Handling the inevitable swings in poker is one of the biggest obstacles to
success for any aspiring poker player.
Doing everything right and seemingly getting punished for it over and over
again is so incongruent to the human experience and preconceived notions of
justice and fairness that most people will eventually just throw their hands
up in desperation and find a less stressful endeavour or play a couple of
hours on weekends to unwind after a long week.
And there is nothing wrong with that.
However, for others who are more serious about the game and put in bigger
volume, lengthy downswings are basically inevitable, so approaching them with
a right mindset is one of the most important skills to master on your way to
Like any skill, you get better at it with practice. It is a long and arduous
process though, but so is everything else that is actually worth doing.
This article will hopefully provide some insights into a phenomenon that
presents a big problem for many players.
By understanding variance better, you’ll be better equipped to deal with it
better, and by doing that you get a huge leg up on the competition.
What is Variance in Poker?
Before we get into the details, let’s define what we actually mean by variance
in poker terms.
Without getting too sciency, we can say that variance measures how much data
points are spread from the average. In plain English, it means that how much
you expect to earn and how much you actually earn will differ over a small
The bigger the variance, the bigger the difference between the two, and
conversely, the smaller the variance, the closer your expected results and
your actual results. This means that in poker, your short term results will
always be all over the place.
Some game formats inherently have more variance built into it than others, for
example, there is more variance in tournaments than in cash games, and more
variance in a 6-max game than full-ring game.
This article is written with cash games in mind, but most of the concepts
apply to other formats (such as tournaments and sit-and-gos) to a certain
extent as well.
With all that in mind, let’s get into the actual tips…
1. Accept It and Expect It
The first step to deal with variance better is to internally accept that it is
an integral part of the game. Without it, poker wouldn’t be poker. Variance is
what actually makes the game profitable in the first place, so you have to
learn to take the bad with the good.
Without it, bad players would quickly get overwhelmed by superior competition
and eventually stop playing altogether, leaving just a bunch of sharks
cannibalizing each other and shuffling money around, while the house takes
If you can’t accept variance for what it is, you can try a zero variance game,
like chess. In chess a superior player will win close to a 100 % of the time,
and that’s why there’s really no money wagered that way. Think of it this way:
would you bet a 100 bucks that you could beat a chess grandmaster?
If you weren’t a world class expert yourself, you wouldn’t. But would you bet
a 100 bucks to play a heads-up session with Phil Ivey? You just might. You can
get lucky and beat the best in the world (and get bragging rights for life).
prevail, no matter how many times someone “gets lucky” against him. That is
why poker is so profitable.
Everyone can play, and everyone can win, but over the long run, skill
prevails. Over the short run, luck prevails. So accept a few bumps in the
road, embrace them and prepare for them.
So how can you actually prepare for it better and diminish the negative
effects of it? This brings us to number two on the list…
2. Have a Big Bankroll
In order to succeed in poker it is necessary to allow and endure all the
neverending swings of fortune, and the only way to do so successfully without
going broke in the process is to have a sufficient bankroll.
However, in order to not only survive the inevitable swings, but also not be
negatively affected by them it might be prudent to have more money than would
be considered the norm for the limits you’re playing.
I’m not going to go in full details about bankroll management here, as it is a
topic deserving of its own article, but suffice it to say that it is better to
be overrolled than underrolled, for obvious reasons.
For example, let’s say that you are playing 10NL and have a 300$ bankroll. If
you are a winning player at your limit, 30 buyins is certainly enough to
handle basic variance.
However, if you play long enough, there is certainly a chance that you could
encounter a 10 buyin downswing, even through no particular fault of your
Now your bankroll is 33% smaller, and every other session puts an additional
pressure to cut your bankroll in half. Then you’d have to grind the lower
stakes again to get it back, or even reload to feel comfortable playing your
current limit again.
Winning players should never need to reload. They should be taking money out
of the site, not the other way around.
Now let’s compare it to say, a 500$ bankroll for the same limit. A totally
standard downswing of 10 buyins is only 20% of your total bankroll and won’t
hurt as much.
If you keep playing well, you might as well not even notice that you were down
10 buyins at some point. A peace of mind is not to be underestimated,
especially in today’s competitive environment.
Get a fat bankroll and save yourself the trouble of fretting about variance in
the first place, and focus on playing to the best of your abilities.
3. Don’t Look at the Cashier
One of the advantages of having a big bankroll is not having to focus on
short-term results at all. If you know you are beating your current limit,
there is absolutely no reason to fret about how you are running session to
Sometimes you get on an insane heater and seem to hit every draw in the best
possible time, sometimes you get dealt garbage hands for hours on end, and
when you finally do get a decent hand, some idiot donkey catches a backdoor
flush draw with 92s, or you get set over set, or any other horrible string of
never-ending disasters that keep coming your way.
But focusing on how you are running instead of focusing on making the most +EV
decisions is only going to exacerbate the problem either way.
If you check the cashier to see that you are behind, you might start to get
the feeling that you need to “win it back”, start chasing, forcing the action,
pile up even more losses, get more frustrated, until you inevitably rage-quit
and break your mouse. Hopefully it doesn’t get that bad, but you get the
On the other hand, if you see that you are ahead a couple of buyins, you might
want to “protect your winnings”, tighten up too much, not pulling the trigger
on a big bluff you think might be profitable, and overall stop playing great
poker that made you money in the first place.
Don’t look at the cashier. Hide it, or better yet, put a post-it over it on
your monitor with some kind of inspirational message or a smiley face.
You won’t feel the compulsion to check your results, which will make you focus
more on making better decisions, which will improve your results, which will
make you less likely to feel the need to check your results.
Break the negative feedback loops, and your bankroll will be better off for
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4. Take a Break
Just because variance is unavoidable and an integral part of the game, it
doesn’t necessarily mean you should play through it no matter what and wait
for your “luck to turn around”.
Sure, it’s important to put in volume, but
that volume should be filled with your A game or a solid B game at
Players who run bad tend to play worse, and conversely, they play their best
when cards are falling their way. This is no big surprise by any means.
A professional poker player will play his best, or close to it, no matter how
he’s running, but for us mere mortals, short term results do tend to affect
our performance to some extent. If during a session you feel that’s the case,
ask yourself: can I still play to the best of my abilities?
If the answer is a resounding no, quit. There’s no shame in it. It takes some
honest self-reflection to realise your limitations. That’s the only way to
overcome them. If it goes from bad to worse, live to fight another day.
5. Study More
opportunity to study and improve your game. It might be that your “bad luck”
is actually just bad play.
Everybody has leaks in their game, and taking some time to reflect on ways you
may be bleeding money is going to pay dividends. Improving your technical
knowledge of the game will undoubtedly improve your results over time. Bigger
winrate means less variance.
conclude that you played perfectly, great, but more often than not, you will
realize that you made a mistake and should have taken a different line in a
For example, you get set over set and lose the whole stack. Definitely
unlucky, but you review your hand and realize that you were set mining with
incorrect implied odds.
Or you flop a straight in a multiway pot, get all the money in, and some whale
catches a backdoor flush draw with 84s. You could have squeezed preflop and he
might have folded. Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn.
6. Flip the Script
There’s three ways to go about this. First, recognize there is also positive
variance. Sometimes you actually win more than you normally would.
Humans are naturally prone to focusing on the negative outcomes and
conveniently forgetting all the times we got lucky, or our hand actually held
up. It’s easy to attribute negative variance to bad luck, and positive
variance to our great play, but that kind of thinking is detrimental to our
improvement as players.
Secondly, recognize that a player sucking out on you is actually a good thing.
You put your money in with a mathematical edge. Just because that edge didn’t
manifest in that particular hand, or two hands, or ten, means nothing. Over a
large enough sample, you win more than you lose.
Third common situation that tilts a lot of people are coolers and setups.
While not as clear-cut as a suckout example above, it might help to think what
would happen if the roles were reversed.
For example, if you put all your money in preflop with pocket kings, and you
run into pocket aces, think what would happen if the cards were
The money would go in either way, except this time you’d be the 81% favorite.
Sometimes you’re lucky, sometimes you’re not.
7. Think in Sklansky Dollars
Having your aces cracked 3 times in a row is a frustrating experience.
However, from a mathematical standpoint, it’s hardly an anomaly. It can and it
Human brain is not equipped to deal with math, odds and outs, percentages and
equity and what have you. Its primary language is emotion. So when you get the
best possible starting hand and lose with it over and over, it doesn’t seem
You feel slighted and cheated, and start to create narratives like “This
ALWAYS happens to me”, or “I NEVER get my fair share of luck” etc.
This kind of thinking isn’t helpful (or true), but it’s completely
understandable in the heat of the moment. But if we take a step back, we’ll
see that there is nothing particularly unfair about it. If it can happen, it
will happen sometimes.
Our opponents almost always have some portion of equity in hand, and that
equity will manifest against us sometimes. To accept it, it might be helpful
to think in Sklansky bucks, a term coined by legendary David Sklansky.
To put it simply, Sklansky bucks tell us not how much money we actually won or
lost in one particular hand, but how much money we earn on average in that
situation when considering our equity.
For example, we go all-in with Aces versus Kings and we lose 10$. We know our
equity in this spot is 81%, which means that on average we will lose every
So on average, we made 8.1 Sklansky bucks, even though in reality we lost 10$.
In the long run, Sklansky dollars earned and real dollars earned will be about
Even though Sklansky bucks are imaginary, thinking in these terms helps us to
focus on the long run and making the best decisions, no matter the current bad
8. Think in Business Terms
If you are serious about playing poker and want to make it a lucrative and
sustainable endeavour, you need to approach it differently than the vast
majority of people.
Most people treat it as a hobby, they play here and there, and if they lose,
they can always reload. All hobbies cost money, so why should poker be any
But if you want to make money consistently, you should look at it more like a
You are the CEO, you decide when you play, how long you play, what stakes you
play, and ultimately, you decide how profitable you want your business to
Every business has income and expenses, and the difference between the two is
profit. If you look at poker this way, you see that the pots you won can be
considered income, and the pots you lose are the expenses.
The problem is you don’t know how much you will earn or spend in any given
time, so you have to look at your skills as an investment that will earn you
money over time.
When you look at it this way, you don’t have to worry about the constant ups
and downs that come with it. There is always risk when doing business, and
poker is no exception. What’s important is that your business is profitable
over the long run.
business will thrive. It might take a while, but it’s important that you get
9. Play Tighter
While most of these tips are about handling variance better, this one can
actually reduce variance altogether, albeit at the cost of also reducing your
If you are more risk-averse and don’t mind slightly worse, but less volatile
results, you might benefit from being more selective with hands you play and
avoid marginal spots that you’re not quite comfortable playing.
Poker is a game of incomplete information, and a lot of variables determine if
a play is +EV or not.
Since we don’t have all the information, a lot of times we are forced to go
with our gut and often find ourselves in those “either way ahead or way
behind” situations when we have to make a decision for our whole stack.
But you can choose not to get into those situations in the first place by
folding marginal holdings preflop, and save yourself the mental strain of
having to make big decisions too often.
While highly skilled players will opt to play in marginal spots and look
for small edges, they do so in accordance with their skill edge.
If you are struggling in certain situations, make a note of it, study off the
felt and try to improve, but do so at your own pace. You don’t HAVE TO do
anything. Play tight, pick your spots, and the results will follow.
10. Take Responsibility
Finally, something that was touched upon briefly in previous points, but so
important that it deserves to be emphasized again, take responsibility.
You cannot control the cards and you cannot control variance, but what you can
and definitely should control is how you react to it.
Bad things happen, in poker and in life in general. How we deal with it is
what matters. If you play perfectly, there is only so much you can win, but if
you play badly, there is no limit to how much you can lose. It takes a
thousand steps to success, but only one to ruin.
Be mindful of that, and remember that no matter how bad things are going, we
can always make it a hundred times worse.
Everybody loses sometimes, but in the end the big winners are the ones that
make sure they lose no more than is necessary.
never-ending swings is normal. You can study all the
advanced poker theory
in the world and this will still not change.
However, in order to have long-term success in this game you need to be
prepared for variance and be willing to tackle it head on.
To do so, make sure you are sufficiently bankrolled for the stakes you play.
Expect obstacles along the way and make peace with them. Learn to take bad
with the good.
Sometimes you’re lucky, sometimes you’re not. Don’t focus on the short-term
results and focus on playing to the best of your abilities. If it gets too
bad, take a break and use it as an opportunity to study and improve your
And most importantly, take responsibility not for the cards you are dealt, but
for the way you react to them. Do all these, and poker greatness will come. In