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If you ask the average person on the street, “Is poker a game of skill?” they’d say, “of course not, it’s gambling!” But are they right? After all, you play poker in a casino, you have to be over 18 to play (or 21 if you’re unlucky enough to live in some parts of the world), and there’s no controlling what cards come next–all elements that you’d expect to see in a gambling game.
Just because something is gambling doesn’t mean it can’t also be a game of skill. For something to be considered gambling, the only prerequisite is that you’re betting money on it. Hell, Madden ’22 can be a gambling game if you’re betting $10 against your buddy, but that doesn’t mean it’s a game of chance.
In most people’s eyes, a game of chance and a gambling game are synonymous terms. Most people group games like blackjack and poker into the same category because they’re both card games played at the casino for money.
However, in reality, they’re very different. When you play blackjack or baccarat, you’re playing a game against the casino. If you win, the house loses, and if you lose, the house wins. These games are mathematically set up in favor of the casino so that, over the long run, they’ll win every time.
Sure, you might win some hands of blackjack and come home with a few more bucks in your pocket, but if you went back every night trying to do the same thing, you’d end up broke.
Poker is different in that you’re not playing against the house; you’re playing against other people. The casino just takes a fee for hosting the game–they don’t care whether you win or lose because, to them, it doesn’t matter; they get paid either way. The game isn’t mathematically set up in anyone’s favor; it all depends on who can play the game better.
People don’t often bet money on games of skill because, in games of skill, you know if you suck or not. If you know you’re a worse player than the guy offering you a game, you won’t ever play him for money because you know he’d win in the long run, even if you won a few lucky games. So why would people do it in poker?
Here’s the thing – most people don’t know they suck.
The element of chance tricks many people into thinking they’d be a winning player “if only they were luckier.” How often have you seen someone sitting at the table (or perhaps been the person at the table) who clearly sucks but keeps saying the same things?
They frame their results as purely luck-based, whereas in reality, they’re just bad players.
Okay, so far, I’ve said that poker is a skill game, but people don’t realize it because they suck; I know I need to back this up. So let’s look at what makes poker a skill game.
There are three main reasons why poker is a game of skill rather than a game of chance: folding, bluffing, and value betting. These are all actions you can take that change the amount you can win or lose in a hand. The best players will use a combination of these three concepts (as well as a lot more advanced strategies) to consistently make better decisions than their opponents and win over the long run.
In fact, these three reasons can be summed up in a short sentence – “agency over monetary involvement.” That might sound a little wordy to some of you, so let’s look at what that means in the context of playing poker.
The ability to fold is arguably the most important reason poker is a skill game rather than a game of chance. Compare it to a game like blackjack. In blackjack, you’re forced to make your bet before you have any information, and once you receive your hand, you just have to play it to the best of your ability, no matter what. You can’t ask to take your hand back just because you have a 16 against an ace. You have to play.
In poker, you get to look at your hand and the situation at the table before you decide if you want to put money into the pot. You can look at a hand like 72o and throw it straight into the muck without putting in a dime. Sure, you have to pay the blinds every now and again, but paying 1.5 bets every 9 hands is much better than paying 9 bets every 9 hands. Not only that, but at any point in the hand, you’re free to throw your hand away if you think you’re beat. You’re not obligated to match your opponent’s bet at any time; the decision is always yours.
Now, what if, instead of that, you were obligated to put in a bet before the hand started and weren’t allowed to throw your hand away? Poker would become a game of chance because you’d have no “agency over your monetary involvement.” Getting it now?
One of the main things people point to when talking about whether or not poker is a skill game is bluffing. Getting someone to fold a better hand and then rubbing it in their face is one of the most satisfying things in poker. It’s also something that wouldn’t be possible if poker was purely a game of chance.
If there were no skill element to poker, you’d be dealt your lousy hand, and there would be no way to win; you would just have to watch the other player make a better hand than you and win the pot. However, poker allows you to try and bluff if you think your opponent isn’t very strong. Sure, sometimes you’ll get it wrong and lose a big pot, but that’s the risk you take when you make a bet.
Whether you get it right or wrong, you have the agency to decide whether or not to bluff. The best players will get it right more often than not, increasing the amount they win with bad hands, whereas the worse players will get it wrong and increase their losses.
The last reason, which doesn’t get talked about enough, in my opinion, is value betting. Of course, everyone can see how bluffing makes poker a skill game, but value betting is just as important of a factor. Being able to value bet the right hands for the right amount can drastically increase your win rate, and it’s an area that a lot of people sleep on.
If poker was like blackjack, and everyone made their bet before the hand was dealt, everyone would win the same amount whenever they had a good hand. Whereas, when you play poker, you have a full range of sizing options you can pick across every betting street. Knowing the size to use and when to bet can mean the difference between getting three streets of value and your opponent folding on the flop.
It all comes back to (and say it with me) the “agency of monetary involvement”–you get to pick when to bet and how much to bet over multiple streets. Knowing how to do so is the difference between good and bad players.
Now that you’ve realized that poker is a skill game (with some elements of luck) that people play for money, I’m sure you’re wondering, “How do I get good at this game so I can quit my job?” While you may not want to hand in your two-week notice just yet, we’ve got plenty of resources to help you get better at poker. So whether you need to start with the basics or you’re ready for the more advanced stuff, we’ve got you covered.
Just don’t forget who to thank when you’re raking in all those pots.
Jackpot! You’ve flopped a winning hand! This article has surely added some extra chips to your stack. Tune in for more valuable insights and pro-level strategies!
Looks like you’ve been dealt a bad beat. We’ll shuffle the deck and try again.
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