional poker players look at the graph from a distance. They don’t zoom in on the nitty-gritty that they know eventually doesn’t matter. And this brings us to the topic of bankroll management.
Bankroll management is perhaps one of the most important aspects of poker (and gambling). It basically refers to how you manage your money. Say you have $100 and are receiving favourable odds on a wager. What’s the maximum amount you can afford to bet without the risk of going broke? The surprising answer is: somewhere under $2, in most cases.
Manage Your Bankroll
Here’s how it works. I hardly ever buy into a Holdem Poker tournament that costs me more than 1% of my total bankroll. That’s to protect myself against variance. A good poker player patiently waits for situations where he or she is getting favourable odds for their money.
These odds mostly present themselves as something like: 60% of the time I win, the other 40% I lose. In addition, variance can cause me to lose 80 times out of 100. So I eventually even it out to about 400 times out of 1,000. That’s how I ensure I can stay alive through those “abnormal” bouts of losses. I then have enough money to recover and play myself out of that hole.
While this may sometimes seem like a gambling problem, it really isn’t. A gambling addict desperate to recoup losses will play despite unfavourable odds. But in this sensible scenario, you continue playing with favourable odds to simply overcome the effects of variance.
Holdem Poker Is More About Skill
This is why I consider Holdem Poker a game of skill. When you play it correctly, you win consistently in the long run. If it were just a matter of luck, it would not be possible to achieve such consistency. There are plenty of other elements involved besides calculating odds and managing your bankroll. These are things like reading opponents, studying recent trends, adopting good strategy, etc – honestly, way too many to list. And because of the short-term luck factor, it’s also a game where a complete newbie can beat a professional.
So, no doubt, luck does play a part – but, like I said, only in the short term. Holdem Poker is thus a game that you can either choose to gamble with – or play strategically and skilfully. Eventually, because of skill, the better player will end up with the bulk of the money. And that’s a guarantee.
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