Liv Boeree: Does Success Come From Skill Or Luck? In the game of poker, is it more important to be skilled or lucky? Former poker pro Liv Boeree examines how chance affects us, and whether success—in poker or elsewhere—is within our control.
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Liv Boeree: Does Success Come From Skill Or Luck?

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Liv Boeree: Does Success Come From Skill Or Luck?

Liv Boeree: Does Success Come From Skill Or Luck?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So in 2005, Liv Boeree had just graduated from college with a degree in astrophysics when she decided to try her hand at something else.

LIV BOEREE: Yeah. I hadn't applied for any graduate programs yet because I wanted to sort of take a year off. And you know, I was only 21 and I felt like I wanted to get a little bit of life experience before I truly went down the academic rabbit hole. And I needed to find a way to make some money.

So I randomly decided to start applying for TV game shows. I thought, well, you know what? I've always been really good at games. I think this could be a fun, novel way to maybe make some money and get some of this life experience I've been looking for. And before I knew it, I was sort of on the game show circuit. Believe it or not, there is such a thing.

RAZ: Wow.

BOEREE: I mean, it's not formal, but there are sort of connections you can make and you can get into auditions. And one of the shows that I got on turned out to be, actually, a reality show that was looking for five beginners to teach them how to play poker. So that's how I got started in that.

RAZ: What was it? What was the show called?

BOEREE: It was called "Ultimate Poker Showdown." And fortunately, it's not anywhere on the Internet.

RAZ: Oh, no.

BOEREE: I'm very glad about that because I end up behaving like an absolute child in one of the episodes because I - basically, everyone thought I was going to win it. I thought I was going to win it. It was 100,000 pounds for a broke student. And when I didn't, and I end up playing a hand really badly, I had a complete meltdown at the table and ran away crying.

RAZ: Were you on other game shows that were televised?

BOEREE: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOLDEN BALLS")

JASPER CARROTT: If one of you chooses steal...

BOEREE: I was on one called "Golden Balls" which was a pretty dark show. It was basically the prisoner's dilemma that you were made to play.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOLDEN BALLS")

CARROTT: ...Whoever chooses to split ball will go home with nothing.

BOEREE: In retrospect, if I played it again, I would play it a different way. I have different objectives, but then my objective was just to make as much money as possible.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOLDEN BALLS")

CARROTT: Liv, you had just stolen 6,500 pounds and 70 p.

BOEREE: It wasn't actually the most lucrative thing. The most lucrative thing that came out of it all was learning to play poker.

RAZ: Yeah.

BOEREE: Because after I was on that reality show, even though I didn't win it, I was just absolutely in love with the game. It just was the perfect fit for me.

RAZ: All right. Let's talk about the early days. In 2007, you decide, I'm going to go play some poker. And did you have success pretty early on?

BOEREE: So the first proper tournament that I ever played - and I mean by proper, I mean just not on the TV show - was a local card club in London I went down to. And they had the infamous Tuesday night five-pound rebuy. So it meant that if you, you know, if you put five pounds in, you get a set number of chips. If you lose them all for any time within the first hour, you could rebuy in. So it's, as you can imagine, just carnage. Everyone's just going all in every hand and so on.

But then after that hour is up, that's it. And I remember walking into this club not really knowing what to expect. And it was this very dingy, smelly, loud - and I remember being the - walking in and being aware of these, sort of like, 150 pairs of eyes on me because I was the only girl. And I ended up winning somehow. I end up winning the entire thing...

RAZ: Wow.

BOEREE: ...That night. And I came home with 750 pounds in cash and I remember walking in at 5:00 in the morning. And waking up my boyfriend at the time and just throwing a pile of cash on him, and going, I guess this is what I do now. I guess I'm good at this game.

RAZ: You walked out of there thinking, I'm awesome at this. This is great.

BOEREE: Oh, yeah (laughter). I thought I was the bee's knees, for sure (laughter).

RAZ: It was the fact that you won that tournament. Was your early success in poker right after you learned the game? Was that luck?

BOEREE: Oh, for sure. I mean, I'm sure I made some good decisions along the way, but if I was to hazard a guess, you know, just throw a percentage out there, I would hazard that I was in the sort of 95th percentile in terms of good luck that could happen to someone in a first tournament.

RAZ: Wow. The 95th percentile of luck. Amazing.

BOEREE: In that situation? Yes. I mean, I must have been because I definitely was not a good poker player.

RAZ: You just got great cards.

BOEREE: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: And Liv Boeree with over 100.

BOEREE: I mean, I'm trying to sort of post hoc rationalization it in terms of going, oh yeah, yeah. No, of course I had some degree of self-awareness. But let's be realistic here. I absolutely thought I was just fantastic. I would like to think that people had, you know, friends around me were sort of reminding me, look, you are getting lucky.

So I'm getting good cards. But because I didn't really have any sort of pre-existing knowledge of what an average run of cards is, I had no point of comparison. All I knew is that when I played...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: And Liv getting exact chip count...

BOEREE: ...Things would, more often than not, go well and I would win.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: A little out of her calling range.

BOEREE: And that's honestly one of the hardest parts of poker is figuring out whether the decisions you're making are good...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Liv Boeree is on the verge of being crowned champion.

BOEREE: ...Or you are just getting lucky.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Hold up. There are five cards to come.

BOEREE: Five, please.

RAZ: Luck, when it's on our side, can be this magical thing. And while most of us will catch a little luck at some point in our lives, some people just seem to have a lot more of it. But if that's the case, is that even luck? Well today on the show, we're going to explore ideas around luck - if we can control it, if we can make our own, and why being at the right place at the right time sometimes doesn't have anything to do with luck at

all. And for Liv Boeree, luck had a lot to do with winning during her early days of poker, and even after walking away with a lot of cash, Liv's luck hadn't run out just yet. All right. So 2010, you enter a really big poker tournament called the European Poker Tour. Tell me about that experience.

BOEREE: So yeah, this was about a couple of years into me sort of playing poker full time. I was down in the south of France for something else. And if you remember the Icelandic volcano - I'm not going to try and say its name - that erupted and it shut down all of European airspace. So I couldn't fly home.

RAZ: Yeah.

BOEREE: A friend messaged me and they're like, well seeing as you're in the south of France, did you know there's this big tournament going on in northern Italy? Why don't you go over to that and see if you can get into it? And the only way I could play in this big tournament was if I won my way in because the buy-in for the tournament was 5,000 euros, which was too much for my bankroll. But they often have these feeder tournaments where 1 in 10 people win.

So I put up 500 euros to get into that. And I ended up winning this feeder tournament. And six days later, I find myself on the final table playing for, you know, I was guaranteed already - with nine players left - I was guaranteed basically more money than I had in my bank.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE STAPLETON: They're flipping a coin for half a million euros.

BOEREE: And then before I knew it I was down to the final two players.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STAPLETON: She's got a pair.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Let's see the river card.

STAPLETON: The river.

BOEREE: And then I won the whole thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: It's a Jack of...

STAPLETON: It's a blank. Liv Boeree has done it. Jakob Carlsson is the runner-up. Liv Boeree is the champion of EPT Sanremo.

RAZ: How much was - how much was it?

BOEREE: 1.25 million euros.

RAZ: Wow. That's insane.

BOEREE: Yeah (laughter). Yup, that was pretty crazy (laughter).

RAZ: For a $500 buy-in.

BOEREE: Yeah, yeah - $500 into about $1.7 million. It was a...

RAZ: Wow.

BOEREE: ...It was a very, very good week.

RAZ: Here's more from Liv Boeree on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BOEREE: Now, like poker, life is also a game of skill and luck. And when it comes to the biggest things we care about - health, wealth and relationships - these outcomes don't only depend on the quality of our decision making, but also the role of life's dice.

For example, we can be perfectly health conscious and still get unlucky with something like cancer. Or we can smoke 20 a day and live to a ripe old age. And this kind of ambiguity can make it hard for us to know how good our strategies are sometimes, especially when we're experiencing a lot of success.

For example, back in 2010, I won a really big poker tournament known as the European Poker Tour. And because I'd only been playing full time for about a year, when I won I assumed I must be rather brilliant. In fact, I thought I was so brilliant that I not only got rather lazy with studying the game, but I also got more risky - started playing in the biggest tournaments I could against the very best in the world. And then my profit graph went from a thing of beauty to something kind of sad.

Well, the luck factor caught up with me a little bit. The luck started smoothing out and I got a taste of what it's like to - I mean, I don't know if I ran, you know, significantly - by run, I mean, like, the cards ran out for me - significantly worse than than expectation, but somewhere probably a little below average.

But I then had about nine months of not really winning anything at all. And it was a big wakeup call because I was like, well, you know what? If I want to continue and really strive to be the best player I can be in this game, then I need to knuckle down and work and study. Because if you don't, the rest of the world will sort of overtake you. Because everyone, you know - out of the pool of however - millions of people play poker in the world. Everyone is gradually - on average - getting better.

RAZ: How much do you think we can shape our luck?

BOEREE: I mean, the number lies somewhere between above zero and beneath infinity (laughter). In terms of how - how much? I mean, we can, yeah. I mean, we're not sort of these agency-less beings that are just - with our hands tied. And, well, you know, that's your lot in life and you can't do anything about it. I do absolutely think that while the the future is uncertain and we'll never know exactly which path the future will take, we can shift the likelihoods of the paths that we want it to take.

And we can do that by thinking about all the possible outcomes and going, OK, this is a good one, that's a bad one, this is a medium one. What do I need to do to increase the chances of this good one happening? How do I reduce the chances of that one happening? So we - I do think we still have the ability to change the path of our lives based upon our decisions.

RAZ: Yeah. How much faith do you put in the concept of luck in general?

BOEREE: So if you mean - by luck I assume you mean randomness. How much randomness do I think that there is in the world? I mean not to get to sort of fundamental physics on you, but, I mean, even if you look down on the sort of quantum mechanical scale - the fundamental nature of matter is ultimately probabilistic - or at least, you know, it in a practical sense of purpose it is. And out of this - therefore it means that this - we are living in this incredibly chaotic world which is notoriously hard to predict. And the further you sort of try and look into the future, the more randomness plays a part.

But yeah, for all intents and purposes, luck and randomness is absolutely sort of inescapable and plays a far bigger part in our lives than I think any of us care to realize - well, we realize or care to admit. Luck doesn't give a damn about what's happened to you in the past and it doesn't give a damn about what you think should happen in the future. I mean in poker that's another thing you have to learn to accept, is you are not going to make the right decision every time. And you are going to get owned sometimes. And you just have to learn to accept that and shrug it off and - and move forward.

Even the - again, the best player in the world don't play perfectly every time - far from it. And yeah, I mean, not just at the poker table, I make bad decisions about my everyday life plenty (laughter).

RAZ: That's Liv Beoree. She's a writer and former professional poker player. You can see her full talk at ted.com.

On the show today, ideas around being lucky. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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