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The Poker Player’s Manifesto — Part XIII - Make Friends with Variance

by Bryan Devonshire |  Published: Feb 18, 2015


Bryan DevonshireI hear poker players complain about variance more than anything that has to do with poker. Most poker players are under the assumption that the best hand should always win for some reason, and most poker players feel like they get unlucky more than most other poker players. There sure are a lot of unlucky poker players out there, but that is simply because luck is a word used to describe variance and variance is as much a part of poker as cards and chips are. If there was no variance, then there would be no game of poker as we know it. Instead, poker would be regarded like chess or billiards, where the best player almost always wins. I could never beat a golfer at golf, but any golfer can beat me at poker, and thus poker remains a game that is attractive to all people.

Becoming friends with variance is essential to sanity and understanding in poker. We first simply need to understand that we are not always going to win. Aces all in pre-flop will lose at least 15 percent of the time against typical ranges of opponents. With records going back to 2000, I only win in about 60 percent of my cash game sessions. Losing is something that every poker player must get good at. You must be able to lose with a cool head, because if variance makes you play badly, then the only thing you can blame your losses on is yourself. The dealer has no control over whether or not you get sucked out on. Karma has nothing to do with it either. There is no such thing as a lucky seat, cards, or chips. Poker is governed by variance and variance only, and if your aces didn’t lose 15 percent of the time like they should, then the game would be unfair.

Never ever complain about a bad beat. Everybody has done it and nobody likes to hear it. If you’ve been in this game as long as I have, then you have seen every bad beat possible, and likely taken all of them too. Since we are friends with variance, we will accept bad beats as part of the game, and we will silently take our beat, moving on to the next hand. Of course we wanted to win that hand, but we will take peace in knowing that losing that hand allows us to win more hands in the future. If our less-skilled opponents never won, then they would eventually stop coming back to play.

We know that the best players take the most bad beats. Why you ask? Well, the best players are best at putting the money in good. That’s all that matters, that’s all we can control. Have the best hand when the money goes into the pot, the rest is out of our control. If you only put the money in good, then the only way you can lose is by way of bad beat. If you can’t take a bad beat, then you will eventually start putting the money in bad, and then you’re just going to lose.

Since we know that bad beats are going to happen, we shouldn’t be afraid of them. One of the biggest mistakes I see amateur players make is to bet their hand in such a way as to not be sucked out on. It usually happens with big pairs and ace-king, and the mistakes revolve around the hero betting so much that no worse hand can ever call them. They win the pot and feel victorious, since they skillfully played their hand in such a way that prevented them from being sucked out on. They also wasted their hand. It is impossible to make money playing poker without exposing yourself to the risk of being sucked out on. The whole point of the game is to get them to put money into the pot with the worst hand. If they are putting money into the pot, then they can win the hand too, but since your hand is better you will win the pot more often.

Some common errors I see are overbetting hands like tens or jacks before the flop to chase off ace-highs or something like that. I see players do this same thing with Q-Q, K-K, A-A, and A-K, using the rationale that they don’t want to get sucked out on. Not only is making it 8x to go preflop a good way to not make any money with queens, it is a good way to lose a lot of money with them. Similarly players will overbet on the flop with top pair and overpair type hands to prevent from being drawn out on. The problem with this logic is that the big bet puts the opponent into a place where they will play perfectly. The bet is so big that they will fold all their hands worse than queens preflop or one pair postflop, but they will not fold hands that have you beat. Then, by betting so much on their one pair initially, they get married to the hand and can’t fold for the rest of their money. They get a hundred more big blinds into the pot with a hand that’s really far behind, then blame their loss on bad luck. This is not being friends with variance.

Instead, our preflop raise should be the same size regardless of whether it is aces or 8-7 suited. This will allow opponents to put more money into the pot with the worst hand, and it prevents our opponents from getting information about our hand from a bet size. Embracing variance, we welcome opponents into the pot, because we know that this gives us a greater chance of getting them to put a lot of money into the pot with the worst hand. Granted, sometimes that worst hand will beat our best hand, but we welcome this opportunity just like Vegas welcomes anybody to gamble in their casinos. We know that aces are just a pair after the flop, and we know that it’s okay to fold a hand like aces after the flop. We should always evaluate our hand strength when the money went into the pot. If most of the money goes in when you have the best hand, then you probably played well. Likewise, if you put the money in badly, then you probably played badly. This is not always the case, but it is where our assumptions should lie when objectively analyzing decisions.

I feel like I’m just getting warmed up talking about variance, so this will be continued next issue. ♠

Bryan Devonshire has been a professional poker player for nearly a decade and has more than $2 million in tournament earnings. Follow him on Twitter @devopoker.