Variance in poker is the difference between the amount of money you anticipate winning on average over the long haul and the actual results you see in a short amount of time. Using even simpler terms, variance is the upswings and downswings that occur while playing poker. If you expect your win rate to average \$1,000 per month, but have a session in which you win only \$100, the difference is the variance. Variance can technically be defined as the average value of the differences from the expected win rate.

The above image shows a simulation of variance in poker, thanks to evplusplus.com. With an average win rate of 5 big blinds per 100 hands, a standard deviation of 80 big blinds per 100 hands, over 100,000 hands, the graph shows the best and worst outcomes for 100 different runs. The green line is the best run, blue line the worst run and the dashed black line is the return you would expect without any variance.

There are several elements to the game of poker that will cause or influence variance. For instance, there is undoubtedly luck involved in the cards you receive in comparison to the cards your opponents are receiving. Players have no control regarding the hands dealt or the cards appearing on the board. Luck, either good or bad, will cause variance over a short span of time. It’s part of the game and must be accepted.

The factors that influence variance include the way you play or your playing style, the particular game that you’re playing, the type of betting in that game, and the actual type of game itself. Allow me to explain. If you happen to play a loose-aggressive style of poker, your starting hand selection is wider, you are involved in more action and pots, and you are risking considerably more money than a tight player. Therefore, your variance will be greater. You can expect the upswings and downswings of winning and losing to be more severe.

The next infuence on variance in poker is the game being played, such as Texas Hold ‘Em, Omaha, 7-card Stud, etc. Omaha is known to have less variance than no-limit Texas Hold’em, due to the hands in which players shove all-in being mathematically closer to even or 50-50 than in Hold’em. The smaller the mathematical probabilities of winning, the less the variance.

The type of betting, whether it be no-limit, fixed-limit or pot-limit, also will have an affect on variance. The more money being wagered, the greater the variance will be. Therefore, no-limit will produce more volatile upswings and downswings than pot-limit, and pot-limit tends to have higher variance than fixed-limit.

The type of game being played also will influence variance. Large multi-table tournaments have more variance than single table Sit-N-Go’s because you anticipate winning much less frequently. The large payouts received for winning an MTT will subsequently result in an increased level of variance. There are other factors that contribute to variance, but the ones mentioned above are the most recognizable and will have the most influence on upswings and downswings.

Variance sometimes makes it difficult to determine if you are playing well or playing poorly. Results analyzed over a short period of time are generally not a good indicator of good or bad play. The reason for this is that you may be playing well and making all the correct decisions, but may end up losing because of the luck element involved. To truly analyze your play, a long-term sample must be used. The variance involved in short-term sessions is not adequate for assessing skill levels. Ask any successful poker player if they have ever experienced a losing streak where they felt they had “lost it,” meaning that they were questioning their ability to be a profitable player. All players have streaks or downswings like that due to the variance involved in short playing sessions.

Although you can be playing well and still lose money at poker is often frustrating. At such times, it’s important to keep a positive mental attitude and remember that you are looking for long-term results, not the variance that occurs in short terms of play. Don’t let variance get the best of you. Keep in mind that players who win while playing poorly are actually good for the game of poker. It keeps the less-skilled players coming back to play again and again. The variance involved in that regard is beneficial to the long-term profits of better players.

If you are a beginning poker player and are put off by the huge upswings and downswings that often occur in the game, don’t feel that you are alone in that regard. Variance is one of the most frustrating and mentally draining aspects of poker. Severe downswings can affect your thinking and emotions. It’s one of the reasons why some people choose not to play the game. If you are looking for the game with the least amount of variance, it is generally believed by most players that fixed-limit Hold’em would be your best bet.

Variance will happen in poker. There is no denying that. Whether its a highly profitable and enjoyable upswing or a frustrating downswing, it’s part of the game that has to be accepted. Just remember to look at your win rate over the long haul and try not to concern yourself with short-term results that are the result of variance. Think of variance in poker games as the waves of the ocean, sometimes up and sometimes down. By analyzing your results over a long period of time, the waters will be still and calm, instead of choppy and wavy due to short-term variance.

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