Is Poker Gambling or a Game of Skill and Not Pure Luck?

Is poker gambling? The answer to this question is not as straightforward as one might think. While there is no doubt that poker involves money and can therefore be considered a form of gambling, the game also requires skill and strategy.

This makes it different from other casino games like roulette or blackjack, which rely more on chance than player ability. As a result, some people argue that poker should not be classified as gambling at all, but rather viewed as a sport or pastime. 

What is the legal definition of gambling? Is poker gambling?

Is Poker Gambling?

Many have debated endlessly whether online poker or live games should be considered gambling. Online poker pros who travel to play live poker events and play online poker for a living say things like, “Well, if it was gambling I wouldn’t be doing it professionally now.” 

Others, such as Doyle Brunson (TexasDolly), have said (paraphrase), “Of course it’s gambling. Are you a bozo? However, that doesn’t mean some people aren’t better than others.”

Gus Hansen was once questioned by a reporter about the role of luck in poker. He said that luck was responsible for 90% of his results in any given session. He estimated it to be between 10% and 15% over a month; it dropped to about 2-5% over a year.

What are we supposed to make of it all? Is poker gambling? Let’s begin with semantics. What does gambling mean?

What does gambling mean to you?

It is sensible to consider gambling as a place where something of worth is at risk to maximize the potential for ultimate gain. Although this seems straightforward, it turns out that it covers almost every interesting thing people do.

Gambling includes buying stocks, commodities trading, investing, real estate, getting married and planting trees, starting a business, and even going to college. Gambling is everywhere! 

Is Poker Skill or Luck? Let’s get it right

You will win over all bad players if you are a skilled player.

– Jonathan Little, my poker coaching

Legally, the issue is about determining “predominance.” The legal definition of gambling is that a game or enterprise is a game of luck and chance prevail over skill. Although it is a “gamble”, no one has ever claimed that opening a small business is literally gambling.

The standard interpretation is that the business acumen and management of the owner is the key factor, and “dominates” any chance elements.

Because chance is the dominant determinant of the outcomes, lotteries, roulette wheels, and slot machines are all categorized as “gambles.” The courts considered real-money poker as gambling for the greater part of their history.

This was because luck was the dominant element.

Multiple legislators and judges were heard saying things like “Whoever ultimately wins, is the player with the best hand, and that is the luck of the draw.” This, of course, showed that they didn’t know much about poker. This legal position is important because it allows nations and states that have anti-gambling statutes to criminalize the sport.

Recent US rulings have changed this interpretation.

Juries and judges in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Colorado have found that the skill elements outweigh the chance factors: Poker is not gambling.

Two Studies Prove Poker is a Game of Skill

Two reports that were published a while ago attracted much attention: One from Cigital Group, and one from the University of Hamburg. The first was a large-scale examination that included over 100 million hands by Cigital, a Washington, DC-based consulting firm.

Both of these findings were in line with the intuitions of most experienced poker players.

  • Three-quarters never showdown.
  • Only 12 percent of hands are won with the best hand.

These results revealed that poker is a game based on skill, with the chance element (the cards dealt), playing a smaller part in typical hands. It’s all about the ranges you represent and finding good spots for balancing bluffs. An analysis of hands is not enough. You also need to analyze poker players.

Critical Repetition Frequency – Player Analysis

An analysis in Gaming Law Review and Economics was the first solid step in this direction by Jan-Philipp Rock and Ingo Fiedler at the University of Hamburg’s Institute of Law and Economics. They examined the records of more than 50,000 online poker players. They started with the assumption that poker was a game of skill, but they pointed out that this hypothesis is still open to question, no matter what the opinions of the poker community.

They also note that no statistical feature of the game could be used for this type of analysis. The Critical Repeating Frequency (CRF), which is the number of hands required before a player (and the data analyst experimenting can be confident (95% certain) that their results reflect skill and are reliable, is their candidate.

They compared the results of 55,000 online Texas Hold’em players to millions of hands from mid-level Texas Hold’em games. The results were shocking. A player with a CRF of 300 is an extremely skilled player. He averages 100BB/100hands.

If they can maintain this level of skill for 300 hands, they can feel confident about their results.

The number of skilled players with lower win rates (and more realistic) can change dramatically. A win rate of 30BB/100h, which is still unrealistic, has a CRF of 3,300. One of 5BB/100h (118,000) and one of 1BB/100h (295,000) are both realistic. Don’t trust your results if you average +1BB per 100 hands.

You shouldn’t also trust your results unless you are multi-tabling or doing it for many hours.

Fiedler and Rock’s approach strongly supports the idea that poker is a game based on skill. It is combined with the Cigital study and presents converging lines of evidence for the skill-based argument. One from the “hands”, one from “players.”

This could be a significant step in the fight for legalizing online gambling in all 50 states as well as many other countries.

A Pragmatic Approach to Poker as “Gambling”

It is important to recognize that two fundamental dimensions underlie the vast majority of human enterprises, and in particular the “games” that we play.

1. The expected normative value (EV), of the game

This is how we can determine what the average outcome is for a player in any “game.” If the game is craps, roulette, or slots, we know that the EV is negative. We can often calculate it.

The EV can be calculated for other “games,” but it is not easy to calculate. Going to medical school is a big gamble (tuition and time, effort), but it has a positive normative EV because the average doctor makes back these costs plus a lot more. It’s still a gamble, and many have lost big.

They don’t graduate, fail to pass licensing exams, or are just poor doctors.

Although small businesses are highly valued in our culture, they are a gamble. More than half of them fail within five years. Another gamble with a very negative EV is marriage. more than half end in divorce.

Due to the rake, poker is also a “game” that has a significant negative EV. If all poker players had the same skill, then everyone would lose. This pragmatic stance however has another dimension.

2. The flexibility of the game

Flexibility is the ability to change one’s EV. Some poker games, such as roulette, offer very little flexibility. The EV cannot be modified. Craps offers a little more flexibility as you can adjust the bets to reduce the house edge.

The flexibility of opening a small business is huge. However, business acumen and business acumen are crucial to the success of the business. Because of this, the legal system considers such “games” to be outside the gambling prohibitions.

Although they are not considered “gambling,” most enterprises that are flexible and profitable are not considered gambling. Poker is no exception. The “flexibility” dimension of poker is quite far from the game.

Who Wins at Poker?

First, it is important to consider the stakes. There are great players at the lowest stakes and terrible players at the highest. Second, private games differ from licensed poker rooms. Live play is also different than online poker play.

Short-handed play is not the same as full-ring games.

Regulars are either $1/$2 or 2/$4 No Limit Poker players. They are not long-term winners. The problem is the inherent variation in the game (“luck”) and a host of other factors.

These include rake per hand and often a “bad-beat” jackpot. Even if you are skilled enough in cash games, it is impossible to win more than 1 or 2 BB/hour consistently under these conditions.

  • How to beat Microstakes Poker

Mid-stakes are the same, with prices starting at $4/$8 and going up to $10/$20 and $15/$30 respectively. No-Limit no-limit games with blinds of $1/$2 or $200 and a maximum buy-in of $200 These levels of play are only 5% of those who make a living in legitimate cardrooms.

Semi-high and high stakes games are where the real pros shine. These games cost $20/$40 to $80/$160 Limit and $ 2/$5 – $10/$20 No Limit. These games have a long-term winner rate of 10% to 15%.

These stakes have a lower impact on the rake, but it is at these stakes that you will find regular “contributors.” People who gamble a lot and regularly play craps with black chips. They also like to play poker similarly. They are not skilled enough to pose a problem to experts and provide a profit margin.

The Truth about Running Good and Heaters in Poker

We’ve all experienced that feeling of winning a few hands at a time and feeling invulnerable. The truth is that each hand is independent of the previous hands and the probabilities of holdings aren’t affected by previous success or failure. You won’t have a higher chance of winning the next hand if you’ve been “running well.”

The same goes for “running bad.”

There is something to be said for playing better when you win than when you lose. Because winning increases your confidence and aggression. This has been confirmed by psychologists and even sports players.

If your game is more sharp than usual, there’s a reason to rush.

When other fishy players don’t understand the “run good lies,” you can take advantage of your image at the table. Others may think you’re in a hurry/heater and adjust their play against them – Or even become passive. You can push them around with aggression and raises.

This will not work for regulars who are well-informed.

Some Do Run Worse

Many players complain about their bad luck, rotten cards, and the pain of missing flops. If you want to be a long-term winner, you must get over these issues. You have cards, so you need to learn how to play poker the best way.

Be brave when your opponent hits a 2-outer, but be gracious when you get your hand.

Certain people have been lucky more than others and some who have been less fortunate than others. Although luck indeed decreases with increasing hands, it doesn’t disappear. It continues to play a part.

Distribution of Luck in Poker Over Time

Assume that there is a distribution of long-term expected values (EV) for every hand. It can be taken from any poker position, under any circumstances. It will approximate a bell-shaped, normal curve.

Long-term expectations hands will not be seen often because they don’t get played as often and will appear in the left-hand tail. The hands with the highest EV will be rare because they need to be paid off in a “just right” situation.

These will be on the extreme right side of the curve. The curve’s center will have the highest peak at the top, and the most common outcomes.

You can plot the distribution of “luck” for each player, that is, the EVs from the actual hands they are dealt. This will give you another normal curve. It will be clear that some players are below, some above, and some who are much lower or higher than the mean.

Some people will be luckier than the norm, while others will be less fortunate.

Consider unlucky situations in real life, such as being struck by lightning or winning the lottery. Yes, you must play the cards you are dealt most advantageously. Because cards have no memory, your expected “luck” for tonight is the statistical norm, which is the average outcome.

Play your best game, and don’t worry about it. You can’t change the cards you’re dealt.


Is poker gambling? Semantically, yes, because poker, as with most other activities, involves taking risks to reap the ultimate reward. Legally, the answer used to be “yes,” but it is slowly changing to “no.”

Pragmatically, the answer is yes or no depending upon the player’s ability and willingness to take advantage of the game’s inherent flexibility.

You can play skill games like chess or chess online, but you cannot do the same with poker, either online or live. You can practice and have fun for a few rounds, but not for very long. It is important to win and lose money, which is what gives poker its appeal.

Poker without the ability to win or lose money is not poker. We agree with this opinion.

You can play for free, or for too little a stake. Then it could become a game based on luck. Because people don’t care and will gamble with any card. You play differently when you stake money to win something, which is the definition of gambling in poker.

This is where the skill comes in. As we mentioned, there are poker variations. But long-term, and this is very important, the game can be beatable and can yield a positive return.