Low Variance Can Earn Your More
Among the ubiquitous buzzwords that make up poker parlance, the term “variance” is perhaps the most common.
Players suffering through a prolonged downswing tend to blame their woes on the inevitability of variance. Similarly, someone enjoying a “heater” might temper their enthusiasm, rightfully observing that variance has simply smiled on them of late.
While the word has a few interchangeable meanings depending on context, the concept of variance as applied to a single hand is quite easy to grasp: it defines divergence from expectation.
Simply put, variance is a byproduct of poker’s randomization effect. Unlike other mental games like chess, playing perfectly doesn’t necessarily equate to victory in poker. Cards come out randomly from the deck, and even when you have the best possible hand at the moment, everything can change in an instant.
Think about it … You can get every chip you have in the middle holding what seems to be the nuts, with something like K-K on the K-9-9-4 board. But what about an opponent with pocket aces in the hole?
Facing aces with the top full house would still give you an overwhelming chance to win the hand – 95.45% to your opponent’s paltry 4.55 percent in this spot. But poker is a cruel game, and as we all know by now, that 4.55 percent shot comes through on occasion, dropping an ace on the river to crack your seemingly unbeatable kings full of nines.
Losing when you’re a statistical favorite to win, or vice-versa, is what most poker players mean when they mention variance.
As you continue learning and honing your game, one of the more difficult lessons to learn involves managing this variance to the best of your ability. Sure, you’ll always be happy to get it in with 95% equity, or even 75% if we’re being honest, but what about the more marginal spots that make up the bulk of poker play?
Take the classic coin flip scenario, for example. Here, you can hold two over-cards like A-K, or a pocket pair like 7-7 – but whichever hand you have, you’ll face roughly the same 50-50 odds of winding up the winner. And while those pocket pairs carry a slight advantage (55% to 45% on average), they’ll still end up on the short end nearly half the time.
If you came up watching those famed broadcasts of the World Series of Poker or World Poker Tour back in poker’s boom days, getting stacks in facing a coin flip probably seems like proper play. And it can be, don’t get us wrong there, but only given precise conditions (being short-stacked or taking on a short-stack chief among them).
In the majority of cases, however, you’ll be much better off avoiding these high-variance situations and waiting for a better spot. Early in tournaments, sitting on several hundred big blinds in a cash game, or even when you just want to play for a while after a long drive – these are all great reasons to pass up those pocket pair vs. over-card coin flips.
Sure, you may have dragged a massive pot when your big slick connected, or your baby pair faded the deck. Those wins require you to overcome inordinate levels of variance though, and skilled players work hard to put chips into the pot only when the percentage points are on their side.
In the game of poker, variance should be viewed as an enemy to vanquish.
You’ll always be subject to the whims of random chance, and that’s what makes poker such a challenging enigma to solve. But when you take care to analyze each situation objectively, you’ll soon discover that playing a low-variance style serves to increase your earnings over the long run.