Tournament Poker – Game of skill or luck?

published on 10/21/08 at 11:46 am

We have all heard the saying on the WPT tour telecasts, Texas Hold-em a few minutes to learn and a lifetime to master, but how true is that of tournament texas hold-em poker. As the owner of a bar poker business and a frequent player of local casino tournaments, I see more then the average number of people playing poker tournaments. I am beginning to believe that there is a lot more luck then skill in playing tournament poker. I also believe that ring poker requires a whole different set of poker skills, but luck still plays a role in the play. This isn’t based on any study or scientific data, just my experiences.

First let’s start with bar poker. Bar poker is just as it sounds poker tournaments at local establishments with little or no entry fee and small prizes to the winners to bring more business to the establishment. Players are generally beginners, people that love to compete but don’t want to play for cash or player wanting to improve their reading skills. It never seems to fail that someone will tell me that this is their first time in a tournament and then later I will see them at a final table, now these people may have played cards before and know the basic of the game, but skill has nothing to do with how they are doing. Most will play lots of hands and catch a few cards and win their races and make the final table, then lose when they don’t change gears when the blinds increase. Then the very next week they will be the first one out because they didn’t catch the right cards.

Next is lower stakes poker tournaments, say $50 and below. These tournaments fall not too far ahead of the bar poker games. There will be more players entered, which means less skilled players and more chances of being taken out by a lesser hand. Play tends to a little erratic at first because most start with a small amount of chips and the blinds rise quickly. They want you playing ring games not remain in the tournament, because that is where they make their money. You must get some quality hands in the first couple of blind levels and avoid the suck-outs to survive to when the blinds get so high that it’s all-in or not play the hands at all. Then to win the tournament you must win your all-ins or race opportunities.

Mid range tournaments fall in $100- 500 ranges. Because of the higher entry fees there are generally less people willing to risk that much money on a poker tournament, so higher quality of play. You will usually start out with more chips and the blinds will increase slowly meaning more of a chance to only play premium hands. But yet even at this level they are always players that money has less value then most and to them $500 is not much different then playing a $50 buy-in. At one such tournament recently I watched as a player won with 8-3 unsuited and a little later won with 2-4 suited, it is very difficult for me to say that he won because of his poker skill rather with his luck. He made the final table but then lost out when he called an all in on an Ace- 3 suited and lost to pocket aces. So did he make it farther then me because of skill or was it just luck. I’m not sure but he placed in the money and I didn’t when my pocket queens lost to Big Slick.

High Stakes or professional tournaments. These fall in the $1000 or higher buy-ins and consist of tournaments like the World Series or WPT events. I have not played a lot of them but have played a few. Generally you will start with 10,000 in chips and blinds will start at 25-50 and raise hourly. Almost all the players are highly skilled, math wizards, or corporate high rollers. (What am I doing in these tournaments?) They have read all the poker books and live and breathe poker. Play tends to be much slower with only big pots if two players get big hands. Most times it comes down to race situations that you must win in order to survive. What wins the race situations? The person that gets lucky. If they win enough of those situations you will make money or have a chance to win the tournament.

I also believe that luck plays a little less then other levels because you will have to lay down a big hand at some point to survive in a tournament of this skill level. In the end the people that make the finals are the ones that got luckier then the ones that lost.

Phil Hellmuth says that if poker were only a game of skill he would win every tournament, well I don’t know if that is true but luck has a lot to do with the outcome of all Texas Hold-em tournaments. To win a tournament one must put oneself at risk many times in a tournament and to survive you must get luckier then the people that you are against. Skill is an important part of tournament poker but as the getting lucky at the right times is more important.

MNFulltilt is co-owner of Full Tilt Magazine and was owner of a bowling center in Minnesota that was raided by the police over a free bar poker game. This lead to a local senator changing a law making free bar poker legal in the state of MN. MNFulltilt currently runs weekly bar games, plays online and live poker and is working on a bar poker book.

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2 Responses to “Tournament Poker – Game of skill or luck?”

  1. Street3

    Oct 21st, 2008

    Love the article, i think Poker as a whole is game of skill. Luck will only carry you so far. Luck may win you a hand or two, but overall skill will help you win more often.

  2. admin

    Oct 21st, 2008

    Good synopsis Street3.

    But in the WSOP Main Event, with 5,6,7K people, I feel luck is increased much more, and skill rarely wins it.

    But non-WSOP, skill does the trick.

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