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 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.
Author: Jonathan Wanchalk
Updated: March 2015
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