Luck is Sometimes Skill ; All ‘Outs’ Not the Same

luck skill
Poker players can swing luck with skill

by Irene Edith
Phil Ivey can influence luck through skillIn my last column about Good Luck – Bad Luck, we observed that no one (not even Phil Ivey) can control Luck. It’s just a matter of chance. But you can influence Luck, albeit it takes much skill.

Yes, you can sway Luck so it is more likely in your favor rather than simply random or coincidence. That’s one of the reasons poker is more a game of skill than of random luck. Poker players must develop this skill to overcome the casino’s rake and go home winning. Some do.

One of the best ways is to be highly selective in your starting hands. Let’s explore this aspect.

We all know A-A in the hole is the very best starting hand. If you are dealt pocket Aces very often, you are indeed lucky, considering the odds are 220-to-1 against that happening. Now that’s an example of Luck you cannot control.

Most of the time you will be dealt a drawing hand or worse. Nearly all players (not all, by any means) will fold the worst hole cards. With poor starting hands, it would be very hard for Lady Luck to help you. That doesn’t take much skill.

On the other hand, drawing hands are another issue. A drawing hand usually must improve to become a winner. It takes real skill in deciding which drawing hands to play.

For example, 10-9 offsuit does have potential – but the odds invariably are much against it winning the pot. The skilled player realizes this, and will pay to see the flop only if he can do so with the minimum bet (no raises preflop) in a multiway hand. Otherwise, the implied pot odds will not justify the investment. Late position is preferred. On this basis, you may have influenced Luck in your favor.

Here’s another interesting example. In a limit game, Epstein’s Hold’em Algorithm generally will fold A-rag, even when suited. But there are exceptions, he points out.

If you can see the flop for a single bet in a multi-way pot, it’s worth taking the chance to catch four-to-the-nut flush. At that point, you will have seen over 70% of your final hand – lots of information.

If you do catch two more cards of your suit, then the odds are less than 2-to-1 against making your big flush. The pot odds are bound to be much higher, giving you a positive expectation. You are less likely to lose, and more likely to win a decent size pot when you connect – a sound “investment.” We might say you swayed Luck in your favor.

There are dozens of other examples we could offer where skill helps put Luck on your side. Here’s another typical example, quite different from the ones above.

In the blind, you get to see the flop for free when no one raises preflop. Starting with 9-Q offsuit, you are pleased when the flop brings Q-10-2 with two hearts. Your top-pair may well be the best hand at that point; but it is vulnerable.

There is a bet before you; being skilled, you raise to protect your Q-Q (and hope for a third Queen on the turn or river, realizing the odds are about 9-to-1 against it).

The turn brings an Ace on the board. Knowing most poker players love to play Aces, you check.

When an early-position comes out betting and is raised by another opponent, you pause to think. Having carefully observed your opponents from the start, you know the raiser is tight. What might he be raising with?

Almost for certain, he has a pair of Aces or better. A less astute (less skilled) player might chase – hoping for trip Queens or two-pair. With only five outs and only the river card to come, you realize how poor the odds are against you (about 20-to-1), and fold.

The chips you save by not chasing are valuable. Had you stayed in the hand, and lost, you might blame it on your Bad Luck. Your skill helped you to avoid a big loss, lucky you. Indeed, using skill, you influenced Luck.

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Starting poker hands must improve to win pot

by George Epstein
Outs can take pocket aces from early winner to late loser

Most starting-hands are drawing hands. Almost always, they must improve to win the pot.

“Outs” are simply the cards that are needed. But all outs are not alike. How can you best use that information?


You are dealt Ace-Jack of spades and flop two more spades. You now have four-to-the-nut flush. Subtracting those four suited cards from the 13 in the deck at the start leaves 9 more spades that are unseen and (hopefully) available in the deck – waiting for you.

Catch any one of those 9 spades and you have the nut (Ace-high) spade flush. That’s almost certain to win that pot unless someone gets very lucky and makes a full-house. In “pokerese,” we label those remaining 9 spades as your outs.

But wait a second! Another Ace falling on the board would give you top pair, A-A. That too could take the pot. There are 3 more Aces in the deck; so you believe you have 3 more outs.
Well, maybe! There are so many ways an opponent could beat your pair of Aces, assuming you were fortunate (?) to catch another Ace. In fact, that Ace on the board might give an opponent two-pair, Aces-up. Then your hand becomes a poor second-best – a loser, and very likely a costly one at that.

On that basis, those 3 unseen Aces remaining in the deck certainly have much less value than would another spade to make the nut flush. Still, it is possible it would give you the top pair and win the pot against opponents holding a lonely pair – even a pair of Kings.

Best way?

Being of less value than another spade, I would give each of them 2/3-credit value as an out. On that basis, those 3 Aces, add up to 2 outs (2/3 times 3). Thus, you have a total of (9 + 2) = 11 outs.

The same reasoning applies to your Jack in the hole, but only if no higher card falls on the board (A, K, or Q). Thus, the remaining 3 Jacks are even less valuable as outs than the 3 Aces; so, we give them 1/3 value, for a total of 1 more out (1/3 x 3). Now, you have a total of 12 outs.

Card Odds

With 12 outs, you have a good drawing hand. We can apply the 4-2 Rule to quickly approximate the card odds against making that hand.

With two cards to come (the turn and the river), the probability of making that hand – including the nut-flush, a pair of Aces, or a pair of Jacks – is 12 x 4 = 48%. You can expect to make one of those hands about one-half of the time. The odds are close to even money.

If you want to be more conservative, another option is to not count the 3 Aces and 3 Jacks – just the 9 spades. Then you have a total of 9 outs. Using the 4-2 Rule, the probability of catching one of those hands on the turn or the river, is 36% (9 x 4). Expect to miss about 64% of the time, which makes the card odds about 1.8-to-1 (64% divided by 36%) against you.

Now, what?

Look for a PE

Now, to complete our mental gymnastics, estimate the pot odds: the amount of chips in the pot, divided by what it costs you to call to see the turn. Compare this with the card odds.
If the pot odds are higher than the card odds, you have a Positive Expectation; in the long run, you will be ahead by calling the bet. If the pot odds are slightly less than the card odds, consider the implied pot odds, including how many more chips your opponents are likely to put into the pot on the turn and the river. If the implied pot odds are higher, call that bet.

Next issue, we’ll discuss two other cases where all outs are not alike.

“The Engineer,” a noted author and teacher in Greater Los Angeles, is a member of the Seniors Poker Hall of Fame. Contact George at

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