Skill vs. luck? Age-old debate lingers



Someone recently asked me if there really was a difference between him and players who are making big money. We went through the typical variables: larger stakes, more play, bigger bankrolls, being staked, etc. He said he was a competitive college athlete, so I asked him what the difference was between an elite runner and one who doesn’t make it to the next level. The answer: talent.

There always is a vigorous debate on the role of luck vs. skill in poker. After Black Friday in 2011, the debate escalated. If it could be shown that poker was a game a skill, then online play might be regulated. I came across an interesting study: The Role of Skill vs. Luck in Poker: Evidence from the World Series of Poker, by Steven D. Levitt and Thomas J. Miles.

This study examined performance in the 2010 WSOP. It found players identified as highly skilled achieved a better return on investment than other players. They concluded: skill.

Luck, talent, skill? Psychology generally has taken the path of peak performance. We can help people achieve their highest level of performance, but that won’t make them an NBA star if the they are 5-foot-6 and weigh 140 pounds.

The questions generally resolve as:
• In the long run, luck evens out and you can’t be short-term results-oriented.
• Talent is innate, but it has to be nurtured.
• Skill can be developed and people can perform at their optimal or peak performance.

Actually, skill is the only area we can control. Skill is developed in any field by putting in the work. It has been said to master a skill one needs to put in 10,000 hours.

No one has answered if that 10K is playing or learning; it’s a lot of time. One has to learn the math; be adaptable to change.

And we can work on ourselves. We can learn reading skills; we can enhance our performance by following proven techniques: visioning, mindfulness, goal-setting and relaxation.

The question that has to be answered is: Do I want to put in the time?
First, we have to define who we are in poker: recreational player; avid recreational; 30-40 hours a week grinder; retired and like the competition; grinder who wants to move up, etc. Once you know how you define yourself, you can set the appropriate goals. Is this work or play? What is the meaning of my bankroll?

One can always work on peak or optimal performance. Part of the equation is how much time to put in; that is defined by a close look at who you are in the poker world and who you want to be.

As always, keep your head in the game.

— Dr. Stephen Bloomfield is a licensed psychologist and avid poker player. Email him at

Ante Up Magazine

Ante Up Magazine