top corner

Luck vs. Skill in Poker Tournaments

One of the oldest debates in poker is whether tournaments are more skill than luck. The argument doesn’t revolve so much around whether there is more skill than luck, but instead whether they luck is outweighed by a wide margin.

When it comes down to it, there is no disputing that MTTs require skill. Long term tourney winners will only be able to maintain a profit if they are able to play well on a consistent basis. The biggest obstacle for tournament players is being able to pin down an actual win rate. Since tournaments are inherently full of variance, the actual rate at which any given player wins is near impossible to decipher. If you take one single win out of a player’s history, the chances are that their overall ROI will drop by a noticeable margin. This is not something that would ever happen to a cash game or sit and go player because one random win does not effect the bottom line in a noticeable way.

The types of tournaments that you play and your actual skill level will both play a decidedly large role in deciphering just how much of your wins are skill and how much of it is luck. The one factor that is ever present is the need for a lot of history. Without a sound sample size, your tournament resume will mean next to nothing.

Look at some of the biggest winners in terms of cash in the history of the World Series of Poker. Many of them are near the top of the list thanks to just one big run. When you look at the most cashes or the most bracelets in WSOP history, however, you will see the same names over and over again. This is a perfect example of how tournament poker has a lot of luck in the short term, but that skill ultimately prevails in the long run.

Now, some players will be luckier than others even in the long run, but aside from the random anomaly, the wins of a luckier player won’t be that much greater than the wins of a player with slightly worse luck. On the other hand, the luckiest player with the same amount of skill as the unluckiest player will find a wide gap in their earnings total. This is nothing more than the brutal reality of tournament style poker.

When Skill Matters

Skill matters the most in the stages of a tournament where there is still room for post flop play. If you can manipulate your opponents with a solid tactical approach, you will gain an edge based on skill alone.

Think about all of those opportunities in tournaments to make a pre flop steal or even a c-bet on the flop. These are the pots that don’t seem like much when you are playing a hand, but they will add up to the point where they equate for a large portion of your wins (or losses). Fighting for small pots in poker never has been and never will be glamorous, but it is one of the easiest ways to use skills to your advantage when playing in a tournament.

It may very well take you a long time before you can even properly identify the spots where you can add to your stack with relative ease, but the truly skilled players are able to do this with extreme regularity.

When Luck Matters

Luck matters in all parts of a tournament, from the very beginning to the last hand of heads up play. It is most important, however, whenever it comes to flipping coins and playing with big stacks and even bigger blinds. Tournaments almost always get to the point where they are nothing more than who can run the hottest over a span of 100 hands. If you bust out with TT vs. AK, there isn’t exactly a whole lot that you can do about it.

The fact is that tournament poker is appealing to so many amateur players because they know they can walk away with a big win even if they are not the best player at the table. This just isn’t the case for cash games. A weak player will get eaten alive in ring games, and even if they do manage to get lucky, it won’t be for a massive amount

Luck runs out quite quickly in poker, and this is something that is to the disadvantage of weak cash game players and to the advantage of weak tournament players. Those sub par players can be the most frustrating to lose to in tournaments, but they are also the ones who make tournament play profitable.

More Poker Tournament Strategy
bottom corner