Those players identified a priori as being highly skilled achieved an average return on investment of over 30 percent, compared to 15 percent for all other players. This large gap in returns is strong evidence in support of the idea that poker is a game of skill. Steven D. Levitt and Thomas J. Miles 2011 The Role of Skill versus Luck in Poker:- Evidence from the World Series of Poker – April 2011
"I have plenty of clever generals, just give me a lucky one" – Napoleon
Skill Versus Luck
The almost universal accepted theory is that poker is a game / sport consisting of a mix of skill and luck. Levitt and Miles analysis calculates that highly skilled players win 15 percent more money than other players. So, one interpretation of the skill / luck ration could be assessed as a ratio of skill / luck as 85/15. This is different from the percentages suggested by another economist, Phil Hellmuth. He calculates that poker is "100 percent skill and 50 percent luck."
Another noted academic and psychologist, Fritz Heider suggests that performing any activity well consists of a mix of external and internal factors. The internal factors he identifies are both your ability to complete the task and the effort you put in to achieving the task. The external factors are the difficulty of completing the task, i.e. your opponents play and . . . luck.
Heider suggests that you only have limited control of these factors. He feels you can control the internal factors by practicing hard, implementing successful strategies, and so on; but , you have no control over the external factors, such as your opponents and your luck.
I would disagree with that. I believe you can influence your opponents, and more crucially, and controversially, that you can change your luck. Heider would definitely disagree with that assertion.
I believe poker players can influence their luck, and they know it, and their behaviour shows that they frequently act as if they can. Rationally most players will argue this is absolute nonsense. However, let’s look at the evidence. Luck can be influenced and here are a number of arguments to prove it:
Argument 1: 3.5 billion people, or more, can’t be wrong, can they?
Half the population of the world believe in the ancient Chinese philosophy of feng shui which promotes good luck. A number of large western organisations are willing to invest a great deal of money respecting their beliefs:
-The Disney Corporation shifted the angle of the front gate of Hong Kong’s Disneyland by 12 degrees to align the park for maximum prosperity.
-The entrance to the original MGM Grand in Las Vegas was inside the mouth of Leo the Lion, MGM’s mascot. However many Chinese gamblers avoided the casino or entered the casino through the back entrance to avoid the bad luck they believed they would have entering the mouth of the lion. In 1998 the entrance was changed.
-The architects of the Crown casino in Australia complex consulted 3 feng shui experts when building the $1.6 billion hotel and casino. It is also lucky for gamblers to wear red underwear
-Oh, and let’s not forget the little prayer most poker players mutter when they’re all-in in a coin flip.
Argument 2 – animals can’t be wrong, can they?
Animals don’t believe in luck, do they?
In an experiment carried out by B.F. Skinner he proved that animals, in this case pigeons, are superstitious at heart and will carry out a set of rituals, or superstitions in order to give themselves the best chance of success. Skinner set up an experiment which meant the pigeon had to peck the correct button from a number of options, to get some food. The pigeons quickly established this and learnt which button to peck. Skinner then changed the system and rewarded the pigeons randomly whichever button they pressed. The pigeons responded by behaving in an unusual way. They developed their own mannerisms - twisting their necks, flapping their wings, pecking close to the buttons in a consistent manner in a bid to reproduce the luck they had previously achieved by gaining food.
Similarly, Paul Azinger, golfer, always marks the position of his golf ball on the green with a US penny that features Abraham Lincoln. Not only does he carry this out ritually, but he lines the penny up to ensure Lincoln is looking at the hole.
Serena Williams blamed her failure to win the 2007 French Open on herself: "I didn't tie my laces right and I didn't bounce the ball five times and I didn't bring my shower sandals to the court with me."
In the article Betting With Magic – The Use of Magical Belief Systems in Gambling Bess Hayes and Dr. Tyler Jarvis conclude,
“Despite understanding the probability and independence of events in gambling games, gamblers repeatedly exhibit actions that display their belief in an ability to control the outcome of an event in a game.”
Argument 3 – Governments can’t be wrong, can they?
If the highest powers in the land acknowledged that luck could be influenced that would be some proof, yes?
-“He enjoys poker and agreed that there was skill involved, but he believes that luck prevails every time. He testified that he had seen a television poker tournament in which there was a hand that had a 91 percent chance to win and yet it lost to a hand with only a 9 percent chance to win. He opined that this was absolute proof that in poker, luck pre-dominates over skill.” - North Carolina Supreme Court findings summarizing expert witness testimony of Roy Cooke, July 2005
-Sweden’s Supreme Court Judge Goran Lamberth concluded that “cash games constitute games that primarily depend on luck as in the meaning of chapter 16, article 14 of the Criminal Code “
-“In the Gutshot Poker Club case in England, the court ruled poker to be a game of luck and so subject to the Gaming Act.”
The argument is as follows:
-Poker is a game of luck.
-Luck is by definition not consistent and must eventually balance itself out.
-Some players consistently win more than others over a substantial period.
-Therefore these players must have an influence over the amount of good luck they have.
Argument 4– psychologists can’t be wrong, can they?
-An experiment was carried out with people who described themselves as "lucky" and another set who didn’t describe themselves as lucky. A test was given to these two groups of people. Both groups were given newspapers with hidden messages. They were asked to complete a task and during that task they could come across clues and hidden messages giving them instructions on how to win $100. The result was that people from the "lucky" group did far better than the other group.
The psychologists conducting this experiment concluded that feeling lucky can help you. It gives you positive vibes and a more optimistic viewpoint. Feeling lucky makes you more likely to see the good side and influence your behaviour.
-People can control their luck. Or, more accurately, people behave as if they can control their luck. Ellen Langer, psychologist, describes this as the illusion of control.
This illusion of control was illustrated in an experiment she carried out based on a lottery. The lottery is an acknowledged game of pure chance with each ticket having as much chance of winning as any other – obviously.
One group of people were given lottery tickets with images of famous sportspeople on them. Another group were able to select which lottery ticket sportsperson they choose. Each ticket cost $1.
When scientists attempted to buy tickets from these groups, based on the excuse that there were no more lottery tickets left, they found that the people who had been given random tickets negotiated the sale of their tickets for on average of $1.96. Whilst the people in the group who had selected their own tickets sold them for an average of $8.67.
Therefore the second group, who had chosen their own tickets, behaved as though they had more control of their luck than the first group who’s chances of winning was pre-determined.
-In a practical situation sociologist E.G. Coffman found that dealers who experienced runs of bad luck ran the risk of losing their jobs. He also observed craps players in action. He found that people tend to throw the dice softly if they want low numbers or to throw hard for high numbers, after, of course, blowing on the dice.
Argument 5 – sports stars can’t be wrong, can they?
-Paul Azinger, golfer, always marks the position of his golf ball on the green with a US penny that features Abraham Lincoln. Not only that but he lines the penny up to ensure Lincoln is looking at the hole.
-Wade Boggs, liked to eat chicken before a game at 5.17pm precisely. He then went and hit exactly 150 balls in batting practice.
-Serena Williams blamed her failure to win the 2007 French Open on herself: "I didn't tie my laces right and I didn't bounce the ball five times and I didn't bring my shower sandals to the court with me."
The ‘Illusion of control’ is a great way of summarising the attempt to control your fate. On the one, rational, level it seems absurd. How can having an orange in front of you at a poker table possibly affect your chances of winning?
However, one of the most important aspects of poker, or any competitive activity really, is feeling comfortable about it and getting yourself in the best frame of mind. If that means doing a little dance around your chair before you sit down – so what. Do what feels right for you.
As long as their routine helps them get into that state of mind and doesn't damage their performance, or that of anyone else on their team, then I would encourage them to do it. When it can become a problem is when it becomes an obsession – that can be damaging. – Dr Tony Westbury, lecturer in sport, exercise and psychology at Napier University in Edinburgh. The dangers, as Westbury goes on to add, is that for some athletes, superstition can become dangerously close to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
Perhaps the final word needs to come from Dylan Thomas, poet, not someone you would call a ‘lucky’ person. In the foreword to his book of Collected Poems he writes;
“I read somewhere of a shepherd who, when asked why he made, from within fairy rings, ritual observances to the moon to protect his flocks, replied: "I'd be a damn' fool if I didn't!"
Byron Kalies has written three books: Management Techniques in 90 Minutes, A Trainer's Diary and, From Tenby to Celtic Manor: A History of Golf in Wales. He can be reached through his website www.byronkalies.com