Is Poker a Game of Skill – Empirical Evidence?

Is poker a game of skill? Or just plain, dumb luck, chance? What would be the perspective from someone who runs a poker software development company? My business partner firmly believes that poker is “probability and skill!” and that luck doesn’t feature in it in any way whatsoever. “How is it that many a time, the same folks keep winning the big tournaments, if it were not dominated by skill?” is what another colleague asks. “When you lose in poker, you will attribute it to bad luck. It ain’t, it’s just bad play!”
Skill in Poker Evidence
I had to figure out the various reasons why poker should be a game of skill and not luck or chance. I sat with a few poker experts and a lot of my other colleagues and found out their reasons for believing poker to be a skill game. Then, I interviewed a few of my poker buddies and the players I play with offline and online and gauged their reactions. I quizzed a range of people I knew from some friends who are poker pros to a buddy who is an ace mathematician – thus running the gamut from the WPT to the game theory and the Central Limit Theorem; and it was an interesting journey indeed. Let’s see what some top poker players have to say: Manuel Lopes is a poker pro who plays both live and online poker and the Head of Poker at who also won the recent Malta New Year’s Special Tourney. A great friend too, he says: “As a veteran Poker Manager, a former online pro and an active live cash game and tournament poker player, I can say I am fully convinced that poker is a game of skill. I consider it a mind sport and so does the IMSA (International Mind Sports Association) . This predominant skill factor has been proven by many international studies and ruled as such by several judges when there was doubt. Poker was even included in the Harvard Curriculum as a “Life Learning Tool” Subject. My Personal opinion is exactly the same, even without looking at those studies i can definitely support it by the results that many players consistently have. The game can truly be beat in the long run by dedicating a substancially amount of study and practice. It´s not a coincidence that we see some players winning big events repeatedly over time both online and live. If skill wasn’t the main factor then the chances of a player winning a major tournament at least twice would be the same as winning the lottery more than once, yet great players have won them several times. I have remained a winner by studying the game both in its mathematical aspect as well as psychological skill. That has given me the edge to succeed in this mind sport over time.”

Manuel Lopes Winning the Malta New Year's Special

Manuel Lopes Winning the Malta New Year’s Special

A good friend, Marcel Lüske, The Flying Dutchman, is a very well-known global Dutch professional poker player. His total live tournament winnings exceed US$ $4,408,492. He says: “Anything you do in life that needs practicing to get better must have that skill factor otherwise the outcome would be the same for all and any who would try and the outcome random. Poker is not depending on we like it or not, is it for fun or fun & money, it is a card-game that have a big factor of skill, and by playing many and the more hands you do, shows the better and best players at the top.
Poker is A game of the highest skill.. but like with football, defined in categories. Even on Saturday afternoon when the lowest division plays and drinks a beer after the game … The Game is still football, A Game of SKILL ! The amount of players world-wide have shown a big difference between the pros and the recreational players, just look and find the statistics from the winners we know about and the rest that clearly is super recreational trying now and then to join and go for that target they have in mind. Knowing they just give it a try, hope to get as deep at best they can challenging the best and better players to confirm again and again the outcome we have.”
We have more from Marcel here: Skill or Luck?
Marcel Luske - The Flying Dutchman

Marcel Luske – The Flying Dutchman

Another friend, Maria Eduarda Mayrinck, the highest-earning female Brazilian player of all time who also has cashed 11 times at the WSOP (World Series of Poker)  who plays a lot of both live and online poker has a great take here: “I mean, you need to have a propensity  or a predisposition to competitiveness & discipline (which I do) and from then on learn to read yourself, like if you actually believe you can excel at this if you put in the time & effort, from then on it is skill if you are going to be a professional or plan on playing long term. Otherwise you can just wait for the wind to blow your way… it will 20% of the time. But if you plan on playing long term or making any money out of it, skill is necessary but there is no empirical skill, the effort will be needed, like studying, practicing, putting in the hours, doing the math, etc (just on the empirical, I don’t believe in talent… if you want to do it, you can, you just need the tools to then find the skill)”
Maria Eduarda Mayrinck at the WSOP 2014

Maria Eduarda Mayrinck at the WSOP 2014


Sal Vargas, another buddy of mine who regularly plays more live poker than online, says, “I believe it’s a game of all 3. Skill because you need to know when to play, when to bet, when to bluff and know when to lay down when your cards. Skill in knowing and reading your opponents and cards. Need math skills to know when to make the proper calls with card odds and pot odds. Luck in how the cards fall which to me accounts for 90% of the game. The other 10% is how to use the skill. Chance when taking a chance at 2, 3, 4 betting. You take a chance every time you’re in a hand until the hand become readable and the puzzle is solved. Also every tournament I play is chance unlike ring games where you can really be patient and wait for a hand to play. In tournaments the rising blinds and Antes force you to take chances in playing unwanted hands where now the chance becomes the luck of the draw. That us my opinion on the game of poker” Sal adds, “Live games is my preference because I can utilize my skills vs online play. Online, the algorithms leave the game to chance and luck. I find myself getting runnered, runnered or rivered and getting knocked out of tournaments constantly on the computer. I dare not play cash games on computer. I keep my play on computer to small stakes because of the beats I take.”

I’ll add a few more opinions to this post later on. To continue…

A few observations stood out nakedly, which give the impression that the promoters of banning online poker anywhere by saying that it was a game of chance and hence was a form of gambling, were a bunch of nincompoops; and I have no qualms saying this. One observation was that in poker, a skilled player wins against an unskilled one with overwhelming probability. Another one, and I quote from a highly acclaimed school of applied mathematics findings, was that: the repeated nature of the game reduces considerably the element of chance, as Maria and Manuel so astutely observe, making poker almost entirely a game of skill. A good player should first be able to master the probabilities in the game sufficiently well in order to be able to translate his pocket cards and the community cards to an accurate rank of his cards among the available possibilities. He should then be able to use this information to estimate the probability of winning.








CRF – Critical Repetition Frequency

The strategy of a winning player should be adjusted to that of the other players, as a strategy that is winning against some player may well be losing against another. A skilled player should be able to assess the strength of his hand as a function of his hole cards, the community cards, the number of players still in the game, their betting strategy and the position at the table. He should be able to assess the model of play of the other players, estimate the probability of improving his hand once the next community cards are revealed, and should be able to hide his strategy by bluffing and leaving his behavior unpredictable. Therefore, a considerable amount of skill is required to play well, and the central limit theorem in mathematics proves that the significance of skill increases dramatically as the number of hands played grows.

As per the same mathematical school findings, it is also not surprising that there is no software that plays poker as well as a good human player, although, for comparison, there are computer programs that play chess at least as well as the very best human chess players. Indeed, in many ways poker requires more human skill than chess, as an optimal strategy depends so crucially on the behavior of the opponents.

I tried to put all the findings in a bullets format like below:

How can skill in poker be measured and quantified?





Skill in Poker:

• Poker requires the following decisions.

Folding, Calling, Betting, Raising.

Before the Flop, on the Flop, on the Turn, on the River.

Determining how much to Bet / Raise ( only the No Limit variant )

• Decisions depend on various parameters.

• Parameters have to be recognized, weighed and involved in the decision process to maximize value.

• This procedure requires several skill components.

• The Skill condition can be stated as follows.




• If this condition holds for a game, it is a game of skill.

Chance = everything which is cancelled in the long run, is equally distributed between the players and the non-discriminatory

Skill = the outcome, which remains after infinite repetitions of a game (everything which is not chance)

Skill in Poker – Parameters that Influence Decisions in Poker:

• Absolute Position

• Relative Position

• Stack Sizes

• Pot Size ( Pot Odds )

• Strategy of Opponents

• Actions of Opponents

• Hand Range of Opponents

• Hand Range that the Opponents suspect the Player has.

• Risk Preference

• The Players Cards

• The Cards on FLOP, Turn and River.









Skill in Poker – Skill Components in Poker:

• Mathematical Understanding.

• Analytical Intellectual Power

• Attentiveness

• Memory

• Ability to make faster decisions.

• Elimination of Emotions from one’s decision.

• Knowledge of game theoretical insights.

• Strategic Thinking.

• Adaptiveness

• Enjoyment of continuous learning.

• Ability to Self–Control and Self–Monitor.

That Poker is a Game of Skill is pretty obvious to me. Like life, poker involves challenges, critical decisions made at the right time, and the consistent ability to meet those challenges head-on.

“Life, for challenges, challenges for overcoming,
and as long as you believe in your dreams,

Lina Wang

Lina Wang is CEO of Atlantis Global, a US company that specializes in Ecommerce, Gaming and Venture Funding. She is popularly known among her circle as "The Poker Princess" and juggles her ecommerce, gaming business, marketing consultancy and family life with a passion for startups. Considered among the Top 30 Content Marketing Strategists globally, she also edits a popular Women’s Poker Magazine. Whether it is startup funding, developing cutting edge ecommerce platforms or even a friendly bit of poker strategy advice, she can be reached at