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Accepting the Variance

by Jonathan Little |  Published: Nov 13, 2013


I recently had a student ask me why he has yet to win a major poker tournament. After questioning him about his play and the amount of tournaments he has played, it turned out he only played around 12 major events. Seeing how an excellent player should expect to win somewhere around twice as often as a mediocre player, assuming my student was playing events with 500 people and he is an excellent player, which he probably isn’t, he should expect to win one out of every 250 tournaments he plays. Clearly since he only played 12 events, he should not expect any significant results at all.

I recently decided to take a trip to play a pile of online tournaments. I played around 370 tournaments over a six day period. I loaded basically every high-stakes tournament that ran during this time for around 12 hours per day. I ended up taking first, second, or third five times and final tabled 33 total events. The average number of players in each event was 414. I ended up losing around $5,000 in tournaments during the trip, mostly due to losing all of the events with buy-ins more than $1,500. You can actually watch videos of my play with commentary at my training site,

So, what does this mean? The answer is “not much.” You need a huge sample size in order to actually make any realistic assumptions about your tournament poker game. It is worth noting that while I made way more final tables than should be expected, as I should probably only final table one in 20 tournaments in the sample above, I had a high percentage of eighth and ninth-place finishes. I vividly remember flopping sets in huge pots in two different events where first place was around $50,000 only to lose, cashing for around $3,000 instead. If I was on the right side of those hands, I may have turned a nice profit.

When you play any form of poker, you must know and accept that you will have fairly wild swings. It seems as if most amateur players think they should win every time they get all-in when they have the best hand and sometimes when they have the worst hand. Clearly this is delusional. When you get all-in with A-K versus A-Q, you are certain to lose 25 percent of the time. When you flop a set in a huge pot, as I did in two of the events where I finished in ninth place, you are not guaranteed to win. When you lose these huge pots, you should not be upset or angry, because these are normal, expected swings in the game. If you find yourself constantly frustrated or tilted when you lose a pot due to the standard variance of the game, poker may not be the game for you. If you sign up for a job at McDonald’s, you should not be upset or surprised if you have to make hamburgers. If you sign up to play poker, you should not be surprised if you lose.

Playing a large volume online will enlighten you as to how silly it is to be concerned with short-term results. In live poker, most players feel that if they try hard enough, that they can will themselves to win. This simply is not true. At least from my point of view, it seems as if people care way more about each live tournament than they do about online tournaments. This is most likely because they play live events hugely under-bankrolled and only have one shot at a big win, whereas online, most players are at least somewhat properly bankrolled and can load up another game if they bust from their current one.

I strongly suggest that everyone, especially if you are an aspiring professional, take bankroll management seriously. Also, try to have other aspects of your life that are meaningful to you so you are not devastated when poker goes poorly. If you put all of your emotions at stake every time you sit down at the poker table, you will often leave disappointed. I have found that if you have other sources of happiness in your life, you will be able to accept the inevitable swings of the game with a smile on your face and a happy heart. ♠

Jonathan Little, 2-time World Poker Tour champion has won more than $6 million in tournaments since 2006. He is sponsored by, Instapoker and BlueSharkOptics and teaches poker at and Follow him on Twitter @ JonathanLittle.