Poker can be one of the most straightforward and complex games you can play anywhere – at a casino or online. It's easy to play – the basics are simple enough to learn – and even brand-new players can find themselves in winning positions, but the more advanced concepts can take months, if not years, to master.
At its heart, the game is all about extracting the maximum value out of your cards, while limiting your losses. There are many strategies, techniques and concepts that players can use to achieve this and to try to get an edge over their opponents. One of the lesser known and often ignored areas of poker knowledge is variance. Understanding this fundamental concept is not essential before playing your first game of poker; however, for those looking to improve their poker game in a meaningful way, it can provide several benefits and be a strong tool in your box.
What is Variance?
Variance refers to the statistical measure of how results differ from expectations. Commonly used as an essential tool in scientific theory, it’s not surprising that it’s also relevant in poker.
How Variance Relates To Poker
Variance in poker refers to the up swings (winning) and down swings (losses) a player will experience throughout a game of poker. High variance means a lot of ups and downs, while low variance means fewer swings in either direction.
Often you’ll see someone, either online or at a live table, who plays every hand and has an aggressive style, making big bets and trying to intimidate other players into folding, therefore scooping up the pot. Much of this behavior will be bluffing and eventually another player will call their bluff. People who use this aggressive strategy will win a lot by scaring everyone else out of the pot, but once the other players at the table figure out this playstyle and start calling, it can likewise cause quite a few losses. In this situation, the aggressive player has high variance.
In comparison, a tighter player who only bets when they have highly ranked cards will win most of their hands, and as a result, they’ll have low variance. To calculate variance, players need their win rate, standard deviation and the number of hands played.
How Variance Can Help Improve Your Poker Games
Despite variance providing a visible display of upswings and downswings, it can't necessarily be used to measure how well someone is playing. When playing Texas Hold'em, being dealt two Aces, or pocket Aces, carries more than an 80% chance of winning. So in theory, out of ten poker hands, you'd expect to win at least eight. However, if you win only four, despite the odds technically being in your favor, this is attributed to variance.
Variance can be favorable in the short term, especially if you're on a winning streak, or it can be unfavorable and lead to many losses. One of the worst player experiences in poker is having a highly ranked hand, and losing, also known as getting a bad beat. Understanding this scenario is unavoidable and mentally preparing for the inevitable downswings can help improve your gameplay in the long run.
Losing in poker, especially off a bad beat, often leads to anger, desperation and as a result, can sometimes lead to a series of poor decisions. Learning to accept that losses are part of the game and having the mental and emotional strength to still play well and avoid further silly mistakes is essential to long-term success in poker.
Another way variance can help in poker is recognizing high variance situations and turning them to your advantage. Certain playing styles can have a higher variance than others; an aggressive player who plays every hand and raises frequently will be bluffing a lot of the time. It is impossible to have highly ranked cards all the time; this provides a chance for a smart player to pick their moment and win a large pot by calling the aggressive player’s bluff and adding more chips to their own stack.
The Cause Of Variance In Poker And How It Affects The Game
Poker is considered the ultimate blend of luck and skill, but it is the luck element that causes variance. There is no way for players to control the cards they are dealt; this uncertainty is one of the primary causes of variance.
Several factors can influence variance in poker, such as the playing style, loose and aggressive players usually have high variance, while passive and tight players have lower. The game type, certain games are known to produce a higher variance, due to the quick succession of wins and losses like tournaments and turbo games with fast-paced structures.
Typically, ring games won't have a high variance because of the more measured approach players take to the game type. Variance can make it difficult to judge if your skill level is improving.
Lowering Your Variance In Poker
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix when you are experiencing the negative effects of variance. Playing a lot of hands can help lower it, but the problem is several bad beats in a row can also erode your stack. Sometimes it's better to cut your losses and return another day. Learning to walk away can be just as crucial as knowing the rules and poker hand rankings.
Game and table selection can also play a factor in your variance, playing against weaker and less skilled players, should, in theory, allow you to amass more wins and fewer losses. Choosing to play a game with naturally low variance can also provide a chance to avoid the upswings and downswings.
Something else to consider is to avoid forming grudges and vendettas against people who beat you or trying to win back what you've lost. Poker is a game of numbers and strategy, making decisions based on emotion rather than playing the cards correctly is a sure-fire way to lose your stack. Seeking revenge isn't as important as walking away with a bigger stack than when you sat down.
Even though poker is a game of skill, there is still a random element in the game that causes variance; it is unavoidable and learning to deal with it and play well will help you beat the variance blues.
In poker, as is often the case in life, knowledge is power. Understanding what variance is, how it works and ways to use it to your advantage will give you an edge over your opponents, which can often mean the difference between winning and losing.
Poker is fun and highly enjoyable, but it can also be unforgiving, even if you play the cards perfectly; sometimes you just get a bad beat. Accepting this and not getting rattled is half the battle. Poker is all about playing the numbers; eventually, your variance will lower, and your luck will turn, play the long game; don't be in it for short-term gains.