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Is it Better to be Lucky than Good?

December 12th, 2016 by Todd McGee
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Baseball pitcher Vernon “Lefty” Gomez once said he’d rather be lucky than good, a philosophy that works well in poker. (Source: azquotes.com)

One of the big debates about poker is the importance of skill vs. the necessity for luck. I have played a handful of tournaments in the past couple of years, at The Bicycle Casino in Los Angeles, Maryland Live in Baltimore, Harrah’s New Orleans, the Riverside Casino in Iowa, the Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh and four World Series of Poker Circuit events at Harrah’s Cherokee.

While by no means do I consider myself a poker expert, I’ve enjoyed some success (three cashes at WSOP Circuit events and a six-way chop at my first tourney at Maryland Live) and have logged enough hours to formulate an opinion on the luck vs. skill debate.

I believe they are almost equally as important, but in different ways.

What is Luck?

The dictionary defines luck as “success or failure brought about by chance rather than one’s own actions.” Put in poker terms, good luck is when you win a hand in spite of yourself, and bad luck is when you lose a hand to some knucklehead who refuses to fold and hits a gut shot on the river.

Is it lucky to get pocket aces? No, that’s just part of the game. Everybody has an equal shot at getting pocket aces, and they’re going to happen roughly once in every 221 hands. Good luck is when you get pocket aces and a player in front of you shoves all-in or 3-bets your pre-flop raise. Bad luck is getting pocket aces and losing to a runner-runner straight draw (I don’t think I’m ever going to get over that one).

Hitting a two-outer on the river to win a hand is luck, for certain. Statistically speaking, you have about a one in 20 chance of hitting the card you need. But is chasing a nut flush and connecting on the river luck? Some would say so, but like with so many other things in poker, the answer is in the variables. How much did it cost you to chase the flush? Were you short-stacked and getting desperate, or were you deep stacked and could afford the loss? The presence or absence of luck is not always so easily identified.

Another example of luck in poker occurred to me during a tournament. I had A-9 and was down to about 35,000 chips. With the big blind at 6,000, I didn’t have a lot of wiggle room. A player in front of me raised it to 15,000, and I shoved. The big blind, who had a deep stack, called as did the original raiser.

The flop came out 10-10-Q. The big blind checked. He wanted to check it all the way to the river to increase the chances I would get knocked out. To him, knocking me out was more important than winning more chips from the other player. (I say this is collusion, but that’s a different story.)

Fortunately for me, the remaining player in the hand didn’t agree with that philosophy, and he bet 20,000 after the flop. This prompted the big blind to fold (he had pocket 8s). The other guy turned over A-6, and I had him dominated. Unfortunately for me, the turn and river were both 7s, giving us a chopped pot. However, if the other player doesn’t bet, the big blind’s pocket 8s would have won, and I would have been knocked out of the tournament. I had both good luck and bad luck in the same hand.

Getting lucky is important to enjoy any success in a tournament, but I think avoiding bad luck is more important.

When do Skills Matter?

Like just about everybody who sits at the tables, I think I’m a decent player. The opportunities to flex my skills come very few and far between during tournaments (with the exception of folding, which is a huge skill to learn and one I employ a lot in live events).

At the recent Seniors Event at the WSOP Circuit stop in Cherokee, where I finished 58th of 864, I can really only think of three hands where I used my skills beyond folding bad hands and calling good hands. On the first, with the BB at 800, I had pocket kings and raised it up to 2,500 from middle position. A player two to my left called. Everybody else folded.

The flop came up A-6-4 rainbow. I led out with a C-bet of 4,000, and he called. The turn was a brick. I checked, and my opponent bet 6,000. I debated for a long time and eventually called. I was confident he didn’t have an ace and was just trying to steal the pot. The river was another brick. It went check-check, and he flipped over pocket 7s. My read was correct and I won a big pot.

The next opportunity came when I had K-Q suited in UTG. I had just been moved to this table. I raised, and it folded to the BB, who called. He had won the hand before with an aggressive bet. He had the biggest stack at the table, and something about him made me think he could be taking advantage of his stack. The flop came up 10-6-3. He led out with 2,500 and I called. The turn was a Jack, giving me an open ended straight draw. He led out with 5,000, and I immediately raised to 13,000.

I went with the semibluff because I didn’t think my opponent was strong and I had outs if he called. He deliberated for a couple of minutes before folding. I don’t know what he had for sure, but I am pretty sure he was trying to bully me.

My run in that tournament ended when I ran AK into AA. Some would say that is bad luck. The player with aces certainly had good luck, because I shoved pre-flop before it got to him. But was it really bad luck for me, or just poker?

Skill and luck are both important in tournament poker. Based on my somewhat limited experience, I can’t say for certain that one is moreso than the other. All I know is, when I’ve made deep runs in tournaments, I’ve avoided bad luck more than I’ve had good luck, and I’ve also used my skills and knowledge, but not as much as you might think.

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