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Lucky at cards?

I guess the part of my life that entails luck most is at the poker table. I'm an aficionado of Texas Hold 'Em, and am developing a real passion for Omaha. I can save the game descriptions for another time. But, so the story is not complete mud, here is a brief glossary:

The first two cards to each player are dealt face down. These cards are the "hand". A betting round ensues. The "community" cards (all face up, equally available to all players) are dealt next, as follows:

The "flop": three cards, spread simultaneously. Another betting round ensues.

The "turn" (or "fourth street"): the fourth community card. Another betting round ensues.

The "river" (or "fifth street"): the last community card. A final betting round ensues. 

Thus endeth the lesson.

When you learn poker the first thing you learn (or at least learn to believe) is that skill determines outcomes. You learn essential skills: assessing your own hand, reading your opponents' hands and tendencies, playing the odds properly, using well-timed aggression and, perhaps most important of all, learning how to get away from what you think is a winning hand.  You will hear poker players say "this is a game of skill, not luck". They're right. They're also wrong. And they know they're wrong.

Take the "hand": it's axiomatic in Hold 'Em that "most hands are trash". In other words, not worth playing. A "tight" player will typically only play hands worth playing, and depending on situation there are only about 50 of those. So if you get a playable hand? That's good luck (or at least managing to stay in the game long enough to have the odds come through for you)

Or the "flop": it's also axiomatic in Poker that most flops miss most hands. So again, if you connect with the flop, that's lucky.

We can stop here for a moment if only to emphasize the key point: as poker great T.J. Cloutier says, "it's all in the flip of the flop". And no player, no matter how skilled or how famous, can control the deal. So why then do poker players discount luck?

As the old song goes, "it ain't whatcha do, it's the way whatcha do it". If poker were simply a matter of putting all cards face up on the table and paying off whoever managed to get the best cards, it wouldn't be much of a game. The skill does not arise in getting the cards you get, it lies in what you do with those cards. Poker, you see, is not about what you have in your hand. It's about what your opponent thinks you have in your hand, what you think he thinks, and how you play his misperceptions. One of the greatest poker players today is Phil Ivey, of whom another pro once said "he can play any two cards with the absolute conviction that they are Aces. And you believe  him."

So for all the luck involved in the fall of the cards, skill still predominates. Mostly. There are many reasons great skill does not win every time, but the topic here is "luck", so I'll stick with that.

Sometimes you do everything right, and still lose. You bet the hand in such a way that your opponent is left with only two cards in the deck that can help him on the river. And one of those cards comes down. Luck prevails over skill. 

Nor will all the skill in the world save you from "bad beats" -- hands where you get your money in with the best cards only to drown in "the river" when your opponent, dumb enough to call your all-in (Aces) with some weak drawing hand, and that 5% chance hits and busts you. It's enough to make a grown man cry.

Of course, all poker players develop memories of convenience. Most of us can tell you right down to the last agonizing bead of sweat about the last bad beat that we took -- and probably the one before that and the one before that -- but would have to think long and hard about the last time we "got winners" because of a lucky fall of the cards. It's all about skill, you see.

Chris Ferguson, one of the current greats of the game, estimates that luck is a factor in about 20% of the play. I don't know about that; Chris is a math genius, a computer programmer and his father teaches game theory at UCLA, so I readily concede to the likelihood he is right. Of course, you don't play to get lucky except in extreme circumstances. You play to get your money in with the best probability of winning. But still...

Doyle Brunson, now called "the Godfather of Poker", says in one of his books that he has certainly gotten lucky in his play. But, he says, he had to play well to put himself in a position to get lucky. Which I guess is just another way of saying that luck is the residue of design.

It's all about skill, you see.