The real problem with variance in live poker

October 26, 2013

At the beginning of the year my focus was on online poker. I set a specific goal which was that by the end of the year I would be playing 12 tables or more of 25c/50c and beating the level. After a few months of grinding I was on my way. I was feeling confident and thanks to playing tens of thousands of hands of cash game poker. plus the fact that I was working full time and earning a decent salary, I decided to go back to playing live cash game poker. Initially the results were great and for the first time in my life I kept my own and started crushing the live games. I downloaded a great poker app for recording all my sessions and was so happy to see that I was winning 7/10 sessions and making some nice extra cash every month.

Fast forward 2 months and unfortunately the results haven’t continued on the same trajectory. After 24 sessions over the last few months I’ve won money in 54% of the games I’ve played and only made money in 2 out of the last 10. It is runs like this that test your resolve as a poker player and make you question both your ability and approach to the game. Last week I had another losing session, this time it was a combination of bad play on my end and very bad luck, but it wasn’t the fact that I lost money that upset me, it was how I lost the money.

There is an element of poker which can’t be denied and can’t be ignored and that is variance. People call it different things but variance is very simple to understand. There is the norm, which for example is getting dealt pocket aces once in every 220 hands, or flopping a set with a pocket pair in your hand 11.7% of the time, and then there is what happens in reality over a certain number of hands. The difference in the norm and what happens in reality is called variance. In the long run if you are playing with a regular deck of cards in a regular poker game, you will on average be dealt pocket aces every 220 hands. This is a fact and can be proven easily with mathematical software or by looking in a large database of an online poker player.

Now for interest sake lets say that you play poker with a bunch of friends once a week and on average you play for 5 hours and see 28 hands an hour. In my made up example, you will be dealt pocket aces once every 7.8 hours on average. Now imagine that you have two amazing sessions and within 56 hands you are dealt aces 4 times. This is really positive variance for you and will make you experience a much higher win rate than usual. Unfortunately this type of variance doesn’t last, remember, the stats needs to balance itself out, even though it will almost never be exact, in order for the stats to now balance themselves out, you could go over 6 sessions without being dealt pocket aces. Variance can be a bitch, especially in like poker where it takes much longer to balance things out.

My run of 10 sessions with only 2 wins made me realize this. I had been crushing the game and consider myself to have a decent edge over the average player in the game but a combination of run bad and lack of resolve on my part had resulted in a downswing that has lasted over a month and a half. During the last few sessions I have felt like a prisoner, chained to the outcome of the cards with nothing I could do, a feeling I hate even more than losing. The variance in poker is such that even a winning live cash game player can go many months breaking even or even losing money.

There are only two ways to beat variance. The first is playing through it. As long as you are a winning player and can control your losses, you will get through the bad spells and show a positive balance in the long run. The biggest problem with playing through the negative variance is that it can last a long time, hence my statement earlier that a winning player can go months without showing his true win rate. The second way to beat variance is having a massive edge over the competition. If you put Doyle Brunson in a poker game with a bunch of first timers, Doyle will almost always have a winning session, even if he is experiencing very negative variance. The reason for this is because Doyle has such a high skill level in poker that he is able to maximize his winnings and minimize his losses. In such a poker game, Doyle’s skill level will be the determining factor over his results, not variance.

Acknowledging these facts has humbled me because it has shown that I’m not as good as I believe. I still find myself making horrible calls and getting desperate when the negative variance comes knocking. I think I handle it better than most but it still eats at me. It really bothers me that at this moment I could go 3-6 months breaking even or losing money, simply because the cards are falling very much against me. I can’t push through it quickly because like the example I used, I’m only playing once a week and seeing around 28 hands an hour. For these reasons I have decided to take a break from live poker and concentrate on reaching the goal I set for myself at the start of the year.

Justin Butlion

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Welcome to my blog. My name's Justin Butlion and I'm the owner of The Great Grind. At The Great Grind I share my thoughts on beating the game of poker. The blog covers poker strategy, game theory, poker related statistics and the psychology needed to grind out consistent profit at micro and low stakes online poker.
  • Math5oo1

    Understanding poker variances and played live poker for over 30yrs. I’ve seen much the same type of thing. Poker is one of the most unpredictable games around. Playing live poker and being good at it is very demanding to say the least.
    But how about online poker. They say it’s exactly the same as live poker. I’ve now played online poker for about 8yrs. Keeping in mind that online you get more beginners and cowboys using nothing but luck when playing poker which doesn’t help the poker professionals, I’ve also noticed that poker variance is extremely different

    Online profit makers call themselves poker professionals but yet when you look at how they play a lot of there hands it begs to differ as to weather they are really pros or know something others don’t.
    A few examples of this is (compared to live poker); If you have say KK you have the option of going all-in in which case all your really doing is counting on luck (sure some will fold) but lets say for the purposes of this example you just raise 2 or 3 times the BB, You called once or twice and then it’s one of these so called high stacked pros turn and they go all-in, You can’t help but wonder what they have as your KK high so you put them on something like AK, AA, QQ or the like, of cause your going to call only to find that they went all-in with something like 3 7 off suit. Wham it just so happens that there 3 7 came in on the flop and everyone that called having A or K etc does see a single picture card or A on the table. These types of occurrences happen all the time in online poker. Would you see this in live poker (I think not) at least I never have.
    Now is it variance in play when these so called poker pros can play (what is called Bingo poker) 60% of the time and always come out on top and make a profit. If you question these player styles they tell you your just not a good poker player and that we know nothing about poker variances.
    Is it variance when all you see is A’s on the table in 90% of hands (doesn’t happen in live games as it’s only about 40%. Poker variance is said to work on a 1 to 2% average but yet you constantly see the same select few online playing and cashing in making there variance factor up as high as 70% without fail making calls that would be considered as just plain stupid in live games if you see them at all. What do these players know that the average player doesn’t?
    For a true live poker professional or at least an average poker player who makes money playing live poker, why is it they get nowhere online if the variance and game is suppose to be the same. Does poker Variance really have anything to do with making a profit in online poker. How is it that’s it’s always the same select few players that win most games but when you try to play poker using there style you constantly lose and again your told it’s because your not that good.
    So basically what these so called Online Poker Pros are telling you is, no matter what you have in your hand or how you play the game if you bet against them your going to lose because your not a good poker player and it’s all to do with poker variances.
    As well as that when playing online poker you have this so called variance to work against which is; at each table you’ll find (I say seats) a couple of seats which get all the winnable hands compared to other seats getting hands that where never meant to win no matter that they where dealt. Again poker sites put this down to poker variance and again it’s always the same select few that come out on top.
    Then lets say you actually do get to cash in online in a game. How is it that your next 30 plus games will get you nowhere, you can go hundreds of hands without seeing a picture card or A and none of your hands have any possibility of being able to win no matter how you play them and this keeps going until you have used up all your winnings before you get to see any winnable hands. This happens all the time without fail. Question it and you get told it’s all about poker variances.
    Now in my 30yrs plus at playing live poker a big part of how you see these so called pros play poker just doesn’t exist in real life. In understanding poker variances and the downswing factor I feel that there is more than just variances in play when it comes to online poker.
    Poker Variance seems to be the answer to every ones misfortune when coming up against these select few so called poker pros who can play just about any card they want and come out on top.
    My question here is, How much does poker variance really matter or play a part in online poker sites? Does poker variance really count or even have any true value or meaning online? When a live player making money in 5 out of 10 games playing live can’t make money in a single game in 100 plus games played no matter how they play?
    I gave up playing online a couple of months ago after realising/concluding that online poker is nothing like live poker and can actually destroy a real live poker players confidence and the way I was playing in live games. Online poker can make the best live poker players look like donks/fish. The question to ask is, how real is online poker?

    • Koen Smit

      You could have just said you think online poker is rigged :p

  • Justin Butlion

    Thanks for the comment Dylan. Which part of my post exactly makes you think I don’t understand variance? It’s obvious that Doyle and all poker players should aim to maximize their profits but limiting your variance is one way to do this. I’ll give you an example.

    Lets say you are sitting very deep in a cash game and everyone else in the game is also sitting deep. Imagine you are dealt AK on the button. The action is as follows. UTG raises and someone in mid-position re-raises. 4 betting here could be a good play in some cases but if your opponents are willing to get there money in here with any pair above 8’s plus AQ and AK a large percentage of the time as is the case in many cash games I’ve played in, you are maximizing your variance. Getting your stack in here and losing 40-50% of the time will mean having to sit back and build up a stack from scratch and miss out in doubling up a massive stack. If you have the bankroll and are willing to risk multiple buy-ins for a very thin edge pre-flop be my guest. I prefer to be more patient and maximize my post flop edge against amateurs.

    • Michael

      Dylan is saying that your understanding of the relationship between your expected bottom line and session fluctuations is flawed. You state that reducing your variance by avoiding marginal preflop spots will increase your bottom line somehow — by allowing you to instead profit from your postflop skills. I posit that it’s not as easy as you make it out to be, and minimizing your fluctuations by taking a conservative strategy may be a good idea if your play deteriorates when you lose (as most of us are prone to).

      Consider this contrived example: say your hourly winrate is $30/hr with a hourly SD of $250. If you pass on these marginal preflop spots, your hourly SD may go down to $150 but that does not imply your winrate increases! The relationship between your strategic adjustments (intended to decrease session fluctuations) and your winrate is more complicated than just “pass on marginal preflop spots, increase your profits”.

      I argue that correctly identifying good preflop spots allows you to pad your hourly winrate with non-raked, non-showdown winnings.

      • Justin Butlion

        I get what you are saying Michael but I think this is only relevant if the SD is within a normal range. Say for example you play in a $1/50c game and your SD is 2 – 3 buy-ins then I completely agree with you, you should focus on finding good spots pre-flop and play a more straight forward TAG game.

        In the games I’m use to playing in the swings are more in the 5 – 10 buy-in range. The main reason is because the game really is more like a $10/$20 game when the blinds are $5/5. The average raise is not 20 bucks but more like 100 bucks. The average player will invest 3-5k which is insane for a 5/5 game.

        When you combine this dynamic with huge donks who will call off 200+ bbs with middle pair and a gut-shot you are forced to change your style to adapt to the variance.

        Another major factor is bankroll management. One of my issues is I’m simply playing too big. The weird thing is the games in Israel are either very small 25c/10c or very big. Not many smaller games which can be played to build a bankroll.

        • Michael

          Your strategy adjustments are about reducing risk of ruin from playing over your bankroll — which is completely appropriate considering your game dynamics and bankroll. Taking a conservative strategy when playing underrolled for a game is the right play if busting out means you can’t continue to profit

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  • Tony Lee

    I like this article. I like how you describe the feelings around bad sessions. It’s something I battle with. One thing I am starting to learn is to be extremely careful about when I join a big pot. Against the fish you have to have better than average cards. Much more than strong starting hands for the simple reason that they will call you down. My latest successes/damage limitation have come through realising that a hand is only worth betting hard on from around the turn. My hand strength judgement has been too focussed on starting hands and flop. That increases the risk of sucking out in a race to the end.

  • Loadz

    ive come to realize that math is useless in poker…
    4/5 big pots cant be measured with statistics…and those pots do matter the most…be on the bad side of math and lose 3 of these in every session,and you are just not lucky enough for poker.

    i´ve calculated losingstreaks,some of them were,im not kidding here,1/500.000 cases.