Edward Lowe
Poker player

Poker Luck

Yes, for winning players poker is a game of skill because they are good at determining their mathematical expectation and, thus, are playing with an edge.  But most people are losing players.  There are always people on the losing end of the transaction and those people are not playing a skill game but are playing to get lucky, playing at negative expectation. I know that on the surface his argument might seem compelling.  Sure, if someone is playing at a negative expectation they might be trying to overcome that expectation and win anyway.  They rate to lose and they are trying to thwart their EV. That I agree with.  It is the leap that those players are not playing a game of skill, that for players playing poker at a negative expected value that poker is a luck game, that I don't agree with. In fact, I couldn't believe that a pro would ever claim that just because a player is not an expert that they are playing a luck game; that it is only pros who are playing a game of skill.  Frankly, it is absurd to assert that the skill level of a player in any game, much less poker,  has any effect on whether the game itself is a game of skill or not. 

Take golf as an example.  I think everyone can agree that golf is a game of skill. And the game has specific skill elements that we can identify, like putting and driving.  As well, we can all agree that a player like Tiger Woods applies those skill elements very adeptly.  Now what about a golfer who shoots a 120?  Clearly, that golfer applies the skill elements very poorly.  He is a poor putter and a bad driver of the ball.  If we pit Tiger against this bad golfer, Tiger would win every time. 

Here is the question I have for you, "Is the game of golf itself more of a game of skill when Tiger is playing it than when the 120 handicap golfer is playing it?" The question sounds completely absurd when I ask it about golf.  Of course golf is a game of skill whether or not someone applies those skill elements well or poorly. The quality of the player has no bearing whatsoever on the absolute fact that the game is a skillful one.

What is interesting is that while that logic is so completely transparent to people when it comes to a game like golf or football or baseball or bridge, it is not completely transparent when it comes to a game like poker. I think because there is wagering involved.  But think about it, the logic is exactly the same as the logic for the golf example.  We can all agree that there are skill elements in poker like whether you bet, fold or raise at any given decision point, or how much you bet or raise if you make that decision.  These are elements of skill and how well a player executes these skill elements determines the likelihood of winning or losing.  As in golf, we can all agree that the top players, players like Erik Seidel and Phil Hellmuth, apply these skill elements very adeptly.  But what about a player new to the game?  Obviously, a new player to the game would apply these skill elements poorly, just as the 120 golfer putts poorly. And just as with golf, the fact that a new player applies these skill elements poorly has no bearing whatsoever on the absolute fact that poker is a game of skill.  A player who is a poor decision maker at the table is, to be sure, executing the skill elements of the game of poker very poorly but even when a bad player is player the game, he is still playing a game of skill.  He is just not playing it well.

So a poker player can be playing at a negative expectation and still be playing a game of skill.  That there are bad players in the world actually reinforces the argument that poker is a game of skill in this sense:  In a game of pure luck, like Baccarat, a player cannot be bad or good.  The only decision in that game is whether to be player or bank and both decision have the same expectation.  So one player cannot be worse than another since the only decision in the game that affects the outcome is neutral to the player's expectation.  In a skill game like poker, on the other hand, one player can be worse than another because there are skill elements, multiple decision points that do have a direct effect on a player's expectation.  In a pure luck game like baccarat or the lottery, no player can be worse than any other.  Only in games of skill can there even be a tangible difference between players.  Poker is one of those games.

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