Poker and Gambling

Is poker is a game of skill and luck combined (equal chance), or is it just gambling and luck?

Poker is a game of skill and luck combined (or equal chance). My Dad says it is pure gambling but I disagree. Which view is correct?

I am now of the view that it is a combination of both.

Self Control and Gambling Instinct

If someone has a gambling instinct and little self control then they are probably going to be a losing player. They will take unnecessary risks and play outside of their bankroll.

If that same person has self control when it comes to poker (like myself) but little when it comes to other games like roulette, blackjack, video/casino hold'em; then they will probably be a winning poker player if they make mathematically correct decisions but blow their winnings elsewhere.

If someone is the opposite - that is they don't have a gambling instinct and have a lot of self control - they are probably going to be a winning player if they make mathematically correct decisions.

If that same person is scared of losing money then they will probably be a losing player because they can't make the right choices for the fear of losing.


If I were to enter a chess tournament with a monetary buy-in and cash prize for the winner, I don't believe my Dad would see that as gambling. After all, chess is widely known to be a game of pure skill.

Continuing with the chess analogy, how does it compare to poker?

Chess Analogy

The Chess Pieces

The first thing you learn in chess is what the pieces are and their differences. Pawns can only move forward - or diagonally if taking another piece. Knights can only move in a L-shape. Rooks can move vertically and horizontally. Bishops diagonally. The queen can move horizontally, vertically, and diagonally. The king can move the same as the queen but only by one square.

In poker, the possible hands is the first thing learnt. High card or junk hands are like pawns - they aren't particularly important. Losing small pots without putting money into the pot with those hands is OK as long as you make up for it by betting with the strong hands like flushes and full houses. Losing a pawn is OK, but not protecting your queen will hinder the chance of success.

Opening Moves

I think everyone can see what I'm going to compare in poker to opening moves in chess. Yes, starting hand strength and position.

When out of position you only play premium starting hands. When on the button you can play a wider range of hands. You raise and re-raise with premium hands to force those with weaker hands out.

In chess your opening moves are to set-up your pieces for the rest of the game. Not knowing the reason for your opponents opening moves could cause a strategic problem later in the game.

Is a maniac raising with any hand? Play premium pocket pairs and hands and you'll probably felt him.

Check (Chess, not Poker)

You've got the pieces in position and putting your opponent under pressure. If he makes the wrong move it could be the end of the game.

In poker you've got a strong hand but don't want to give someone the pot-odds of outdrawing you. If they make the mathematically incorrect decision it will go against them in the long run even if they do win that hand.

If you aren't giving the pot-odds (implied or not) of calling, then you shouldn't if you are drawing to a hand that may not even be the best hand at showdown. Knowing what possible two-card combinations can beat your hand would help in making the right decision. The less hands, the less chance the other guy/gal has it.


Nothing can be done. The king is lost.

If you flop the nuts, then you have to make sure you can get paid off for it. How strong the hand is would come into what you do. Do you give your opponent the right odds to draw to improve his hand? If you have aces full of kings, you probably will because few hands can improve to a better hand.

Capitalising on your opponents mistakes is the same in both poker and chess. You make the right decisions and should win in the long run.

Poker as a Game of Skill

95% of poker players are losing players. That equates to 19 in 20 poker players not breaking even in the long run. So what is the difference between them and the 1 in 20 that are winning players?

I believe it's not improving their game and making mathematically incorrect decisions. Not knowing when to lay down a hand that is likely beat. This is where the skill part comes in.

As Sklansky wrote:

Every time you play a hand differently from the way you would have played it if you could see all your opponents' cards, they gain; and every time you play your hand the same way you would have played it if you could see all their cards, they lose. Conversely, every time opponents play their hands differently from the way they would have if they could see all your cards, you gain; and every time they play their hands the same way they would have played if they could see all your cards, you lose.

David Sklansky, The Theory of Poker: A Professional Poker Player Teaches You How to Think Like One