Variance Explained: The Bane of Inexperienced Poker Players

Poker’s popularity is truly astonishing. The game is everywhere, a staple in every online and offline casino. You can play poker at home with friends and family, but it has massive tournaments like the World Series of Poker with million-dollar prize pools. 

New players pick up poker every day. Because of this, there are a lot of people in need of guidance since the game is far more complicated than its simple rules suggest. If you’re one of those beginner poker players, don’t worry, this guide is for you. It’ll tackle variance, a critical concept in poker that not enough players understand.ย 

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What is variance?

Variance is just a fancy word for the element of luck in poker. It measures how many games you win or lose based on pure chance. It’s a natural part of poker because even the best players can’t win every hand. Sometimes, you just get bad cards and must fold because of them. 

While variance is a universal constant among players, it’s not the same for everyone. You can do many things to reduce or even increase the amount of variance you experience. Reducing it will be your primary goal, as if your skill decides more games, you have more influence on your earnings from playing poker. 

Why variance is necessary

Now, many players have wondered, “Why do we even need variance in poker? It should be a pure game of skill!” It might seem like variance is just a negative part of the game that should be removed, but, in reality, that’s not the case. Here are a few reasons why variance is integral to poker’s identity and is here to stay.

First of all, how would you even remove it? The nature of card games means there’s always an element of chance to the cards you draw, and changing poker to remove variance would make the game unrecognizable. 

Second, it’s not like variance makes skill irrelevant. It increases the game’s skill cap in many scenarios. If everyone knew what cards they’d get, computers would have entirely solved poker to determine the best possible move in every scenario, like chess. 

With the element of chance, players have to think on the fly. Adapting strategies to fit any scenario is one of the most significant hallmarks of an experienced player.

Finally, all the excitement of playing and watching poker comes from variance. Without it, we wouldn’t have legendary moments like Doyle Brunson’s back-to-back 10-2 wins. We also wouldn’t even have bluffs, the most exciting and tense moments in poker. 

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Dealing with variance: Game selection

One of the most significant factors for variance is the type of poker you play. First off, we have the poker variant. Some, like Omaha, are misused than Texas Holdem, resulting in a higher variance since the turn and river can often change hand rankings completely. 

Another thing you must be aware of is the game format. Of the two main formats – tournaments and cash games – tournaments have much higher variance. They’ve even been called “lotteries, where the best players get more than one ticket.”

The extreme variance of poker tournaments mostly stems from their elimination format and all-or-nothing prize pool distribution. You only have one shot in a tournament, so even one bad beat can cause you to bust out and exit the tournament entirely. 

Additionally, the prize pool is heavily skewed towards the winner. The last person standing usually gets a huge portion of the prize pool, while more than half the entrants don’t finish “in the money” and get nothing. 

So, if you dislike variance, cash games are the way to go. Consistent blind amounts and the ability to buy back make them perfect for experienced grinders, which is why competition is usually tougher when playing cash games compared to tournaments. 

Dealing with variance: Your playstyle

Another factor that can significantly affect variance is how you play. Tighter players experience far less variance since they fold until they get a premium hand. Loose players who like to play many hands without guaranteed strength, like suited connectors, experience more variance since they’re more prone to missed draws. 

Side effects of variance: Tilt

Sometimes, variance itself isn’t even what’s negatively affecting your game. Instead, you could lose because of variance’s biggest side effect: Tilt. 

Tilt is when you let your emotions take the reins when playing. Because you’re not thinking straight, your gameplay worsens, meaning you lose more often. This creates a vicious cycle of tilting, losing, then tilting because you lost. 

Many things can kickstart tilt by angering you, but almost nothing beats losing, thanks to variance. Getting a bad beat and losing due to factors beyond your control is the worst, but you must recognize and overcome that pattern. You need to understand variance is a natural part of the game. 

While you can get mad at variance, you shouldn’t let it affect your gameplay. Take a break, and find other ways to release your anger. Buy a stress ball or practice meditation. It doesn’t matter how you deal with it; you need to find what works best for you and stick to it.

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Variance is necessary, and we hope you learn to accept and overcome it!

We hope this guide taught you a lot about variance and its critical role in poker. Now that you understand variance, you can model your poker strategy around it and even take steps to lessen its effect like switching to cash games or playing tighter. Good luck at the tables!