It’s common to hear poker players complain about how frustrated they are with variance. The fact is, however, that variance is an integral part of the game we all love. Even so, it’s certainly possible for you to take measures that will reduce your variance and make your game less susceptible to large downswings.
Before getting any deeper into the topic, let’s clarify what exactly poker variance means. In essence, variance is “the difference between the results you expect to have over the long run and the money you win in the short term”.
Another way of looking at it is that variance is what keeps the game of poker interesting and so much fun for anyone to play. If a weaker player would not have a chance to win in the short run, they would likely never bother playing at all (at least this is true for the majority of them). So, as strange as it sounds, poker variance is actually a good thing. That is why (weaker) players keep coming back to the tables, even if they aren’t long-term winners. While many people just don’t realize it, variance is what keeps our game alive.
With all of that said, sometimes poker variance could hit us hard; much harder than we could possibly expect. For instance, in 2015 I had unbelievable downswing that I did not think was even possible. I still managed to finish the year with a decent profit, but I ran 150 buy-ins under EV in cash games! That represents a HUGE swing. So, while variance is unavoidable, it’s best to focus on what you CAN do to reduce it.
Of course, the higher your win rate, the lower your variance will be. That’s the main factor, no matter which type of poker you are playing. The fact is that if you have a 10bb/100 hands win rate in cash games, you will encounter much smaller variance than someone averaging a win rate of just 1bb/100 hands. Alternatively, having 100% ROI in MTTs will mean that you experience far less variance than someone who has 10% ROI.
No matter how skilled or unskilled you are in poker, throughout your career you ought to be concentrating on improving your win rate; this, in turn will reduce the variance you experience. Obviously, improving your overall poker strategy and mastering as many aspects of the game as possible have a lot to do with improving your win rate. However, there are some other proven ways to reduce your variance as well.
Practice Good Table Selection; Choose Juicy Games
This is a crucial point that some player choose to ignore. Playing in a cash game where every player is reasonably good will not help your quest to be a big winner. Most likely, you will just break even or perhaps have just a small win rate over the long run. However, if you play in a game frequented by a few recreational players or (even better) some aggro maniacs, you can drastically increase your win rate. The difference in variance between those two scenarios is enormous and I would choose the latter scenario every single time.
There is no place for your ego in poker, so concentrating on playing with a solid strategy while finding good games will go a long way. I do not suggest bumhunting (i.e., playing against only very weak players), but it is just silly to play in games that you can barely beat. Of course, an occasional session with stronger players is great for improving and learning, but that’s how you have to treat such a session, rather than expect to be a big winner there.
So, if you want to increase you win rate and reduce your poker variance, good table selection should be the first thing you take into consideration no matter whether you are playing live or online.
Concentrate on Playing Your “A” Game
As straightforward as it sounds to “try and play your best at all times”, this is a leak that even some top professional poker players have. If you’re able to play and perform at your peak level at all times, it will undoubtedly be reflected in reduced variance.
Of course, you’ll probably crush your opponents that much more often if you are able to concentrate your full attention on your game and evaluate all the information available while playing. If, however, for some reason you get bored, tired, or distracted while playing – which is increasingly likely to happen the longer your sessions are – you’re that much more likely to downshift to playing your “C” or “D” game. Thus, you’re more likely to lose and, at the very least, experience increased variance.
One of the highest compliments ever paid to a poker player was often said about the legendary Chip Reese, namely that his “D” game was just as good as his “A” game. I’ll guess his variance was relatively low and that nobody reading this article is on the level of the late, great Chip Reese.
There are many things that can help you improve your ability to concentrate. Among them are:
- taking a few minutes to properly prepare before starting your session’
- taking care of your basic physical needs prior to starting to play
- not sitting down to start playing when feeling unwell (either physically or mentally)
That is by no means a complete list. If you want to learn more about how to maintain peak performance and play your “A” game as often as possible, you can read my free poker book on this topic.
Quit Playing at the Correct Time
At the beginning of my poker career, I often struggled to quit playing at the right time. That’s something that cost me a lot of money over the years. Nowadays, many of my students struggle with this as well. The fact is that one critical way to improve your game – and reduce your variance – is to quit playing at the right time. This is a habit you’ll need to work on and develop; and it’s worth it, as it will likely save you a lot of money over the long run.
With that said, I wouldn’t advocate for a stop/loss limits. Plainly speaking, “win/loss limits” are quite arbitrary. It really does not make any logical sense to stop playing if you lose or win few buy-ins just for that reason alone. If you still feel that you can concentrate and play at your best, then keep sitting at the tables and doing just that. In all likelihood, your edge at the poker table is quite small. Quitting too early (if you are still playing well) will cost you dearly in the long run. So too, if you are playing poorly but don’t quit soon enough, you’re increasingly likely to take big hits.
There are two things that you need to consider when deciding on the optimal time to quit. Your emotions play the biggest role here and you need to be acutely aware of them:
- The moment you start feeling bad, angry, or tired, you are “officially” no longer playing your “A” game. Thus, playing effectively will be very hard. This point in time is unique for every poker player. Emotions that throw you off your “A” game could be triggered by a tough bad beat, running badly for some time, or simply playing for too long. The moment you realize you’re off your “A” game, you should quit playing and return only when you feel good again.
- The same goes for your ability to concentrate effectively. The moment you can no longer ignore distractions and you start thinking about things other than the game, you ought to consider bolting the table. If your mind starts wandering to a movie you just saw, wanting to meet up with your friends, the fact that you would rather be at the gym, or anything else, this is a clear sign that you need to take a break from playing. This has proven true time and time again, both with me and my students. Believe me when I tell you that nothing good will come from you continuing to play if you are distracted.
If you’re able to master these three tips and integrate them into your mindset when approaching the game of poker, you’re almost guaranteed to experience an improved win rate and thus lower your variance.
If you want to take things one step further, you’re invited to try my free course called “How to win at poker.” In it, I teach you multiple ways to learn how to find and fix your mistakes and thus gain a superior edge at the tables.