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Winning And Losing

by Ed Miller |  Published: Mar 01, 2017


For this article I have two loosely related ideas about how to interpret results and how to manage a bankroll.

It Don’t Mean Nothing Yet

I get a lot of feedback from readers, most of it very positive. By far the most common feedback I get is that someone will tell me that they’ve just finished reading one of my books (or more commonly, the first few chapters of a book) and then they went to play poker for a day or a weekend and won a lot.

They’ll then usually go on to say that something in my book lit a bulb in their brains and now they’re much better at poker.

I appreciate very much that I have so many readers who feel like they learn from my books. But I am always very cautious with the replies to these letters. Because, unfortunately, most of the positive impressions they have are illusory.

One day or one weekend or one week or even one month’s worth of positive results are nearly meaningless. There’s way, way too much variance (i.e., short-term luck) in no-limit hold’em results to really discern any meaningful information from just a few positive sessions worth of play. Hitting one or two more flush draws than expected could easily explain nearly the entire win.


Not only is it incorrect to link reading an admittedly-excellent book about poker strategy to a winning streak, I think it could be damaging in three ways. First, if you happen to read a bad book and win, you’re likely to draw the same inference and take the book far more seriously than you should. Second, when the inevitable losing streak hits, you’ll similarly interpret that streak incorrectly and perhaps go searching for an answer that doesn’t exist. Third, it trivializes the work necessary to truly improve at the game.

This last point deserves some elaboration. In poker (or any gambling game) there are two main metrics that determine what long-term results are likely to look like. The first is expectation or expected win or loss. The second is variance. If you look at a graph of results, most of what you see in it represents variance. The line will gesticulate wildly up and down over time.

While quantifying (and properly valuing) variance is an important factor in many gambling and trading pursuits, for the average poker player trying to figure out how good they are, the variance represents noise. The more variance, the more noise.

The expectation, however, represents the overall trend-line of results, especially if you zoom out over a very long period. Does the graph tilt upwards or downwards over time? For most graphs, this tilt will be subtle, and yet the degree of this tilt is what makes a player good or not.

When you misunderstand this, and you have good results after reading a book, you may think that only a quick read-through will get you where you want to be. But I guarantee you that essentially no one can just spend a few hours reading a chapter or three of a book and automatically be substantially better at poker. That’s not how it works. Getting good at the game takes effort, just like learning any serious skill takes effort.

You can’t read the first few chapters of a book about rocketry and successfully build your own ballistic missile. Similarly, you can’t read the first few chapters of a poker book and really expect to be improved. You have to read more, re-read, practice, do exercises, try out the math, and so forth. Through that process you get real improvement.

Considering this, one thing has always struck me odd. I rarely get negative feedback about my books. Few people write me to say, “Hey Ed, I read a few chapters of your book and lost three days in a row. It’s all garbage!”

Though I know that essentially just as many of my readers will have this negative experience as those who have the positive one. I think when players lose after reading my book, they are quick to attribute it to their own failings as a player and as a student. “I must have misunderstood something in the book to have lost like this.”

The reality is that these short-term losses are just like the wins—meaningless. But when people win, some seem eager to give me credit, whereas when they lose, they seem to blame themselves. All I can say is that you should try to avoid either of these traps. My books can get you started, but what will eventually determine the bend of your long-term results is the thoughtfulness and effort that you put into your own game. And if you have success doing that, you don’t have to share the credit with me. You will deserve all of it.

On Bankroll

Another very common question I receive by email is this one. “Is $X enough bankroll to play $1-$2?”

I don’t really recommend even beginning to think in terms of bankroll until you are playing $2-$5 or $5-$10 on a regular basis. Here’s why.

If you are a losing player, there is no such thing as enough bankroll. Losing players have graphs that tilt downward, and if your graph tilts downward, you will eventually lose the money you have set aside to play poker.

The idea of a certain amount of money being “enough” for $1-$2 is a fallacious one. There is no such amount.

There is such an amount if you have an established winrate. But that gets to the next point. If your winrate is relatively small, the amount of money that is mathematically “enough” is almost certainly much, much higher than whatever number you asked me about. Because no one asks me if $50,000 is enough to play $1-$2. It’s always $2,000 or $4,000 or something like that.

The only way whatever amount you are asking about is mathematically “enough” for a $1-$2 bankroll is if your winrate is amazing for the level. And the thing is, if your winrate is legitimately amazing, you will know. There won’t be lingering questions in your mind—at least not most of the time. You will know.

You will know that you are great at the game. You will know you are much better than everyone you play with. And you will win. No, not every time, not every week. But amazing players win at live poker. (Online is a different story.) So yes, in that case $4,000 is more than enough—but it wouldn’t occur to such a player to ask me about it because they’ll be up to $8,000 in no time.

So my answer is no. You don’t have “enough” to play $1-$2. That is, you probably shouldn’t quit your job, move to Las Vegas, and grind with the retirees all day. But in this case, having “enough” is completely irrelevant. Play with what you have, replenish from your other income as needed, and work on becoming the best player you possibly can. Eventually you will be at the stage where worrying about bankroll makes sense. ♠

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