Welcome to Newcomers & Unwelcome to Variance!


I often hear, ‘Well it’s Variance’, a term that should be explaining an inevitable part of poker. But then I wonder, ‘Is it just bad play or really variance’?  Only by understanding what variance really is, can one make such a distinction and only by playing a very large number of hands do we have enough hands to compare our typical results versus results impacted by variance. So newcomers and aspiring players,, you are highly unlikely to have experienced the difference between bad plays and variance given it takes time (and a bankrol)l to play, say, 400,000 hands; Nonetheless, it is always wise to know what’s to come.

As CardplayerPT (Andre) warns: “It is Important to distinguish between regular variance and leaks in our game because bad results can indeed be the result of poor play, mistakes and variance can be an excuse. So you should avoid falling into that mind trap!

Jared Tendler, author of the two volumes of “The Mental Book of Poker”,  says, “Variance is one of the most important concepts in poker. Yet, there’s only a small amount of instructional material available on how to recognize variance while playing. .” I can testify to this as I combed the internet to see what I could refer you to as valuable information on this topic. Without a doubt, the best material is found right here on Poker School Online. For example, more advanced players will find Andy ‘ahar010’ Harvey’s   videos, ‘Hello Variance #1’  and ‘Hello Variance #2’ of particular interest when variance increases due to the Turbo format and larger fields.

For now, you may remember reading the Course Material, ‘Bankroll Management: Variance and Bad Beats” , Do you recall what was said about variance? Not to worry if your memory fails you. Just go back and review the material. This is something I still do when need be, and let me offer you a down-to-earth definition of variance. I

As Dave ‘TheLangolier’ Roemer, my private teacher and Chief Instructor at Poker School Online, taught me: 

“One thinks of flipping a coin. If we flipped a coin millions of times, in theory we would both win about 50% of those flips. But during those million flips, there might be a stretch where the coin is heads 25 out of 27 flips. That would be good stretch of variance for the heads player, and bad variance for the tails player. However, in the proverbial long run of the millions of flips, both players will experience these good and bad runs and in the end the "luck" of the variance evens out.”

For those of you familiar with mathematical theories, the example of the coin flip is one reason why we say there is no such thing as randomness.  We can also say with no doubt that just as we do not expect to lose 25 of 27 coin flips, variance is a measure of how far off we are from expected value.

We all experience bad beats,, but when variance hits, we are very likely to experience  more of such results.  This leads to even more losses as one abandons correct strategy and begins making plays one would otherwise not make. This is a major reason why one should be that much more careful about speculative hands. There is a discussion of these hands in the PSO Basic Course material and five videos which show  these hands in action

According to PSO course material on Variance and Bad Beats:

“A "bad beat" is the name given to an occurrence in poker where a markedly worse hand beats a better one, through fortune alone. The person suffering the "bad beat" plays the hand correctly, gets their money into the pot when they were a long way ahead, but is still beaten by the turn of a card beyond the player's control.

Many inexperienced players may claim to have been dealt a "bad beat", when in fact they have simply been beaten by a hand that was only marginally weaker than theirs. A genuine bad beat occurs when you have a hand that is a clear favorite, and gives your opponent very little chance of catching up.

Example 1: A genuine bad beat
Player 1 has Ah Ad while Player 2 has Ac Ks. Both players are all in on a flop of 7C Jh Js. At this point, Player 1 is a 98 per cent favorite to win this hand. The only way Player 2 can win this pot is if the turn is Kc and river Ks. The only way Player 2 can win this pot is if the turn and river bring a ten and a queen (to make a straight), two kings (for a full house), or the two remaining jacks (for a split pot).

If the turn is the Kc and the river the Ks, Player 2 wins the pot and Player 1 can legitimately claim to have suffered a bad beat

Example: Not such a bad beat
Often what a player thinks is a bad beat is actually not so bad when the genuine odds of winning the hand are examined. For example, in the late stages of a tournament Player 1 is in the big blind holding Ah Kc.  Player 2 is on the button and decides to go all in with 7s 4s for his last few chips after everyone else folds in front of him. Player 1 has a very good hand and makes the call. The board then runs out the 3d 7c 9h Th Qs and Player 2 wins the hand with a pair of sevens.
Did Player 2 really get lucky? Was it a bad beat for Player 1? Not really.

Player 1's Ah Kc is a favorite against 7S 4S before the flop, but only by 60 per cent to 40 per cent. Ah Kc loses in four out of ten cases, based purely on mathematical law. This does not constitute a bad beat.

It is interesting to note that players often remember bad beats more than those situations where luck was on their side.”

Given legitimate bad beats combined with variance, such is a major reason why one should be that much more careful about playing speculative hands. There is a discussion of these hands in the course material and five videos which show these hands these hands in action.

Hand-in-hand with variance and genuine bad beats is tilting,  understandably due to discouragement and loss of confidence, Take the example of the coin flip, Those 25 flips for the tails player can be very disheartening. I know this first hand as recently I turned to  my ‘safe’ 9-handed Sit & Goes and when I couldn’t even place in the top three after many, many tries,  I felt as though variance was rearing its head. Thankfully, I keep my life jacket on as I literally take a rigorous swim and a relaxing sauna..  Without the life jacket, I am more prone to tilting, an enemy of mine which I can physically experience (but not literally swimming with a life jacket!!)  Just check out our Forum and even very experienced players fight tilting when variance hits.

Dave ‘TheLangolier’ candidly blogs about variance and tilting at a Saturday night cash game. He writes:

Variance hits everyone. . . For me, the frustration (tilt) manifests itself in the form of wanting to play too many speculative hands in situations that really aren’t +EV. [Expected Value]  This started to creep into my game on Saturday, and I knew what was happening.  I consciously told myself “don’t make this call” a couple times.  I let the bad call slip into the pot a couple others, and told myself afterwards “that is fishy Dave”. Taking a walk and getting something to eat, just taking a break, helped me get my head screwed back on straight when this started to happen.  I returned to the table feeling refreshed and focused, and played excellent poker for about 2 more hours.  The situation didn’t change though, lots of large pots with players spewing left and right, and every time I was able to get involved the game did not cooperate with me.  When I felt the frustration (tilt) coming back, I ended up making some bad decisions in a hand that cost me ~ $200 needlessly, and immediately picked up and quit after that hand (nothing tilts me more than my own actions equaling doing stupid things at the table). I ended up down $840 for the session. It could have been worse since I had 2K in my pocket. There was certainly a temptation to reload and continue playing, as the game was so damn good, but my mindset at that point was clearly off and not on my “A” game anymore, which severely limits how good the game actually would be for me going forward.

(Dave, I always find it admirable when our trainers—a wonderful group—freely put themselves out there, as you do in this blog, normalizing the struggles that we students face at the felts!)

For a fuller discussion of tilting, I suggest you check out Jared Tendler’s “The Mental Book of Poker”. as well as discussions in member blogs and our vibrant Forun. 

According to Sandtrap777 (Lloyd),‘ when I feel tilting is about to creep up, I just close my session and comeback 5-6 hours later or the next day. I must say I rarely do so because tilting is a result of variance and bad beats.,

Sandtrap777 also advises how to deal with variance:

“If you experience unfavourable variance, you can do one of two things. First, you can ignore it and play your way through it. You can be confident that in the long run you will encounter favourable variance that will offset the current unfavourable variance you have been experiencing. This is your best option, provided your bankroll is large enough. Your second option is to attempt to mitigate unfavourable variance through risk management. This means that you avoid marginally profitable situations if they are too risky, so long as you are on short money. Be forewarned, this strategy will have a negative impact on your expectation. It should only be used to protect a short bankroll.”

CardplayerPT echoes this:
The volume of play will lead you into the variance path and volume is the answer to get away from her nefarious influence. If you are making good decisions, despite having an unlucky streak, you will overcome variance and be a long-term winning player. You just have to study hard, play steady, have patience and discipline to hang on in during  rough phases and surely you will be compensated in the end

When a player is in a bad variance and s/he is getting bad beats and then starts tilting; it's a bomb just waiting to go off. Players will lose money, lose confidence and lose the will to keep learning. When they do decide to come back to the game and hit another set of disasters, it starts all over again. However, this cycle, as we have seen, can be averted so watch out for another blog, on tilting after one on ‘The Travelling Poker Man’!

There is no vaccine against variance but recognizing it is the first critical step. Understanding how bad beats and potential tilting are intertwined with variance will not guard against bad beats as we meet up with such hands regardless of variance, However,  this cycle can be limited once one understand triggers. Knowledge is power as we play this game of poker which frustrates, elates, embarasses, enriches us. Knowlege is a mighty weapon to have in our arsenal of poker and life!

I thank PSO trainers for their contributions on variance, including Dave 'TheLangolier' Roemer, Andy ‘ahar010’ Harvey, moderator Paul 'royalraise85', and online wise poker buddies, CardplayerPT and Sandtrap777. They all freely impart  power by sharing knowledge,.