How to Deal With Poker Variance (Pro’s Guide 2021)
This article was written by blackrain79.com contributor Fran Ferlan.
Handling the inevitable swings in poker is one of the biggest obstacles to
success for any aspiring poker player.
Doing everything right and seemingly getting punished for it over and over
again is so incongruent to the human experience and preconceived notions of
justice and fairness that most people will eventually just throw their hands
up in desperation and find a less stressful endeavour or play a couple of
hours on weekends to unwind after a long week.
And there is nothing wrong with that.
However, for others who are more serious about the game and put in bigger
volume, lengthy downswings are basically inevitable, so approaching them with
a right mindset is one of the most important skills to master on your way to
Like any skill, you get better at it with practice. It is a long and arduous
process though, but so is everything else that is actually worth doing.
This article will hopefully provide some insights into a phenomenon that
presents a big problem for many players.
By understanding variance better, you’ll be better equipped to deal with it
better, and by doing that you get a huge leg up on the competition.
What is Variance in Poker?
Before we get into the details, let’s define what we actually mean by variance
in poker terms.
Without getting too sciency, we can say that variance measures how much data
points are spread from the average. In plain English, it means that how much
you expect to earn and how much you actually earn will differ over a small
The bigger the variance, the bigger the difference between the two, and
conversely, the smaller the variance, the closer your expected results and
your actual results. This means that in poker, your short term results will
always be all over the place.
Some game formats inherently have more variance built into it than others, for
example, there is more variance in tournaments than in cash games, and more
variance in a 6-max game than full-ring game.
This article is written with cash games in mind, but most of the concepts
apply to other formats (such as tournaments and sit-and-gos) to a certain
extent as well.
With all that in mind, let’s get into the actual tips...
1. Accept It and Expect It
The first step to deal with variance better is to internally accept that it is
an integral part of the game. Without it, poker wouldn’t be poker. Variance is
what actually makes the game profitable in the first place, so you have to
learn to take the bad with the good.
Without it, bad players would quickly get overwhelmed by superior competition
and eventually stop playing altogether, leaving just a bunch of sharks
cannibalizing each other and shuffling money around, while the house takes
If you can’t accept variance for what it is, you can try a zero variance game,
like chess. In chess a superior player will win close to a 100% of the time,
and that’s why there’s really no money wagered that way. Think of it this way:
would you bet a 100 bucks that you could beat a chess grandmaster?
If you weren’t a world class expert yourself, you wouldn’t. But would you bet
a 100 bucks to play a heads-up session with Phil Ivey? You just might. You can
get lucky and beat the best in the world (and get bragging rights for life).
That is why Phil Ivey is able to make bank. He knows his superior skills will
prevail, no matter how many times someone “gets lucky” against him. That is
why poker is so profitable.
Everyone can play, and everyone can win, but over the long run, skill
prevails. Over the short run, luck prevails. So accept a few bumps in the
road, embrace them and prepare for them.
So how can you actually prepare for it better and diminish the negative
effects of it? This brings us to number two on the list…
2. Have a Big Bankroll
In order to succeed in poker it is necessary to allow and endure all the
never-ending swings of fortune, and the only way to do so successfully without
going broke in the process is to have a sufficient bankroll.
However, in order to not only survive the inevitable swings, but also not be
negatively affected by them it might be prudent to have more money than would
be considered the norm for the limits you’re playing.
I’m not going to go in full details about bankroll management here, as it is a
topic deserving of its own article, but suffice it to say that it is better to
be over-rolled than under-rolled, for obvious reasons.
For example, let’s say that you are playing 10NL and have a $300 bankroll. If
you are a winning player at your limit, 30 buyins is certainly enough to
handle basic variance.
However, if you play long enough, there is certainly a chance that you could
encounter a 10 buyin downswing, even through no particular fault of your
Now your bankroll is 33% smaller, and every other session puts an additional
pressure to cut your bankroll in half. Then you’d have to grind the lower
stakes again to get it back, or even reload to feel comfortable playing your
current limit again.
Winning players should never need to reload. They should be taking money out
of the site, not the other way around.
Now let’s compare it to say, a $500 bankroll for the same limit. A totally
standard downswing of 10 buyins is only 20% of your total bankroll and won’t
hurt as much.
If you keep playing well, you might as well not even notice that you were down
10 buyins at some point. Peace of mind is not to be underestimated,
especially in today’s competitive environment.
Get a fat bankroll and save yourself the trouble of fretting about variance in
the first place, and focus on playing to the best of your abilities.
3. Don’t Look at the Cashier
One of the advantages of having a big bankroll is not having to focus on
short-term results at all. If you know you are beating your current limit,
there is absolutely no reason to fret about how you are running session to
Sometimes you get on an insane heater and seem to hit every draw in the best
possible time, sometimes you get dealt garbage hands for hours on end, and
when you finally do get a decent hand, some idiot donkey catches a backdoor
flush draw with 92s, or you get set over set, or any other horrible string of
never-ending disasters that keep coming your way. That’s poker.
But focusing on how you are running instead of focusing on making the most +EV
decisions is only going to exacerbate the problem either way.
If you check the cashier to see that you are behind, you might start to get
the feeling that you need to “win it back”, start chasing, forcing the action,
pile up even more losses, get more frustrated, until you inevitably rage-quit
and break your mouse. Hopefully it doesn’t get that bad, but you get the
On the other hand, if you see that you are ahead a couple of buyins, you might
want to “protect your winnings'', tighten up too much, not pulling the trigger
on a big bluff you think might be profitable, and overall stop playing great
poker that made you money in the first place.
Don’t look at the cashier. Hide it, or better yet, put a post-it over it on
your monitor with some kind of inspirational message or a smiley face.
You won’t feel the compulsion to check your results, which will make you focus
more on making better decisions, which will improve your results, which will
make you less likely to feel the need to check your results.
Break the negative feedback loops, and your bankroll will be better off for
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4. Take a Break
Just because variance is unavoidable and an integral part of the game, it
doesn’t necessarily mean you should play through it no matter what and wait
for your “luck to turn around”. Sure, it’s important to put in volume, but
that volume should be filled with your A game or a solid B game at
Players who run bad tend to play worse, and conversely, they play their best
when cards are falling their way. This is no big surprise by any means.
A professional poker player will play his best, or close to it, no matter how
he’s running, but for us mere mortals, short term results do tend to affect
our performance to some extent. If during a session you feel that’s the case,
ask yourself: can I still play to the best of my abilities?
If the answer is a resounding no, quit. There’s no shame in it. It takes some
honest self-reflection to realize your limitations. That’s the only way to
overcome them. If it goes from bad to worse, live to fight another day.
5. Study More
When cards don’t fall your way for an extended period of time, use it as an
opportunity to study and improve your game. It might be that your “bad luck”
is actually just bad play.
Everybody has leaks in their game, and taking some time to reflect on ways you
may be bleeding money is going to pay dividends. Improving your technical
knowledge of the game will undoubtedly improve your results over time. Bigger
win-rate means less variance.
Reviewing your hands is one of the most effective ways to study. If you
conclude that you played perfectly, great, but more often than not, you will
realize that you made a mistake and should have taken a different line in a
For example, you get set over set and lose the whole stack. Definitely
unlucky, but you review your hand and realize that you were set mining with
incorrect implied odds.
Or you flop a straight in a multiway pot, get all the money in, and some whale
catches a backdoor flush draw with 84s. You could have squeezed preflop and he
might have folded. Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn.
6. Flip the Script
There’s three ways to go about this. First, recognize there is also positive
variance. Sometimes you actually win more than you normally would.
Humans are naturally prone to focusing on the negative outcomes and
conveniently forgetting all the times we got lucky, or our hand actually held
up. It’s easy to attribute negative variance to bad luck, and positive
variance to our great play, but that kind of thinking is detrimental to our
improvement as players.
Secondly, recognize that a player sucking out on you is actually a good thing.
You put your money in with a mathematical edge. Just because that edge didn’t
manifest in that particular hand, or two hands, or ten, means nothing. Over a
large enough sample, you win more than you lose.
Third common situation that tilts a lot of people are coolers and setups.