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by Bart Hanson |  Published: Mar 05, 2014


Jan. 10 – Trouble with your mental game? Try embracing the variance in poker.  It is why we can gamble on the game for profit.

Variance in poker, as we understand it, can be a very difficult concept to deal with. No matter how sound our emotions are when we lose a big pot, not matter what stakes we are playing at, it can be difficult to handle. But, if we did not have this element of luck involved with the game would we really have a game at all?

As I understand it, Stu Ungar was one of the greatest gin rummy players of all time. Because the game is based so much on mathematics and card removal it was very hard for him to lose. The purest example of a game with no variance is chess. If you played Garry Kasparov and you were not an international grandmaster, it would be next to impossible for you to win unless he made an uncharacteristically large blunder. There is basically no luck in the game. Knowing this, would it ever be a good idea to wager on yourself against him?

Poker is a great gambling game because there is just enough variance to give a player with less of a skill level a chance to win in the short term. If a bad player lost every single time he came into the casino, would he ever come back? This is why certain forms of poker with short-term high variance like pot-limit-Omaha (PLO) are so popular with players that love to gamble. Even though they may lose over the long term, the equities run so close in many situations that it is easy for them to win over a period of time. Games like pot-limit-Omaha eight-or-better (PLO/8), and to a lesser extent, high-stakes no-limit have far less variance and make it almost impossible for bad players to win even inside of a single session.

The thing that I find amazing is that a lot of players, including a fair amount of professionals, cannot handle negative variance. Sometimes it makes their future decisions much worse. If you get it all-in preflop in hold’em with A-A versus Q-Q, you are about an 82 percent favorite to win. If you lose, why does the result matter? If we flip coins for $1,000 and you get the best of it by winning $1,200 to my $800 every flip, would the fact that you lose in an individual trial anger you? What if you lost four or fives times in a row? The only thing that should matter is the fact that you are getting your money in with the best of it, which in this flipping proposition you clearly have. You cannot control the outcome of these of the trials so you should not concentrate on the results.

A lot of the discomfort that comes from getting a bad beat draws from what mental game coach Jared Tendler calls “entitlement tilt.” Because we are ahead and we make the right decision we think that we are entitled to win. But what many players do not realize is that if they always won when those conditions were met, the bad players would never stand a chance. You are not entitled to win when you have 90 percent equity. You will just win over the long term nine out of ten times. You should not get angry at the fact that one of the times that you may lose could be now. Someone has to run on the bad side of variance and when we play short samples like we do in live poker we can run very bad for long stretches of time. It is how we deal with the variance that makes all of the difference.

Jan. 15 – It’s fairly difficult to maintain a LAGGY image and be profitable in a 9 or 10 handed format

When we talk about adjustments in no-limit hold’em, the looseness and tightness of your image is one of the first things that you should recognize about your own game. In theory, the more hands that you play the less likely that it is that your opponents will give you credit. If you do not play many hands you should be able to get away with more bluffing. Aggressive players should take note of this and value bet their hands thinly while tight players must recognize that, if their opponents are paying attention, they may only get action when other players are strong.

Since hold’em is only a two-card game, it becomes very advantageous if you can put yourself into a situation where you win the pot when both you and your opponents miss. Simple math dictates that most people will not connect with the flop very hard on most occasions. If you are a good LAG (loose-aggressive) you can really run over a lot of weak-tight opponents, especially shorthanded. But how easy is it to maintain this LAG-type image and play profitably in a full ring game? Are your opponents even aware of what is going on?

I remember before the Moneymaker boom David Sklansky said that no-limit was a dead game unless people were playing with invisible antes. The simple fact of the matter is the blinds are very small in comparison to stack depth and you can play so extremely tight in a full ring game that you can literally “best hand” people if they are playing too loose. At today’s tables, especially when you are playing with good “nits,” a lot of LAGs tend to force the issue because they feel like they want to get paid off when they actually make a big hand. If you are faced with decent players, however, and everyone is playing less than 25 percent of their hands, LAGging it up and playing over forty percent of hands can be a huge disadvantage. These players can literally wait to make the best hand against you and it does not cost them that much through the blinds.

A while back, a friend of mine in a $5-$10 no limit hold’em game opened 7Diamond Suit 3Diamond Suit under-the-gun (UTG) plus one at a tight, ten-handed table. He ended up losing a fair amount of money trying to bluff into a set. When I asked him why he was opening such a weak hand from early position he said that he was trying to “maintain his LAGGY image”. In reality, however, he was putting himself at way too much of a disadvantage solely for the purpose of trying to be seen as a loose player. One of the things that I think people constantly overlook is that many players are not even paying that much attention to your style. You do not need to force the issue and play hands that will not be profitable in a given situation just because you want to get paid off later on. Most of your opponents are not correctly making adjustments anyway and if you look at a lot of the tighter players at the table, especially at the five dollar blind level, they are getting paid off with their big hands just as much as the looser guys. Do not sacrifice positional disadvantage and severely handicap yourself through weak hand strength just to set up future value that may very well be there later on anyway. ♠

You can follow Bart on twitter @BartHanson. Check out his training site exclusively made for live no-limit cash games at