Poker Variance – Beginners Guide to Variance in Texas Holdem

Our beginners guide to variance explains what it is, why it matters, how you can calculate your acceptable poker variance score, and what to do if you are on the wrong side of it. Our guide is not going to suit every player; but, if it helps you make a few dollars, it should be worth a few minutes of your reading time.

If you read a lot of poker articles, or frequently visit poker forums, you are undoubtedly going to come across the term “variance”. Variance is generally considered to be the upswings and downswings you experience when you play poker. In a way that is true. However, by better understanding variance and what you can do if you are on the wrong side of it, you could experience more upswings and fewer downswings – or, at worse, fewer financially painful downswings. Let´s start by defining variance.

What is Variance in Poker?

Variance in poker relates to short-term results, and one of the best ways to describe how it works is to take a shuffled pack of cards and turn the cards over one-by-one – betting on whether the next card will be black or red. If you were to bet black every time, you would break even by the time all fifty-two cards have been turned over. However, during your break-even run, there will have been times when you won or lost two, three or four bets in a row – maybe more.

Variance in poker is different because you don´t know you will break even at the end of each session. You can calculate the odds of winning each hand, and only bet when the odds are in your favor, but that is no guarantee of short-term success. In theory, your pocket Aces could get busted five times in a row, or you could win against pocket Aces five times in a row – even though the math says pocket Aces will prevail in four-out-of-five hands at the pre-flop stage.

So, if variance in poker only applies to short-term results, why does it matter? It matters because in order to return a long-term profit you want to have more winning sessions than losing sessions, or at least make sure you win enough during your winning sessions to cover your losses during your losing sessions. In order to do this, you need to calculate your acceptable poker variance score and then decide what you will do if you find yourself on the wrong side of the score.

How to Calculate Your Acceptable Poker Variance Score

The primary objective of calculating your acceptable poker variance score is to determine a stop/loss position at which you say “enough is enough” and end the session. This requires considerable discipline – especially if you are on a sequence of losing sessions – which is why we stated at the very beginning of this article “our guide is not going to suit every player”. To calculate your acceptable poker variance score, you need to collect a sequence of results and then do a little math:

  • Take the results from at least your last six sessions. Ideally they should be consecutive sessions with particularly bad days or good days excluded.
  • Add up your winning sessions, take away the losses from your losing sessions, and divide the result by the total number of sessions in the calculation.
  • The figure you have now is your average win/loss per session, and what you need to do next is work out how far each session is away from the average.
  • This is where it gets complicated. Square each “how far each session is away from the average” value, add the results together and divide the result by the number of sessions.
How to Calculate Your Acceptable Poker Variance Score Total Average
Take At Least Your Last Six Results $10 $15 -$12 $20 -$15 $36 $54 $9
How Far is Each Session from the Average 1 6 -21 11 -24 27 n/a n/a
Square the Values in the Row Above 1 36 -441 121 -576 729 -130 -21.66 *

* To get the figures on the bottom row of calculations, you have to multiple each figure in the middle row by itself.
So, 1×1 = 1, 6×6 =36 -21x-21 =-441, etc.
Then you add all the figures up along the bottom row to get the total of -130, and divide -130 by 6 (because you have used six sets of results in the calculations) to get -21.66.
Therefore if you had the series the results along the top line of the calculations, you should stop playing once you have lost $21.66.

The resulting figure is your acceptable poker variance score – basically your stop/loss position when you are experiencing a losing session. If it looks a bit high to you, it could be because you are playing at the wrong level or because you are an overall losing player. To get back on the right side of variance you should read our article about Poker Bankroll Management for Dummies, work on improving your game, and have the discipline to end a session when the stop/loss position is reached.