Understanding and Adjusting to Variance

poker variance
The term variance is used by poker players to describe the fluctuations of their results at poker tables of all stakes.

Every poker player experiences upswings and downswings throughout their poker gaming experiences. Variance is simply the natural ebb and flow, where the shore of statistical probability meets the ocean of reality.

Variance applies to all forms of poker, HORSE, Holdem…We can use statistical data to project the odds of an action being profitable.

However, in reality, if you go all-in with pocket Aces – statistically the best possible starting hand – and the board comes down 6d-3d-10h-Qs-5s, any opponent with pocket Queens, Tens, Sixes, Fives or Threes will beat your pair of Aces. Yet another opponent, with 4-7 off-suit would actually win the pot, but only if they didn’t fold pre-flop to save their chips for a better starting hand.


Even if you play the statistics with precision, you are going to experience some measure of variance.


Loose, aggressive players tend to sustain the most dramatic variance due to their tendency to play out more hands, which can generate longer or more frequent downswings. However, loose, aggressive players tend to frequently hit massive, though potentially short-lived upswings.

Tight, passive players, on the other hand, generally experience shorter peaks and valleys that – often – result in a gradual increase over time.

As you track your hand histories in order to find leaks and improve your results, a line graph of your win rate will also reveal your degree of variance.

Dips in your win rate don’t always mean that you didn’t play the best possible way, as in the above example with a pre-flop, all-in bet on pocket Aces – which will win 80% of the time.

However, if you review lost hands you are likely to find leaks somewhere in your game – usually the small pots – where repeated mistakes are costing you unnecessary losses.

Be sure to eliminate rookie mistakes, such as calling your draws without the proper odds, or paying to see the river when the best hand you can hope for is a small pair. Also, the importance of complete and total focus on the game cannot be stressed enough. If you tend to play online poker with the TV on, try turning off the TV and see how it affects your variance over time. The same experiment can be applied to drinking alcohol while playing poker online.

A certain degree of variance is unavoidable.

Even the best poker player in the world encounters streaks of bad luck where great cards are repeatedly beaten by even better ones. Only the nut hand has a 100% probability of winning.

So if you fall into a downswing, the best thing you can do is make sure you are playing a solid game.

Sift through your hand history for instances where you might have saved a few big blinds by playing a tighter game, or made a little extra with a value bet instead of an all-in shove on a solid hand. Better decisions in the small pots will lead to increased profits over the long haul.