Bankroll Management / Mental Game

Negative Variance

What is variance?

Variance is the downswings and upswings involved with playing poker.

Variance is the difference between how much money you expect to win on average over the long run and the results you are seeing during the short term.


“He is so lucky! How can I be so unlucky! I run so bad! How could that happen! This is unbelievable! I can’t win a hand! This site is rigged! They always get rewarded f***** donkeys!” We’ve all have heard players angrily make these statements or tell their bad beat stories.


Maybe you have said them yourself. I know I’ve been guilty in the past of going on these same rants. When I hear players make these types of comments repeatedly out of anger and frustration, I know that they don’t truly understand variance and may lack the emotional control to play poker profitably in the long run.


If you are new to poker, variance can be a very complicated topic. What is variance? “Variance is a mathematical term that is used to describe the distribution of results around an expected value. In poker, it refers to cash fluctuations, up swings and down swings.”


Variance can make great players and top professionals feel like losers and it can make losing players feel like unstoppable poker whiz kids. This is why poker is such a beautiful game that can be so profitable. It is not chess, anyone can win in the short term and no situation is ever alike.


As a poker player, you must be aware of variance and respect it. I have seen many players ignore this aspect of the game and go broke due to poor bankroll management during a vicious downswing. I speak from experience. I was one of those players. 


I actually was a victim of negative variance. I was running hot summer of 2012. I took almost my entire roll and bought a condo. Due to a 10 buy in down swing I was in danger of going broke. 


To get a better grasp and understanding of variance, you must play thousands of hours of live poker in a 6-12 month period or about 25,000 hands online. If you play this many hours you will most likely experience both the positive and negative sides of variance. These numbers are for cash games only; for tournaments you should at least triple these figures. If you are unable to handle and manage your emotions you will never become a winning poker player.


Variance should be your best friend, not your worst enemy. Understand that you can do everything right and things may still go wrong, it’s a part of the game and it’s also a part of life. I have experienced my fair share of variances over the last 8 years. My biggest online downswing was around $11,000 playing $5/$10 NL. My biggest live downswing was almost $5,000 playing $2/$5 NL.


These times can be tough but how you play in these bad runs I believe is what defines you as a player. The key is to keep your head about you and continue to play good strong poker. Here are a few tips and tricks I learned from Jarred Tendler’s Mental Game of Poker and Mental Game of Poker 2 that help me deal with variance:

  1. I make it a point to always read one rule of Tao of Poker and Zen of Poker daily. These books sit in my bathroom.

  2. I use an excel sheet to track my performance after each session, giving myself a score from 1-100. I may lose money but play well and give myself a score of 92 or a grade of A- This helps handle emotions that can come with negative variance. I focus on my performance not the result.

  3. The excel sheet also has a tab for session guidelines, warm-up, cool down for ABC game analysis and bankroll key hands learning profiles. The warm-up and cool down also help me handle the negative effects variance can have.logo1

Next week we will examine positive variance.