A variance is a difference between an expected result and an actual result. Variance is a matter of probability, which can be notoriously counter intuitive. Poker variance is the difference between expected winnings and actual winnings during any given short-term period of play.
Another way to look at it is this: poker is a game that mixes chance and skill. Poker variance is a measure of the effects of chance in the short-term. Whether your game is Texas Hold’em Poker or seven-card-stud you are going to experience the effects of poker variance.
Different poker games have differing levels of variance. Texas Hold’em poker tournaments will have a different degree of poker variance than say, Omaha five-card. Poker rules also affect the degree of variance. In other words, some poker games are more susceptible to the whims of chance. Multi-table poker tournaments, for example, have a higher potential for variance than do sit-and-go games.
As an example of the counter intuitive nature of variance, consider the following: In a given situation a player is a 70% favorite. According to one source, the same player, should he or she play the exact same poker hand twice consecutively, will find their chance of winning both hands has dropped to 49%. So what changed? Only the number of attempts. The rest is chance, the driving force behind variance.
Poker Variance in the Long Run
To understand the effects of variance in the long term as opposed to the short, it helps to think of the stock market. Over any given ten-year period the market grows by a certain percentage (give or take a small margin of error). This does not mean, however, that the market won’t fluctuate all the way to its ultimate goal.
If you imagine ten years of market growth on a line graph, the line would not be straight. It would be a gently rising zig-zagging line, with zigs and zags of varying size representing daily, weekly, and monthly fluctuations in the market.
Should a winning poker player’s career be graphed it would look much the same, due to variance. No winner wins always and every dog feels the sun on its hindquarters from time to time. Variance is an extremely complicated mathematical principle that boils down to the study of winning streaks and losing streaks.
Factors That Affect Poker Variance
While poker variance is an essential, vital element of the game, when one is losing hand after hand he or she starts to wonder if there might be ways to mitigate the effects of variance on their game. There are a number of factors that contribute to the level of variance a player is likely to experience. Texas Hold’em poker tournaments and friendly games of five-card-draw are all affected by the following contributors to high-level poker-variance.
YOUR STYLE OF PLAY
A player’s style and poker strategy will have a great deal to do with how much poker variance he or she might expect in the short-term. An aggressive player is likely to be involved in more pots and to fold or check less often. As a result, he or she should expect a greater degree of variance when they play. Also, players who bluff more often experience high levels of variance (for better or worse) than players who don’t.
WHAT’S IN THE POT?
No-limit games of poker have greater levels of poker variance than do limit-games. Players become less predictable when larger pots are concerned. This is because the higher the stakes are, the higher the emotional levels of the players are likely to be. As such, the more money is at stake, the greater the level of poker variance.
WHAT’S THE GAME?
As mentioned earlier, the type of poker game being played will also be a factor in the amount of poker variance to be anticipated. Multi-table poker tournaments will have a higher degree of poker variance than do sit-and-go games. Remember though, should you win big at a sit-and-go game, the poker variance you can expect to encounter will rise as it always does when more money is at stake.
Poker variance may be affected by a number of other factors, including the poker rules of the game being played. The above-mentioned are a few of the more obvious though, and those most likely to swing your “luck” one way or the other.
CAN POKER VARIANCE BE REDUCED?
When poker variance has you on a downswing–when you’re dealt one strong poker hand after another and continue to lose nonetheless–there are a few things you can try in order to decrease the poker variance you’re experiencing.
TRY PLAYING A WEAKER TABLE
In any game, there’s something to be said for testing your skill against superior players. Nothing hones your table skills like playing seasoned vets. When money is at stake (and it usually is) and poker variance has you on a downswing, you can lower the poker variance you can expect to experience by selecting a table with weaker players.
KEEP YOUR COOL
Few things are more frustrating than losing consecutive hands, especially when the odds were in your favor. As with any competitive game, the state of a player’s mind can often make the difference between a winning night and a losing one. Frustration can lead to making decisions you ordinarily wouldn’t and that will result in an increase in the poker variance you are likely to experience.
WHEN TO WALK AWAY
Just think of Kenny Rogers, his famous lyrics illustrates nicely another tactic to employ when you suspect that poker variance, and not your game, is the cause of your current streak of losses. Reluctance to leave a table, whether you’re riding the streak through or “chasing it” (trying to recover losses), will likely lead only to further frustration and therefore higher levels of loss and variance.
We discussed the importance of not letting frustration interfere with your game. As a corollary to this, it is important not to change your poker strategy in order to try and break a losing streak. If variance is the cause, your current losing streak may have little or nothing to do with your poker strategy.
Consider the following: If an NBA basketball player hits, on average, 80% of his free-throw attempts, he will still have streaks of games during which he makes a far lower percentage of free-throws. The laws of probability dictate that he will also have games and streaks of games during which his free-throw percentage will be higher than 80%. Performance always fluctuates around the mean (or average).
Should our imaginary basketball player adjust his free-throw style every time he hit a “slump” (a sports term describing performance variance) he could very well lower his overall free-throw percentage. This is because changing style increases variance, at least at first.
IT’S JUST BUSINESS
Never, ever, take variance or a losing streak personally. Ideally, a poker player should rely on poker strategy and never on emotion. While this is the ideal to which all player strive, emotion affects, to some degree, the play of even the most successful players. This is why many of the top players opt to wear sunglasses. Emotions bleed out of us through gestures, and intention may often be read in an opponent’s eyes.
Emotion can also be preyed upon. A frustrated or rattled player is likely to be devoured by the more level-headed players at the table.
THE UPS AND DOWNS OF POKER VARIANCE
If a player doesn’t expect it– if he or she isn’t prepared for it–poker variance can cause second-guessing and doubt. It can be hard after all, and especially for newer players, to know when to attribute a losing streak to poker strategy and when the problem is variance. This can result in players making unnecessary and even unhelpful changes to their poker strategy.
We’ve discussed already how poker variance can lead to frustration, which in turn can lead to poor decision making. There is an upside to poker variance, though…
Poker variance is the cause of winning streaks as well as losing ones. Short-term winning streaks are what keep inexperienced and weak poker players coming back to the table.
HOW DO THE PROS HANDLE POKER VARIANCE?
The best way to handle a losing streak is to understand that variance is a fact of the game. When you hit a losing streak, realize that it is a short-term expression of probability. Some streaks last longer than others. Stay the course, don’t adjust a solid poker strategy. The same mathematic principles that dictate losing streaks must exist also dictate they must end.
Again, think of the stock market. The most successful investors are the ones who buy and hold. Over the long term, the ups and downs even out and the market rises. Investors who try to “beat the market” (anticipate in advance and react to market fluctuations) wind up losing a very large percentage of the time.
When you hit a losing streak playing poker, don’t try to “beat the market” so to speak. Stay the course and wait for the expected “correction.”
4 WAYS TO MAKE POKER VARIANCE WORK FOR YOU
Here are 4 ways you can try in order to make poker variance work for and not against you:
RECORD YOUR RESULTS
A record of your wins and losses over time can provide valuable insight. There are few better ways to determine whether a bad night is a glitch or the beginning of a losing streak.
MANAGE YOUR BANKROLL WISELY
Make sure to manage your bankroll in such a way as to be able to weather the inevitable losing streak. Playing the right stakes can keep variance from doing too much damage.
MIND YOUR FUNDAMENTALS
Review your poker theory, refine and trust in your poker strategy. When you are playing at the top of your game, it will be easier to identify variance as the cause of a losing streak. Also, being confident in your skill will make it easier to remain calm in the face of mounting losses.
CALCULATE YOUR VARIANCE
It is possible to calculate your level of variance. In fact, there are poker variance calculators that can do it for you. Simply enter your win-rate and standard deviation (which can be found online) and the calculator does the work. Many players find this a useful tool in their arsenal in the fight against high-level poker variance.
Whether your game is Texas Hold’em poker or Omaha style, as a poker player you are going to have to deal with poker variance. Learning to understand and expect this inevitable phenomenon will help to make you a better player. It will increase your mental and emotional discipline and force you to manage your bankroll more strategically. See you at the WSOP!
Poker Variance – FAQ
What is variance in poker?
Variance is the statistical measure of how much results can differ from expectation. We don't like variance.
What is the best poker game to play to reduce variance?
You could play stud or draw games, but you won't find many games. I would recommend playing FL Texas hold'em and just play fewer hands to reduce variance.
What is standard deviation in poker?
It's a measure of how likely you are to swing up and down over small sample sizes of poker hands. If you are a loose player, you will see bigger swings. If you are a tight player, you will see smaller swings.
How is poker win rate calculated?
Win rate is how many BBs you win for every 100 hands you play.