I was interviewed today (for an article about unusual hobbies of Vassar professors) about playing in last summer’s World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. I don’t think everything I said will make the article, but part of what I said is that poker is a game of skill with a luck component. Because of the luck component, bad and mediocre players will sometimes win in the short run. But because of the skill component, good players will win in the long run.
The skill element of poker falls into three areas. First, there are purely mathematical factors. For example, if you are drawing to an inside straight, you need to get better than 11:1 on your money for your call to be profitable. Second, there are game theoretical considerations. However a person plays his cards, he is following a strategy of some kind (whether he is conscious of what that strategy is or not). For every strategy, there is a counter-strategy that exploits it. You have to figure out what strategy your opponent is following, and adopt the appropriate counter-strategy. Conversely, if your opponent adopts a good counter-strategy, you must change your strategy to one that exploits their counter-strategy. Third, there are psychological aspects to the game. This includes things like reading your opponent’s “tells.” However, an even more important part of poker psychology is maintaining your own focus and discipline. Because of the luck factor in poker, you will sometimes play a hand perfectly, and lose anyway. This is very frustrating, and some players cannot handle those situations. They go on “tilt” (or, as it is sometimes more colorfully described, “full on monkey tilt”), and start making bad mathematical and strategic decisions. You have to be able to play your “A game” at all times.