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Fading Variance

by Ed Miller |  Published: Dec 07, 2016


I’m doing a series of companion articles to my most recent book, The Course: Serious Hold ’Em Strategy For Smart Players. It’s a step-by-step guide to mastering the live no-limit hold’em games that you will find in most cardrooms around the world.

The corresponding chapter in The Course for this article is called Emotional Numbing. In that chapter I wrote about how one of the keys for long-term success is to learn to tamp down as much of the emotional highs and lows of winning and losing as possible. If you are either euphoric or despondent, it’s very hard to play at the highest level you can. And if you consistently don’t play at your highest level, you will get left behind by those who do.

In this article I wanted to talk a bit about a few general concepts surrounding variance.

Your Bankroll Isn’t Big Enough

A lot of relatively new-to-the-game players ask me about their bankrolls. “I’m planning to play $1-$2 and $1-$3 and I have X thousand dollars, is that enough?”

No, it’s not enough.

I know you ran the bankroll calculator app on your phone and it said that if you win A dollars per hour at B variance, that you only need X thousand dollars. But there are a few things wrong with that analysis.

First, you are the one who came up with A and B. And your estimate for A is almost certainly wrong—probably too high. No one puts in $2 per hour into the calculator for their winrate. It’s always $15 or $20 or $25 per hour. Yes, if you win at $50 per hour in your $1-$2 game then your $3,000 bankroll is enough.

But, you don’t win at $50 per hour.

If you plug a $2 or $5 winrate into your bankroll calculator instead of $50, you’ll get a much bigger bankroll number.

The thing is, when you’re playing $1-$2 or $1-$3, I think, “Is my bankroll big enough?” is almost never the right question to ask. These stakes are for recreation and learning. I know people who play at these levels for income, but they almost always have another source of income as well or a partner who can help pay the bills.

And even if your goal is to make income at these levels—and therefore you are thinking about bankroll—almost all of your mental energy should be spent trying to get better. In other words, either you will quickly get significantly better (which is very possible at this level). If you do get significantly better, then your bankroll will probably be plenty.

Or you won’t get significantly better, and your bankroll won’t be enough and you should probably treat poker more like a hobby. Which is how the majority of players treat the game, and treating it that way certainly makes the game more enjoyable for most people.


So I just told you that your bankroll isn’t big enough which means that if you keep playing and playing eventually you are fairly likely to lose all your money.

Well, not exactly.

Bankroll in the way gambling authors use the term is a very specific concept. Your “bankroll” in these terms is all the money you have now to gamble with—plus all the money you will ever have going forward.

This is not the way most people think about money or bankroll. If someone says to me, “I’ve got a $5,000 bankroll,” they don’t usually mean, “I have $5,000 to play poker with and if I lose it I will never for the rest of my life play another hand of poker.”

They usually mean, “I’ve got $5,000 in cash right now that I can play poker with. If I lose it, I will have to wait some time, work a bit extra, reapportion my personal budget, sell some illiquid assets, etc., to get back in action.”

So in many ways, the numbers the bankroll calculators spit out don’t really apply to how most people think about bankroll. Most people who get into gambling have money they’re willing to lose. They know there’s a very real chance that if things don’t go according to plan, they will lose the money.

And they know that if they do lose the money, eventually they will scrounge up another stake to give it another go. Or maybe they’ll scrounge up the money but decide they don’t want to give it another go. But either way it will be a choice, and not because they are “ruined” (a bankroll math term).

So given all this, I think the most important thing to do is to relax. Relax about your results. Winning and losing over the short- and medium-term doesn’t mean a whole lot. Improving at poker is a marathon, and it’s one that inevitably comes with serious setbacks.

Did you just lose 10 buy-ins because you played great and ran terrible? Or did you run bad and maybe play a little bad too? The best answer to that question is almost always the second one, but really even if it happens to be the first, so what? So what if you are on the unluckiest streak any person has seen since the dawn of man?

Your job as a poker player never changes. You want to improve. You want to play better tomorrow than you did yesterday. That’s true whether you’re on a massive heater or the most frustrating downswing of your career.

So it really doesn’t matter why you lost 10 buy-ins. You can’t go back in time and change it. You may have played some hands well and gotten really unlucky. You may have played some hands not so well. Either way, your job is to try to find the things you don’t do so well and do them better next time.

I know this is easier said than done, but most poker players are way too focused on the short term. No matter whether you are winning or losing now, eventually poker will put a massive obstacle in your way. When it comes, the only thing there is to do about it is relax and keep working on your game. You can take a break and move down in stakes, but all the “I must be the unluckiest person in the world. Why is this happening to me?” is misplaced and unconstructive. It happens to everyone who plays poker long enough. Hunker down, ride it out, and don’t let it drive you crazy. ♠

Ed MillerEd’s newest book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy For Smart Players is available now at his website You can also find original articles and instructional videos by Ed at the training site