Poker variance is the difference between our actual results and mathematical expectation. This difference comes about because of the elements of the game that are out of our control, which could be referred to as luck. So if you win on average $4000 a month from poker tournaments, you might have months when you lose $10,000 or alternatively win $20,000. Poker is a game where short-term play rarely provides accurate information about a players winrate. The more games or tournaments you play, the truer you results become.

A players winrate is a way of gauging the amount a player can expect to win over a long period of time. In cash games, it’s usually expressed as big blinds per 100 hands (bb/100). Although limit players often express their winrate using a big bets per 100 hands system, but big blinds is generally used today. However PokerTracker4 poker tracking software is often still set to BB/100 (big bets).  For tournaments, ROI (return on investment) is used. Here’s a look at a MTT players fluctuating monthly returns.


MTT variance is clearly shown by these monthly summaries

These are the online results of a long-term winning poker pro. Even with hundreds of tournaments being played a month, there’s great fluctuations in the monthly returns. This is quite common for tournament players since fields are often large and prize payouts top heavy. So you can expect to receive a top prize infrequently, but the gain will be significant when you do. SNG tournaments show less variance since fields are shallower and it’s easier to more consistently make the money. Furthermore payouts are much flatter than the top heavy MTT prize structure were first prize could be hundreds of times your buy-in.

Cash games also have less variance but even strong winning players may experience 30-40 buy-in down swings. Here we can see a cash game chart where there was a 10 buy-in downswing.


Moderate variance can be seen in this PT4 chart depicting BBs won from cash game play

There’s no way to avoid the variance in poker –  you can only improve your MTT poker game. After a significant number of hands have been played to attain a fairly accurate expectation, it’s simply best to monitor your expected return rather than your actual results on an on-going basis. Statistical tracking software for example provides an ‘adjusted amount won’


This player is losing $728.57 over 4 months when they should actually be winning $20.19

figure. Looking at these numbers provides a better guide as to what you can expect the longer you play, since it calculates the results as if you received an amount of the pot based on your equity in the hand, rather than based on the actual outcome. So if you were all-in as an 80% favorite in a $100 pot, you can expect to receive $80. If you put $50 into the pot then you gain $30 from that situation. If you lost or won the pot, this could be viewed as either unlucky or lucky since technically you’ll win in that scenario 80% of the time in the long run (not 0% and not 100% which will be the result from 1 trial).

Other Variance Influences

Here’s some factors that can influence the variance you can expect.

Your playing style – If you play a very loose-aggressive style of play then you will be involved in a lot more pots and will be consequently risking more money than your average tight player. The looser you are and the more risks you take, the greater your variance will be.
The poker game – Limit games result in pots being smaller since their is a fixed amount players can bet. In no limit games where players can wager their entire stack, variance increases. Furthermore games like Omaha can expose players to even further variance since players are more regularly all in. It’s true in Omaha equities run closer together (that is players are usually closer to 50/50 than in NLH, typically 60/40) but given the frequency of all ins in Omaha it can be a roller coaster. In NLH, often pots don’t go to showdown which means less betting rounds and smaller pots, reducing variance.

Am I Experiencing Epic Variance?

To drill further down into variance, we can use statistics to calculate likely possibilities. It’s important to remember that the human brain is incredibly adaptable. Furthermore, as children we are often regularly praised and positively re-enforced with our behavior. For example, you might draw a stick figure in 4th grade but have your mother tell you it’s wonderful. When players start losing in poker the brain often triggers responses to justify the loses as unlucky and just variance taking its toll. After all, as a wonderful person “it’s not possible these other people are the table are actually better than me, right?” “Nah impossible!” I must just be getting unlucky and or alternatively the software is rigged is the justification typically used to explain the inability to win (so that we don’t feel inferior!).

Thankfully as always in poker, ignorance is bliss! At least, for those willing to work on their game and climb the ladder.

To learn more about variance, try the following links;           Variance Study        Useful Variance Calculator 

MTT players may also find this article at interesting; Calculating Tournament Bankroll Requirements.