Poker has had a major makeover since the Wild West days. The game is no longer relegated to smoke-filled back rooms with a mandatory pistol strapped to your hip.

Nowadays, you’re more likely to bump into a tourist looking for where to play poker in Vegas than a grizzled-looking cowboy.

Now, the game has more in common with chess phenoms and math wizards.

Is poker a game of skill?

Absolutely! But to answer the question, “Is poker luck or skill?” properly, we need to provide a background.

From Doyle to Doug – Is Poker Luck or Skill?

For decades, the biggest name in poker was Doyle Brunson, nicknamed “the Godfather of Poker.” He appeared on every high-stakes poker show, betting hundreds of thousands of dollars, decked out in an iconic cowboy hat.

Is Poker Luck or Skill? Doyle Brunson
Is Poker Luck or Skill? Doyle Brunson

He wrote the legendary book How I Made Over $1,000,000 Playing Poker (title later changed to Super System) in 1978… back when a dozen eggs cost $0.82.

Can you imagine what a million dollars could buy you in the ‘70s?

And while Doyle would have undoubtedly argued no contest regarding the question, “Is poker a game of skill?” Doyle was demonstrating that poker was skilful long before a poker term like GTO.

But the advantage in his game was more nebulous and mystical. The conundrum “Is poker skill or luck?” was unanswerable as poker was a “feel” game not backed by a library of hard data.

“Show me your eyes, and you may as well show me your cards,” said Doyle, hinting at the mighty power of the poker face.

Compare that to a quote from the most influential figures in poker, and you’ll see how much poker has changed.

“I never go with my instincts,” the fast-talking, bro-tank-wearing, multi-millionaire poker celeb and card room owner Doug Polk said on his YouTube channel.

He prefers using random number generators and computer-generated charts.

Imagine that – NEVER listening to your instincts!

When Doug live-streamed his bankroll challenge in 2018, where he turned $100 into $10,000, he made many decisions using a calculator.

Doyle interpreted situations innately and accurately, but Doug didn’t trust his all-too-human intuition.

By converting poker into a computer game, Doug could directly address the concerns about is poker luck or skill and define it mathematically.

It is a game of skill!

Computers Answer: Is Poker a Game of Skill?

Computer programs known as “solvers” are the foundation of modern poker theory. These various software applications identify the best possible solution for any poker hand.

Solvers teach you how to play optimally.

This situation is similar to chess, where you can now match against a computer.

Also, like chess, the mere existence of these programs indicates that poker strategy is real.

So, questioning if poker is a game of luck or skill becomes a moot point.

Is Poker a Game of Skill? Computers Answer
Is Poker a Game of Skill? Computers Answer

No software program can teach you how to beat slot machines - or craps, or roulette.

Casinos even allow you to bring best-practices poker cheat sheets for video poker since it is, ultimately, an unbeatable game.

But you can master poker. The numbers prove it!

Is Poker a Game of Skill or Luck over Time?

Undoubtedly, poker is a game of skill… over time. An amateur can easily beat a pro in any one random poker hand.

There are plenty of clips featuring clueless rookies winning against seasoned millionaire professionals.

Is poker skill or luck only applicable after an extended period of time?

Short-term Texas Hold‘em poker comes down to the luck of the draw. And there’s even a saying in poker lingo, “Better to be lucky than good.”

But luck always runs out.

Only solid players can consistently beat the game.

Here are the statistics as mentioned in my book A Girl’s Guide to Poker:

  • When in poker, does luck become eclipsed by skill? At just under 1,500 hands. 1,471, to be exact.
  • 1,471 hands is usually between 19 and 25 hours in live poker.
  • 1,471 hands is around 16 hours of online poker – if you’re playing one table.

Crossing this threshold doesn’t guarantee success. After this point, you can’t continue as a losing or inexperienced player.

A beginner can rarely survive a full day of play. Expertise becomes necessary in the long run.

Is Poker a Game of Skill? Time Factor
Is Poker a Game of Skill? Time Factor

Another way to consider the query, "Is poker luck or skill?" is to refer to the earlier example of a total newcomer competing against a seasoned pro.

The newcomer may get lucky enough to win one hand. Or two. Or even three. But 100 hands? 1,000 hands? 10,000 hands?

Their chances shrink with volume to become nearly impossible.

Is Poker Skill or Luck According to Evidence?

As evaluated in a 2015 paper, Study: Beyond Chance? The Persistence of Performance in Online Poker: Elite poker players predictably perform better than a mere toss-up of luck or skill.

Once again, we conclude: Is poker a game of skill – YES!

  • Poker players who ranked in the top 10% in the first six months of the year were more than twice as likely to do similarly well in the next six months.
  • Poker players who finished in the best-performing 1% in the first half of the year were 12 times more likely than others to do so in the second half.
  • Players who fared poorly from the start continued to lose.

Ultimately, the research shows that skilled players outperform unskilled players. They could not repeat their success if poker were a game of pure luck.

A 103-million-hand online poker study by Citigal, Inc. also revealed two critical conclusions:

  • Three-quarters of all hands never go to showdown.
  • Only about 12% of hands are won by who has the best cards.

Most of the time, the winner doesn’t even have the best hand!

Is Poker a Game of Skill? Worst Hands Win
Is Poker a Game of Skill? Worst Hands Win

The good players win by outplaying their opponents rather than outdrawing them. Poker may seem like a crazy gambling scheme, but there is a method to the madness.

P.S. The results of this same study determined that Texas Hold’em poker is 88% skill.

Risky Business – Is Poker Luck or Skill?

One final note regarding the question, “Is poker skill or luck?”.

Poker strategy can involve mathematical probabilities – and sometimes, the maths tells you to gamble.

There are instances warranting calculated risks.

For example, you might have a flush draw with a 36% likelihood of completing. Despite the uncertainty, the size of the pot may justify going for it.

Think of it like the lottery. Let’s say you risk $1.00 to win $1,000,000.

Most of the time, you aren’t going to win.

But the payoff is big enough to gamble your buck to win a million.

Amanda is the author of the book A Girl's Guide to Poker, dedicated to making poker friendly and accessible to everyone. In 2021, she was a World Series of Poker final-tablist where she and her father took third place in the WSOP tag team event.