Variance in Online Poker

Online poker has variance, everyone knows it, but players are
always wondering whether what they are experiencing is normal.
It feels bad to have a big downswing, but it always feels better
if you hear that many other players are frequently in the same
exact spot as you. The first thing that you’ll need to
understand and accept is that variance is always going to exist.
You are never going to be able to create a style of play in
poker that’s totally void of variance. A lot of players think
that if they are very careful and tight that they can
effectively eliminate all variance from their game, but this
just couldn’t be further from the truth.

There are a number of primary factors that will play into
just how much variance you are going to encounter. Are you
loose, tight, aggressive, passive? Every style of play is going to come
along with a slightly varied degree of variance. Are you susceptible to
tilt? Do you take big shots? Do you play heads
up, 6-max, or full ring poker. These are just a few of the
things that you’ll need to take into account when considering
what type of variance should be considered normal for you.

A common misconception in poker is that variance means
losses. The truth is that you’ll experience positive variance
just as you will experience negative variance. Sure, you are
going to get very unlucky for extended periods of time
throughout your poker career, but you would be lying if you said
that you didn’t run very hot from time to time as well. Realize
that for every terrible unlucky hand, there’s usually a lucky
hand to compensate for it. As poker players it’s natural to
only remember the awful losses, even if there were a few
fortunate wins along the way.

Style of Play

Style of play will determine whether you are being exposed to
lesser or greater variance over the long run. For simplicity,
imagine that there are just three different types of styles in
poker: aggressive, passive, and average.

An aggressive player should expect to have a lot of variance
when compared to the average player, and even more vs. the
passive player. Aggressive players are also going to typically
be the biggest winners in most No Limit Texas Hold’em games, so
there’s a bit of a trade off between the style of play and the
amount of money that is generally earned. Of course, this is
simply in general, and it doesn’t always apply to everyone. You’ll notice that aggressive players are the least common of your
opponents, which is a perfect demonstration of how and why they
also happen to be the most common form of winning player.

Passive players and aggressive players fall into the same
relative category, with passive players being the more extreme
of the two. These types of players don’t normally run into big
upswings and downswings in poker. In fact, they may go a whole
day without winning or losing a buy in. While this may seem like
an ideal way to slowly pile up earnings, the flaw with this
particular approach is that you’ll typically lose small
amounts over and over again while only rarely picking up decent
to large size wins. You won’t lose a ton playing passively, but
the odds are that you won’t be making a whole lot either.


The limit that you are playing is an easy way to correlate
your expect variance. The lower the stakes, the less variance
that you should expect. While this is an awfully simplistic way
to look at variance, it’s also the absolute truth.

Micro stakes players tend to have graphs and winnings that
are on steady upward trends with relatively few bumps along the
way, while high stakes players seem like they lose their entire
online bankroll on repeated occasions. As the player pools get
tougher at higher limits, games play more deep stacked and
aggressively so you’ll see more massive upswings
and down swings. Look no further than the most well known names
in high stakes poker for proof of this trend.

Game Type

Game type is the next factor that should be considered when
you are looking at variance. The game with the most ongoing
variance is heads up. Whether you are playing heads up cash
games or sit and go’s, you should expect all kinds of wild
swings. While it would be very rare to run into a 20 buy in down
swing in other games, 20+ down swings in heads up tables are
more than common. In fact, some high volume players can have a
down swing this big in just one day of play. If you are a heads
up player, this is just one more reason why you’ll need to
have a very large bankroll.

6-max and full ring games have less variance than heads up
play, with 6-max having moderately larger ups and downs than
what’s found in full ring. Though they are going to be somewhat
tame, the possibility does exist for 10+ buy in up and down
swings. You won’t need to be worried with 30 or so buy ins in
the majority of these games, but you shouldn’t be playing with
just a dozen either.

In the end, even the best and most disciplined online poker players can
easily go on very vicious swings. You are going to eventually
run into runs that you had not previously imagined were even
possible. You are always gambling no matter how much skill you
have, and the luck involved will sometimes outweigh any
strategic decisions that you can make. Remember, if it
wasn’t for negative variance in favor of your opponents from
time to time, they wouldn’t have much reason to play at all.