Some consider poker to be a game of skill. Others consider it to be a game of luck. Regardless of whether you play poker online or face-to-face, there are things you do and don’t know about the current state of the game. This is why so many people argue back and forth about whether poker is more about skill or luck.
However, this is actually what’s so beautiful about this game. It’s this fine balance between knowing and not knowing that makes it both a game of skill and a game of luck. It’s also this fine balance that makes poker a game of incomplete information.
Want to learn about games of complete and incomplete information, why poker is a game of incomplete information, and how skilled poker players work around what they don’t know about the game when they’re playing poker? Read on for the answers.
Games of Complete and Incomplete Information
In game theory, which is simply the study of strategy, there are two categories of games that players need to know: games with complete information and games with incomplete information.
Games of complete information are games where players have all the knowledge about a game that is taking place. They know all the actions that a player has taken previously, the current state of the game, and all the actions that a player could take in the future. No information is hidden from any player’s view at any point in the game. Examples of games of complete information include checkers, chess, and Go.
Games of incomplete information, also known as Bayesian games, are games where players don’t have all the information about a game that is taking place. They may be aware of some information, but the design of the game intentionally hides other information from them. Examples of games of incomplete information include Uno, Scrabble, and poker.
Why is Poker a Game of Incomplete Information?
So, any game where a player doesn’t have all the information about a game that is currently being played is considered a game of incomplete information, and poker ticks these boxes for multiple reasons, including:
- Not knowing what cards your opponents have.
- Not knowing what cards remain in the deck.
- Not knowing what cards will appear on the flop, turn, and river.
- Not knowing if an opponent’s actions are a sign of strength, weakness, or a bluff.
How Poker Players Navigate Around This Lack of Information
In order to win, players make use of several poker skills to improve their game, such as learning which are the strongest hands and knowing what mistakes to avoid. However, there are also specific strategies that players use based on poker being a game of incomplete information.
1. Leveraging Their Position in a Game
In a game of poker, your position at the table (whether it’s a real table or a virtual one) will affect how you play. For example, if you’re the first to go (also known as being “under the gun”) and you have a strong starting hand, you’ll want to play aggressively to try and win before the flop. Or, if you’re the last person to play, you’ll have been able to gather information by observing how all the other players have acted before you make your decision.
This is also affected by the number of players in a particular game. The more people at the table, the more likely it is that another player will have a strong hand, so you’ll need to adjust your play from different positions accordingly.
2. Reading Other Players
Whether you’re playing poker online or in person, you can learn how to read poker “tells” (behaviors or actions) that can help you understand how a player feels, thinks, and acts.
For example, you might be able to tell over a number of games that a specific player only bets when they have a good hand or if a player always bets aggressively regardless of the cards they have. Knowing this can help you better understand how to play against these types of players. If you’ve identified a player as cautious and they suddenly go all in, it’s very likely that they have the nuts. On the other hand, if you have the nuts, you know you’ll be able to bait an aggressive player into growing the pot.
Some specific in-person tells include things like cracking jokes to try and distract other players because an opponent has a weak hand or being impatient because an opponent has a strong hand. Players may also avoid eye contact if they’re unsure about their hand’s strength or try to act nervous if they know they have a good chance of winning.
These and many other actions are all signs that could help you better understand what you’re up against in a game of poker.
3. Understanding Probabilities
There’s no way to be 100% certain of what’s coming next in a game of poker, but players learn to assess the odds of different situations and to act accordingly.
For example, if there’s an ace, king, jack, 10, and 9 of hearts in the community cards and a player goes all in, it’s very likely that the player has a queen of hearts to complete a royal flush, have a queen to complete a straight, or another heart to at least give them a flush. Understanding this is also known as understanding poker ranges.
Similarly, a player with only a few chips left who makes an aggressive play is unlikely to be risking their only chance to remain in the game unless they have a strong hand.
This doesn’t eliminate the possibility that the player might have other cards and is just playing aggressively, but it highlights the importance of knowing how likely (or probable) a specific event is.
Poker players also use more advanced concepts, like pot odds, expected value, and variance, when judging risk and to better understand the likely meaning behind other player’s actions, as well as how they should act themselves.
While you may not have all the information in a game, that doesn’t mean that you can’t act like you do. When you play poker in person, as well as online, to a lesser degree, bluffing allows you to manipulate your opponents into acting a specific way.
For example, if you have a weak hand and are under the gun but you choose to go all in, many players will interpret this as a signal indicating you have a strong hand. Or checking when you have an early position in a game to trick your opponents into growing the pot only to later match or raise their wager.
There are many other actions that players use to mislead their opponents and to create a desirable outcome, but just be careful to avoid angle shooting. These are specific actions that are considered bad poker etiquette and could result in you being forced to forfeit a hand if you do it too many times.
5. Hoping Luck Is on Their Side
While this isn’t exactly a skill, even the best players know that sometimes no matter what you do to improve at poker, you just have to take a chance and hope for the best.
One well-known example of this is the showdown between Motoyuki Mabuchi and Justin Phillips at the 2008 World Series Of Poker Main Event. Mabuchi had A♣A♠, while Phillips held K♥J♦. The flop reveals a 9♣Q♦A♦. Mabuchi now has a three-of-a-kind, while Phillips has a straight. A 10♦ lands on the turn, giving Phillips another out with a flush if he manages to land another diamond.
Finally, an A♦ lands on the river, and Mabuchi goes all in with his four-of-a-kind. Unfortunately for Mabuchi, the ace also gives Phillips a royal flush and the win.
If you ever find yourself asking yourself, “How much luck is involved in poker?”. No one will ever be able to give you an exact answer. But you’ll get a good idea of how big a role luck can play from the example above.
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