Skill Determines How Much Luck You Need to Win in Poker
We all know that both skill and luck affect how well we do as poker players. But many people seem to misunderstand the idea that your skill determines how much luck you need to rely upon. If you are skillful enough to understand how your opponents play, you can often wait for them to make their favorite mistakes and thus reduce the effect that luck has on your results.
Many of us make slightly positive-EV but unnecessary shoves against opponents who play "face-up," and then blame bad luck when we lose. What we should be doing instead is figuring out how they play so that we can take less risky and more profitable lines against them.
One example of this kind of adjustment is not three-bet shoving 25 big blinds with a hand like K-Q-suited over an open against a guy who makes calling mistakes with an A-x heavy range. Instead against such an opponent we should be three-betting smaller and then taking it down with a flop continuation bet whenever he misses (if you know, that is, that he is unlikely to four-bet light preflop or play too sticky postflop).
Both plays are +EV, but one relies more on luck than the other. If you know how your opponent plays, then you can avoid some slightly +EV all-in gambles and instead depend on skill to generate even larger edges.
So a question arises: When can we rely on skill to generate these large edges, and when must we instead rely on luck?
Here are a few considerations that have served me well when answering that question in the small stakes tournaments I play.
Quality and Quantity of Players in the Pot
If you are in a heads-up pot with an equally skilled player, then obviously you have to rely on luck since neither player has much of an edge. No one wants to give an inch in these confrontations, so sometimes they result in big, high variance pots. The best you can do is play as close as you can to game theoretically optimal (GTO) poker and let the cards fall where they may.
This situation can lead to some unreasonable tilt — for instance, when you correctly bluff off a big stack into a fellow reg who then correctly makes a sigh-call with the top of his range. If both players are equally skilled, then this sort of GTO trainwreck is an unavoidable part of poker. It should no more tilt you than losing in a fair coin-flipping game. In fact, you should treat it like the people do who play the lottery and lose with a smile. At the end of the day, gambling is gambling, but at least you had a much better shot at winning than they did.
The same cannot be said for a heads-up pot against a player against whom you have a massive edge. This is not the time to gamble and rely on luck. If he is the type to make big calling mistakes, for example, then obviously you should not make big GTO bluffs against him. Instead, delay putting the chips in until you have a value hand just above what you believe he will call.
In multi-way pots, I tend to rely more on luck for a few reasons. First, most of us are not skilled in these sort of pots. The additional players make the game tree so complex that even our GTO solvers cannot handle it, so don't assume your relatively feeble human brain knows what the best play is in every situation. That's the bad news.
The good news is that these pots often contain many bad players who called with hands that cannot stand a lot of heat. I take advantage of this by making big squeeze plays and if I have to get it in, at least the dead money will subsidize my gamble and often turn a dicey situation into a profitable one.
Field Size and Payout Structure
Tournaments with big guarantees and small buy-ins result in big fields. The prizes are usually top heavy and it takes a lot of luck to reach the final table almost regardless of the field's average skill level.
If you are too cautious in these games, eventually you will find yourself shorter-stacked than most players around you and pressured to make a move because of the escalating blinds. Sooner or later, you'll have to gamble and go all in.
For that reason, it's nice to have a big stack so that you can survive one or two of these confrontations. I play a little faster and welcome slightly +EV gambles early in these tournaments, because I'd rather double or bust trying to get a big stack than grind a short stack for hours hoping to get a min-cash that usually isn't much more than the buy-in I invested.
On the other hand, tournaments with small guarantees and big buy-ins attract small fields. This results in lower variance and allows you to be a little more patient. I try to pick my spots carefully in smaller-field tournaments, because oftentimes I can cash with a median stack and still have enough chips to make a final table run once we get into the money.
Far From, Close To, and On the Bubble Play
Far from the bubble, I rely more heavily on either skill or luck depending on the factors above. As I get closer to the bubble, say for example, the point where half the remaining players get paid, I start to make some adjustments.
When I have a short stack, this is the time I welcome variance and gamble for a stack that can cash. With a medium stack, I gamble for a stack that can become a big stack while trying to save a few chips to cash with in case things do not work out. With a big stack, I settle down in anticipation of the bubble play when around 80% of the remaining players get paid. This is sort of the calm before the storm because at that point, I plan to apply tons of ICM pressure on my handcuffed opponents.
If instead I am a medium stack on the bubble and the big stacks are playing well, I am more or less forced to fold into the money. As passive as this sounds, it is really just a skillful execution of correct ICM play and I benefit from having opponents who do not understand it. With a short stack, I may need to continue gambling and relying on luck to take me over the threshold.
It is true that both skill and luck are huge parts of poker, but they lie on a continuum and you get to decide which of the two is more important to depend on at any given moment.
The problem is that most of us learned poker from the perspective of making correct plays with our cards instead of attacking incorrect plays our opponents make with theirs. This is a defensive position that forces us to rely on luck more often than is necessary.
It's not until after you have developed these fundamentals that you begin to think offensively and deviate from them in order to attack your opponents who do not use them to protect themselves.