What is variance in poker?

WPT tournament, pocket rockets
Posted on: August 17, 2023 07:03 PDT

Even the world’s best poker players will encounter variance at some point in their careers. You can be the most talented poker player on the planet, but no one is immune to the fickle hand of variance.

When poker players put their losses down to variance, they accept that downswings can happen just as frequently as upswings. Think of variance in poker as the natural variation of hand outcomes at the tables.

Most of you will know only too well what a bad beat is. Ultimately, bad beats are the cause of variance. Although you can usually expect to win all-in situations when your hand is ahead post-flop, there’s always a chance that a 10% underdog has their day.

In-game examples of variance in poker

Poker is a game of playing the probabilities. Let’s take a look at some in-game scenarios to demonstrate the likelihood of variance occurring at the tables.

If you have a pair of aces in your hand and you’re all-in against someone pre-flop, there’s an 85.2% chance of you winning at showdown. However, that also means there’s a 14.8% possibility of your pocket aces being cracked. Essentially, one in six times you’re all in with aces, you should expect to lose at showdown.

Of course, there may be periods where you run super-hot with pocket aces at showdown. For instance, you might have won your last ten all-ins at showdown with aces. Technically, this is a period of positive variance, which we know fondly as an upswing.

Similarly, you might have your aces cracked twice in succession, which might seem implausible, but it’s merely a statistical downswing when you play aces in this way.

Let’s look at it another way. Imagine you have pocket kings against an opponent’s pocket aces. Pre-flop, your likelihood of winning all-in at showdown is 18%. So, roughly one-in-five showdowns will result in you winning.

If you crack aces twice in five all-in showdowns, put this down to variance. Accept there’ll be a run further down the line where you only crack aces once every ten all-in showdowns.

What is the cause of variance in poker?

As any poker player will tell you, a significant element of skill is involved in winning at the tables long-term. However, it’s also important to acknowledge the role luck plays in poker too.

We have zero control or say over the poker hands the dealer gives us. Nor do we have any control over the community cards dealt on the flop, turn and river. These variable outcomes can cause short-term volatility in your poker results, known as variance.

Game selection has a major bearing on the cause of variance in poker. If your preference is to enter vast, multi-table tournaments with fields of hundreds or thousands of players, it’s fair to say your poker bankroll will encounter immense variance. That’s because these big-field tournaments carry so much volatility. If you’re playing for hours or even days, it’s possible to experience run-good and then run into the brick wall of a downswing and be knocked out before you’ve even made the money.

How do tournament poker pros negate the issue of variance? Typically, they’ll look to balance their shots at big-field tournaments with more tournaments offering cheaper buy-ins and smaller fields. A pro will expect to consistently run deep in tournaments with 50, 100 or even 200 entrants, but it could be a once-in-a-decade or lifetime experience of running deep in a tournament with 5,000 or 10,000 entries.

How variance in poker can influence the game

In many ways, serious poker players need to embrace variance rather than shun it. One of the main reasons online poker rooms are still full of recreational players is their potential to go on short-term upswings, even when their core strategy is fundamentally flawed long-term. It’s these weaker long-term players that serious players can prey on and beat long-term, whether it’s cash games, sit ‘n’ gos or multi-table tournaments.

The very existence of variance makes it hard to learn whether you’re playing well, especially over short-term periods. Seeing your bankroll fall even when you make the right calls can be disheartening. The phrase ‘trust the process’ couldn’t be better suited for this subject. Trust in your poker game, and even during a downswing, you’ll find that the results will start to tip your way again, especially over the long term.

Ultimately, variance means you must bring your ‘A-Game’ day in, day out. If you let downswings affect your poker game, those downswings can soon snowball into long-term losses.

Speaking of bankrolls, the existence of variance also reinforces the importance of sound bankroll management. Be disciplined with your bankroll to ensure you have sufficient funds set aside to weather downswings and be prepared to shift down in stakes if needed to have sufficient buy-ins for cash games and tournaments.

Be business-like about variance in poker. Every company has expenses as well as income. View downswings as your poker ‘expenses’ and upswings as your ‘income’. Ensuring your upswings yield more money than your downswings is the key to long-term profitability.

Variance in poker FAQs

What is variance in simple terms?

Variance in poker gauges how much your upswings and downswings veer from your average expected value at the tables. The bigger the variance, the more volatile you can expect your upswings and downswings to be. The smaller the variance, the tighter your expected results will be to your actual winnings (or losses).

What does variance tell you?

Ultimately, variance in poker tells you how often luck influences your wins and losses. It shows the gap between how much you should win, based on probability, and how much you actually win.