Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Study Shows Poker a Game of Skill

Science Daily reports on a study out of Case Western Reserve University that shows that poker truly is a game of skill rather than being entirely based on luck. Every poker player already knew that, of course, but it’s nice to have data to back it up. The study took students with no experience playing poker and split them into two groups. One group was given a chart showing the odds of each two-card starting hand winning, while the other group was given only information about the history of poker. The first group, unsurprisingly, did significantly better.

The study has a fairly small sample size, only about 1000 hands played total. But the results would no doubt be the same over a larger sample. In fact, it would be easy to simulate this using a computer program and run millions of hands with it quickly. You could set up an experiment where you had a player who only played hands above a certain threshold of probability before the flop and another player who decided which hand to play entirely randomly. The more hands that were played that way, the more the first player would undoubtedly have the advantage.

And this only tests one skill in poker, and one of the more simple skills at that. Every decent poker player has starting hand odds all but memorized. They also have post-flop odds memorized (for instance, they know that if they have 4 cards to a flush after the flop, the odds of hitting your flush with the next two cards is around 30-40% depending on how many are in other people’s hands) and can easily calculate the odds of hitting the card they need to win the pot at any point in the hand.

There are many other skills in poker that such experiments can’t really account for, like the ability to read people and put them on a certain hand. That’s largely based on the ability to remember and evaluate an opponent’s betting patterns and subtle changes in behavior. A player who typically is very deliberate in his play suddenly moves all-in very quickly after you raise him. Is that a sign that he’s got a great hand, or a sign that he’s bluffing and wants you to think he has a great hand? More experienced and more skilled players will be right in their evaluation of what that and many other situations mean far more often than other players. It’s one of the most important skills in poker.

There are many other skill factors as well. The ability to stay patient over long periods of time (especially important in tournament play). The ability to keep your emotions in check after a bad beat. The ability to manage your bankroll and choose which games to play wisely. One could go on and on with the skill set of a winning poker player. Those things are difficult to evaluate scientifically, but every poker player knows how important they are.