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Is There Such a Thing As Too Much Skill in Poker?

bullseye skillOne of the age-old truisms of tournament poker is that anyone can win. If you give a donkey enough good cards, he can beat the best of them. Although nothing has changed about this central claim as poker has become more sophisticated through the years, the reason for the apparent egalitarianism of the tournament game is no longer just because donkeys get hit by the deck every now and then.

These days anybody can win a poker tournament because everybody is so good at tournament poker. In some of the major events, any edge the best players once had appears to have eroded to the point of extinction.

To explain: over the past few weeks I have been watching the television broadcasts of the Super High Roller event from EPT Barcelona, a €50,000 re-load tournament that attracted the best of the best. When they got down to a final table, and the likes of Phil Ivey, Daniel Negreanu, “ElkY”, Eugene Katchalov, Philipp Gruissem, Tobias Reinkemeier, Scott Seiver, Chris Moorman, Steve O’Dwyer, Sorel Mizzi and Jonathan Duhamel had long departed, they were left with a final table that included Dan Smith, Mike McDonald, Mike Watson, JC Alvarado, Ilari Sahamies, Talal Shakerchi and Erik Seidel.

Regardless of the stacks they were all playing, any one of those seven would have been considered a worthy champion. Perhaps only Jim McCrink, a lesser-known businessman from Las Vegas, who completed the final table octet, would have been considered a surprise champion. But even then, he could have been the one to get the run of cards and prevail. No one would have really been all that surprised.

Looking at that line-up, and at the list of players who didn’t make it, one genuinely wonders why any of them bothered to enter. Where is the value? Of course, there would be amazing bragging rights for whoever took it down, not to mention a winner’s cheque of close to €1m. But none of those players would have begrudged the title to any of the others. It merely came down to who got the breaks on the day.

As it turned out, it was Smith, who continued a sensational run that took him to player of the years honours for 2012. He won a Super High Roller event in Australia, then three $5,000 tournaments in Monte Carlo, and by his own admission had sky-high confidence and was running well. He hit quads twice during the Barcelona event, won with ace-king against another ace-king, and rivered a bigger full house against Reinkemeier, who had previously flopped the joint.

Smith is a sensational player, but it would have been very difficult to lose with those cards. If they had been dealt to any of his tablemates, any one of them would have won too.

For all the doubters in the ignorant mainstream, we of course know of the high skill element in poker. Anyone with half a brain knows that the luck/skill debate doesn’t even really exist, especially when we consider long careers. But I must confess to a niggling fear that luck is now the determining factor in very biggest tournaments, *precisely because* the skill levels are so high.

Top players are always seeking optimal strategy, ie, the best way to play a hand in the precise situation they receive it. But what happens when we assemble a table of players whose minds are so brilliant that they are all always playing close to optimally? The only way to separate them then will be only thing they cannot control: the cards. And then we’re looking at a luck game again.

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