How Does Luck Factor into Poker Games?

Hand Holding a Pair of Cards on a Poker Table

Poker is the number one gambling activity for players in every corner of the earth. Gamblers have enjoyed playing poker for centuries, and we’re enjoying the game in its heyday.

However, the debate about whether poker is based on skill or luck continues to rage. The only way I know to settle that argument is by the individual.

You garb the luckiest person you know, and I’ll grab the best poker player I know. We’ll let them play for any amount of money you can gather. I’ll cash in my IRA, 401K, take out a second mortgage, and beg to borrow every dollar I can.

Unfortunately, luck could bite me, and I could lose everything. Poker is indeed a skill-based game, but chance exists in poker games, and we’ve all seen it firsthand.

How does luck factor into poker games?

Let’s look at some examples and see if we can increase how often Lady Luck finds you in the poker room.

Does Luck Play a Factor in Your Poker Results?

The best place to start when looking at how luck factors into poker games are our own experience. We’ve all had instances where a lucky break either helped us or hurt us in a poker hand.

I recall playing a regional tournament early in my poker career and being overwhelmingly outmatched as we got deeper into the contest. However, I couldn’t see that at the time.

That was a good problem because had I possessed the capacity to see how much better the players around me were, I might’ve crumbled. Fortunately, I stayed blissfully unaware, and a few lucky breaks late in the event landed me at the final table.

That was enough for me to call the tournament a success. Yet, as we got down to the final five, I was the short stack.

The player to my immediate right raised me all-in, and I called with Q/10 suited. The player two to my left then called.

I was ready to make my exit but was excited as I’d ever been at a poker table. When the first player flipped over his queens, I knew my time had come to an end. My Q/10 was a massive underdog, but when the second player to my left showed his Ace/10, my hopes vanished.

Then the miraculous happened, the flop came 7, A, 5, but I was only one club away from my flush. The suspense ended for me on the turn when I completed my flush.

I don’t remember which player won the side pot or what card came on the river. All I knew was that luck had blessed me with a second chance, and I was sitting in third, which is where I finished the tournament.

Aria Las Vegas PokerGo Cup 2021

I tell you that story because it shows how fickle luck can be. Was I lucky to have made it to that position in that tournament?

Perhaps, but it took skill too. The luck hit on that one hand that could have sent me out of the tournament.

Luck simultaneously breathed new life into my game while robbing another player of a pot that should have rightfully been theirs.

Luck Is Far More Useful in the Casino

These lucky breaks happen all the time in poker rooms. Yet, luck is far more helpful in the casino than in the poker room.

Poker is a game of skill where you play others to come out ahead. Most of the time, the skilled players will best the players relying on luck.

However, luck is the only ally a gambler has in most casino games. The games are purely left to chance, and luck determines whether a player wins or loses.

For example, baccarat has a house edge of under 1.3%. That’s exceptional for a casino game, but you’ll still lose in the long term because there’s no way to get an edge on the casino.

That means luck is required for players to show the slightest success playing baccarat.

Poker players use skill to create their advantage, and it’s an edge that luck can’t beat.

When You Leave Variance Out of the Equation Luck Seems Crucial

The reason players win playing slot machines for real money is because machines are designed to pay layers back a certain percentage of the money paid into a game. Most devices will pay players back close to 90% of every dollar played.

The casino keeps the other 10%. So, it may seem that it would be much more challenging for slots players to lose so much of their bankroll playing slots regularly.

But volatility is what determines how that money is paid back to players. Some games pay a significant portion of the money back via jackpots, leaving most players nothing to show for their trouble.

The only thing that matters for a slots enthusiast is luck, which can’t save everyone.

Row of Slot Machines

In poker, the reason players get lucky is variance. Let’s assume you’ve got a hand that’s a favorite over your opponent at 61% to 39%.

The math dictates that your hand wins on the river over six out of ten times. However, that means your opponent has a four in ten shot of beating you.

When the math goes in your opponent’s favor, that’s called variance. You still made the right play, and you stand to win more of those hands than you lose.

However, the variance has to be true to the math. So, in 39% of the total scenarios, your opponent’s hand beats yours.

That variance is what many people call luck. If you don’t understand what variance is or how it works, luck seems much more important than it is.

The more favored a player’s hand is, the more luck appears to be involved. Still, when there’s a 99% chance of something happening, you get the counter result 1% of the time.

The Quality of Competition Will Affect Your Luck

I’ve noticed that better players always seem to have more luck through all my years of playing poker. When they are playing weaker opponents, this becomes reasonably clear.

But what you’re seeing isn’t necessarily luck; it’s a skill. Expert poker players have seen every scenario at a poker table thousands upon thousands of times.

More importantly, they know the math for every situation that may come up. It amazes me when I’m watching poker on television, and as soon as the cards hit felt, the players are talking about the hand percentages.

That information will look like luck to the untrained eye. When you play against better players, you’ll feel like you can’t catch a break.

When you finally do catch a hand, you’ll be too busy thinking about eventually winning to consider where you got lucky. Yet, every hand you lose was because you were unlucky.

The truth is you’re getting beat by a better player. If I went out tomorrow afternoon and played Phil Mickelson at my local golf course, Phil wouldn’t beat me because he got lucky.

However, I might get lucky and steal the box from him for a hole or two.

The weaker your competition, the luckier you’ll seem to the casual observer. Fortunately, you’ll know that you’re merely a better poker player.

How Important Is Luck to Poker Players?

The question of how important luck is to a poker player directly correlates to their skill level and the competition’s talent. Good poker players don’t rely on luck to get by; they merely shake their heads and laugh when luck shines on them.

Man Looking at His Poker Hand

If a poker player sits down at a table armed with luck, I hope I’m there too. Poker is a game of skill, and fortune won’t save you regularly enough to keep you from losing all your money.

Skill Trumps Luck Long-Term

The biggest problem with luck is that it’s fleeting. You may get lucky for a few essential hands, you might even sneak out of the poker room with a profit, but skill is always going to catch up and surpass your luck.

Luck happens in an instant, and then she’s on down the road to shine on another player. Poker players should focus on long-term results.

Players who practice and work to be better at poker will develop the skills to win money playing poker consistently.

Unconventional Way to Boost Your Luck

Luck is intangible, so there’s no way to know if any efforts to boost your chance will move the needle at all. However, I have noticed that it may get the attention you crave when you dare fate to intervene.

I see a lot of good players start declaring a hand over, shaking hands, getting up from their seats, and gathering their belongings before the turn card is dealt. I like this approach because it’s entertaining and speeds things along when the player loses.

Yet, I notice that these players frequently catch a lucky break and are forced to gather their substantially more extensive than previous chip stack and take a seat. I have no mathematical data to back this up but daring the universe to prove you wrong may be better than doing nothing.

How Does Luck Factor Into Poker Games?

That depends on your perspective. Better players certainly appreciate the hands taking a turn in their favor but ultimately rely on skill.

The fish seem to depend on luck while simultaneously blaming it for their bad play. Let luck run its course and use skill to win more often.