People playing poker in a casino

How Is Poker a Game of Skill?

Poker is one of the most popular casino games that may even be more popular out in the world. Whether playing it on a live stream, against a dealer, with professional poker players or with a group of friends, poker is so widely played for two crucial reasons: it’s a very social game and it’s a game of skill with a luck component rather than a game of pure chance. Though, it must be said, this does not include video poker games, which certainly aren’t social and are much more prey to the random number generator at the core of these games than to skill.

Now, because poker is banned with other casino games where they are banned and because it’s such a hit at casinos, you might think that it’s more of a game of chance with a bit of skill thrown in more than anything else, but here’s why it’s actually the opposite.


Chance in Poker

A game of poker obviously has a large component of chance in the same way that any game that is based on the luck of the draw has a component of chance. It’s entirely up to chance which cards are dealt and what cards will replace those that you discard. There’s literally nothing you can do about this – though counting cards can help narrow down which cards may come next, up to a point. 

There’s so much chance involved in the cards that are dealt and played that video poker games are so overwhelmingly about chance. Aside from knowing what to discard and when, playing against a machine requires virtually no skill whatsoever. But this only further proves that video poker (or other computerized poker games) is a completely different game from its real-world counterpart because while there’s no way to become a “great” video poker player, you certainly can become a “great” poker player.

And that’s because the cards you are dealt are ultimately only a part of a game of poker. And possibly not even a particularly huge part.

People playing poker

Skill in Poker

As any professional poker player will tell you, poker is actually a card game where the cards are not actually the things you’re playing. Or, to put it another way, in poker it’s less about the hand you’re dealt than what you do with it. Much like life, really.

In poker, the real skill comes not from the cards, but from how you “play” the other players. At its heart, poker is a game of psychology and, well, acting.

Let’s look at that second factor first. “Poker face” is a very familiar concept, but it’s not a simple skill to master. Controlling your basic physiological reactions to a great hand or a terrible hand takes exceptional control and is even harder when you’re actively trying to bluff; when you’re trying to convince the other players you have the exact opposite of your hand. 

And all this obviously ties into that first point. It’s a game that’s really all about psychologically manipulating the other players on top of being able to “read” your opponents. Whether you fold or go all in actually has much less to do with your specific cards, but about a) the cards in the hands of the other players and b) whether you can manipulate the other players to believe something about your cards that may well not be true.

Having a hand without so much as two-of-a-kind might usually be worth folding on, but if you’re good enough (and the other players are bad enough), you can psych out everyone else by having them believe that you really have a flush. On the flipside, you may actually have a flush, but you’re so bad at hiding your emotional reaction to this fact that everyone else around you immediately folds, which will mean that you win only the opening bets, not the much larger sums that come from raising bets.

By the same token, while you’re trying to control how the other players are perceiving what you may have in your hand, you also need to have your eyes on all the other players, looking for the slightest “tell” that might give you a suggestion of what they’re actually holding in their hand versus how they seem to be betting on them.     

All of this to say that as a card game, poker probably is a game of luck a lot more than it is a game of skill, but if you’re looking at poker as just a card game then you probably should stay away from any and all high-stakes poker games.

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