Is poker more luck than skill?

Jake Foster August 24, 2020

In the gambling world, poker has remained one of the most popular and lucrative games for nearly two centuries. There’s millions to be made from the right hand, but is it more luck or skill-based?

Luck is often the decider between victory and loss in gambling, the giver of either euphoria or catastrophe. Some games rely solely on luck, such as roulette. Other games are more strategic and skill-based, such as chess. But where does poker sit on this sliding scale between chance and skill? A team of researchers from Heidelberg University have investigated just that.

Professor Jörg Oechssler and his team of economists have determined that poker does in fact involve more than 50% luck, but that in the long term skill tends to prevail.

Oechssler’s study found that poker relies on more than 50% luck.

Looking for luck

The team calculated the relative skill levels of poker and chess players using data from more than four million games of poker and chess. The same was also done for the popular German card game Skat. The method used was based on the Elo rating system, which is used in chess to determine a player’s skill.

For skill-based games, the difference in skill level between a novice and a world champion will be very large. Whereas for more chance-based games, the distribution will be smaller. “Because chess is purely a game of skill, the rating distribution is very wide, ranging from 1.000 for a novice to over 2.800 for the current world champion. So the wider the distribution, the more important skill is,” noted Dr Peter Dürsch.

For poker, the distribution of skill levels between novices and world champions was very small. This was also true for the German card game Skat. “Both games fall below the 50 per cent skill level, and therefore depend mainly on luck,” explained Marco Lambrecht.

“Skill, however, does prevail in the long run. Our analyses show that after about one hundred games, a poker player who is one standard deviation better than his opponent is 75 per cent more likely to have won more games than his opponent.”

The distribution of skill level between novice players and world champions is far less for poker than for chess.

Why is measuring chance important?

Determining whether a game is more reliant on luck or skill can have serious legal ramifications, as Professor Oechssler explained:

“Whether a game is one of skill or luck also determines whether it can be played for money. But assigning a game to these categories is difficult owing to the many shades of gradation between extremes like roulette and chess.”

In Germany, poker is legally classified as a game of chance and therefore can only be played in government-sanctioned casinos. In contrast to this, Skat is classified as a game of skill and can be played anywhere. By calculating how much luck is involved in a particular game, its eligibility for legal gambling can be determined.

In theory, this method can be applied to any game where a winner is determined. Whether it be draughts, blackjack or poker, luck and skill can be statistically determined.

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Science Communicator and Science Museum Explainer, specialising in Physics, Astronomy, Spaceflight and Robotics.