Embrace Variance

Variance in poker, as we understand it, can be a very difficult concept to deal with. No matter how sound our emotions a...

Posted Mar 12, 2014


Bart Hanson BW2

Bart Hanson

Owner and Lead Pro

Variance in poker, as we understand it, can be a very difficult concept to deal with. No matter how sound our emotions are when we lose a big pot, not matter what stakes we are playing at, it can be difficult to handle. But, if we did not have this element of luck involved with the game would we really have a game at all?

As I understand it Stu Ungar was one of the greatest Gin Rummy players of all time. Because the game is based so much on mathematics and card removal it was very hard for him to lose. The purest example of a game with no variance is chess. If you played Gary Kasparov and you were not an international grandmaster, it would be next to impossible for you to win unless he made an uncharacteristically large blunder. There is basically no luck in the game. Knowing this would it ever be a good idea to wager on yourself against him?

Poker is a great gambling game because there is just enough variance to give a player with less of a skill level a chance to win in the short term. If a bad player lost every single time he came into the casino would he ever come back? This is why certain forms of poker with short-term high variance like PLO are so popular with players that love to gamble. Even though they may lose over the long term the equities run so close in many situations that it is easy for them to win over a period of time. Games like PLO8 and to a lesser extend high stakes no limit have far less variance and make it almost impossible for bad players to win even inside of a single session.

The thing that I find amazing is that a lot of players, including a fair amount of professionals, cannot handle negative variance. Sometimes it makes their future decisions much worse. If you get it all-in preflop in holdem with AA versus QQ you are about an 82 percent favorite to win. If you lose why does the result matter? If we flip coins for one thousand dollars and you get the best of it by winning twelve hundred to my eight hundred every flip would the fact that you lose in an individual trial anger you? What if you lost four or fives times in a row? The only thing that should matter is the fact that you are getting your money in with the best of it, which in this flipping proposition you clearly have. You cannot control the outcome of these of the trials so you should not concentrate on the results.

A lot of the discomfort that comes form getting a bad beat draws from what mental game coach Jared Tendler calls "entitlement tilt". Because we are ahead and we make the right decision we think that we are entitled to win. But what many players do not realize is that if they always won when those conditions were met the bad players would never stand a chance. You are not entitled to win when you have 90% equity. You will just win over the long term nine out of ten times. You should not get angry at the fact that one of the times that you may lose could be now. Someone has to run on the bad side of variance and when we play short samples like we do in live poker we can run very bad for long stretches of time. It is how we deal with the variance that makes all of the difference.

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