Poker Strategy: A Game of Skill or Luck?
For the longest time, governments across the world treated poker as a game of chance, and therefore subject to the same gambling laws as roulette or the slots. Many countries still treat poker this way, but over the past 10 years or so, the world’s most popular card game has earned widespread legal recognition as a game of skill. Therefore, like any game of skill, it’s imperative that you build a sound poker strategy.
Both things can be true at the same time. The cards are indeed dealt at random, but this game can be learned and mastered by developing a solid poker strategy. With enough time, study and practice, you can figure out how to successfully apply that strategy, and win at poker more often than you lose.
Here’s an easy example of how skill can overcome luck: Let’s say you’re playing heads-up No-Limit Hold’em at Bodog Poker with reasonably deep stacks, you’re in the small blind, and you get dealt Seven-Deuce suited. Those aren’t great hole cards; you’re at the wrong end of a 62/38 coin flip against a random hand if you and your opponent both go all-in before the flop.
That doesn’t mean you should curse your bad luck and fold. A skilled poker player will know that 72s is plenty strong enough to open-raise in heads-up NLHE. Sometimes, their opponent in the big blind will fold; that, plus the occasional time our hero will win a big pot post-flop with Two Pair or better (including baby Flushes), makes 72s a profitable open in the long run against most opponents.
A skilled player will also have a strategy for winning the maximum amount possible – or losing the minimum – in every situation they might encounter. They’ll know ahead of time what do after opening 72s if their opponent raises or calls instead of folding, and what to do post-flop depending on their opponent’s actions, the stack sizes, and the cards on the table.
Best Poker Strategies
So what strategies are the world’s best poker players using? A lot of thought – and computing power – has been put into winning at poker. In very general terms, there are two types of strategies that today’s top players use: exploitive and balanced.
Exploitive Poker Strategy
As the name suggests, an exploitive strategy is one where you exploit your opponents by identifying and taking advantage of their mistakes. These mistakes fall into four categories:
- Calling too often
- Folding too often
- Bluffing too often
- Not betting for value often enough
The first mistake is the most common one you’ll see at the poker table. Most players, even experienced ones, hate to fold; they’ll call you down with weak hands, hoping to hit that magic card on the turn or river that will make their hand stronger than yours.
And sometimes that’s exactly what will happen. But when eager players call too often, they bet too much money on outcomes that aren’t as likely to happen as they might hope. You can exploit these players by bluffing less often than you normally would, and betting more marginal hands for thin value.
The opposite of calling too much is folding too much. You might see this kind of behaviour from older players at a live game, but it will happen online as well. If you think your opponent is folding “too tight,” use the opposite strategy that you would against a calling station: bluff more often, and fold more marginal hands.
Bluffing too often is the second biggest mistake made by relatively unskilled poker players. Whenever you find yourself up against one of these players, spring the trap by calling them down with more marginal hands than you normally would. Let the donkey do the pulling.
The fourth category is a bit more subtle, but it’s actually the mirror image of bluffing too often: When a player keeps checking all their marginal hands, it means they’re much less likely to be weak when they do bet. Counter this behaviour by calling less often instead of more often. Easy game.
Balanced Poker Strategy
The problem with these exploitive strategies is that your opponent can develop counter-strategies to exploit you back – if they’re skilled enough. For example, maybe they’ll see that you’re calling down their bluffs more often, so they’ll counter by bluffing less, and betting more marginal hands for value.
The way around this is to play “unexploitable” poker. Every situation in poker has an optimal play (or several), including an optimal bet size; the trick here is to strike the ideal balance of calling, raising, folding and betting, so you’re not making any of the four mistakes mentioned above. If you don’t make those mistakes, your opponents can’t exploit you.
This type of poker is also referred to as Game-Theory Optimal (GTO) poker, and it’s definitely for more advanced players. It requires a lot more study, using poker solvers and other software to run simulations – hundreds of them, even thousands, all in search of the optimal frequencies and bet sizes for each possible play.
It’s a lot of work, but as long as you don’t fall into the trap of aiming for perfection, a balanced strategy will let you sit down at any poker table, no matter how tough, and expect to at least break even in the long run. Even the best players at Bodog Poker won’t be able to gain much of an edge on you.
There’s been tons of debate about exploitive vs. balanced strategies in poker. Don’t get too caught up in the chatter; top pros like Daniel Negreanu use a combination of both, exploiting weaker players when they can, and adopting a more defensive GTO shell when they face tougher competition.
Keep in mind as well that success in poker is defined in the long run. Dumb luck can lead to big upswings and big downswings for your bankroll in the short term, but if you adopt and apply these poker strategies well enough, your skill will eventually overcome all obstacles.