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Bryan Devonshire: It Can Always Get Worse

Devonshire Explains The Ugly Truth Of Variance

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Bryan DevonshireVariance and downswings are a natural and frightening part of poker. We have all complained about running bad, but as I’m learning with each passing day right now, it can always get worse. In this column we’ll discuss the ugly side of variance, try to understand it, and how best to cope with it.

If you’ve never played with a variance simulator online, I highly recommend doing so. The results will shock you. I’m nearly through my second straight losing year, pulling off one winning month in the past twenty, and it turns out that this isn’t that uncommon.

Running simulations for a full-time live cash-game pro with solid win rates and standard deviations reveal scary results. I ran 1,000 simulations for limit hold’em with win rates of six big blinds per 100 hands and a standard deviation of 50 big blinds (BBs) per 100 hands. All thousand players expect to win 3,000 big blinds over the course of a full time year (50,000 hands). The luckiest of the identical players wins 8,000 blinds, and the unluckiest sap loses almost 1,000 blinds that year. The largest downswing over those thousand simulations is 1,811 BBs. That’s over 900 big bets! Twenty percent of those year-long simulations experienced a downswing of 800 BBs… just that year!

No-limit hold’em generally yields less variance than limit games, due to higher win rates. Even though standard deviations are greater, since the probability of losing three stacks in an hour is much greater in no-limit than it is in limit, no-limit players consistently have higher win rates in the terms of big blinds per 100 hands. Simulating for winning live no-limit hold’em players, given win rates of 15 BBs per 100 hands and a standard deviation of 100 BBs per 100, swings are scarier, but things turn out okay after enough hands that year. The average winning player expects to earn 7,500 big blinds. One wins over 14,000 BBs, another barely turns a profit. One of them experiences a downswing of 4,010 blinds…forty buy-ins! Twenty-percent of them experience a downswing of 1,500 BBs…each year.

So how then do we best respond to a downswing?

1. Move down in stakes

The first thing that jumps out at me is that we’re all under-rolled. We take shots too much, consciously or ignorantly, but nonetheless greatly increasing our risk of ruin. These simulations just cover bread and butter, and don’t even begin to factor in things like playing bigger, where win rates decrease in BBs/100 and standard deviations increase. The lower the win rate and the higher the standard deviation, the crazier the swings are going to be. And there isn’t a darn thing we can do about it besides accept and live with it.

Moving down in stakes will likely correct the deficiency in bankroll most of us already have. If a big loss in one session hurts your bankroll, then you’re playing too big. It will increase our win rate in terms of BB/100 even though we’ll make less money per hour. A higher win rate makes winning sessions more likely, and winning sessions are essential to confidence. Moving down in stakes lets us focus more on our fundamentals, allows us to be less concerned with the money attached to losses, and eliminates worry about advanced opponents.

I’ve heard struggling players say something like, “I can’t beat small stakes, too many people chase,” many times over the years. Or, “I only like playing against decent opponents that I can put on a hand and that I can get to fold.” These thoughts are just plain wrong. Bad players lose more money, and if you’re sitting at the table then you have a chance to get it. How much money do you think you’re going to be able to squeeze out of somebody that doesn’t lose money? Stop trying to get people to fold that don’t fold and then you can beat players that don’t fold.

2. Ignore short term results

Winning heaps in a year does not a winning player make. Running simulations for 1,000 part-time losing players at minus 10BBs per 100 hands, a standard deviation of 100BB/100 hands, and 25,000 hands, we get one player that wins 3,000 big blinds that year. There are hundreds of others who make money that year too. All this means is that they made money playing poker this year, not that they are winning poker players, just like somebody who is a lifetime winner at craps is not a winning craps player.

Instead we must focus on ourselves, figuring out aspects of our games that are holding back win rates. As win rates increase, so do our winning sessions and confidence levels. When you put money into the pot, do you usually have the best hand or the worst hand? Are you getting value from your marginal hands or are you checking instead, happy to win the smaller pot? Are you folding when you should, or do you pay off and then complain about a bad beat?

3. Have something else in life

I’m neck deep in my fourth and greatest downswing of my decade-long professional career. I have won one out of the past 21 months, losing money on my 2012 tax returns, and losing every single month of 2013. By the end of 2012 it was approaching my worst downswing ever, so I moved way down in stakes, from $400-$800 to $30-$60, putting myself in the best game I knew of. In ten soul-crushing months since, I’ve had very few winning days, and have only been ahead for the month for about seven days this entire year. It has been extremely rattling both emotionally and financially, and I’m learning very clearly that things can always get worse. This weekend I moved down in stakes again and was rewarded with four straight losing days.

If I didn’t have other things going on in life, I would be on suicide watch. If poker was all I did, it would be really easy to fall into a deep, dark, depression, figuring everything to be pointless during one of these brutal downswings.

If poker’s a hobby for you, then don’t play when it isn’t fun. And if poker is your job, then treat is as such, and do something else besides work. If you’re unhappy in your job, then you’re in the wrong job. ♠

Bryan Devonshire has been a professional poker player for nearly a decade. With more than $2 million in tournament earnings, he also plays high stakes mixed games against the best players in the world. Follow him on Twitter @devopoker.

 
 
 
 

Comments

Anthony8
over 5 years ago

Does anyone else feel dropping down in stakes actually worsens the variance?

 
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swallsjr
over 5 years ago

No one ever wants to hear it but the most practical advice is to tighten up.

Sure, you are going to make fewer BB/hour but there will be less variance. Do this until you put together some wins. Once you start winning again, things will click and you can go back to a looser style of play. Tightening up limits marginal situations, that while theoretically profitable, might be -EV if you lack confidence because you are running bad.

 
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agyar
over 5 years ago

Does anyone else ever question whether the guys with 2-year downswings might in fact be playing a losing style?

 
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xIcemanxx
over 5 years ago

time to play opposite day

 
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ssherwood1
over 5 years ago

Just another pro whose game has not kept up with the changes that have occurred over the past few years. I have played a few times with him over the last 8 years, in tournaments with buy ins of $1.5k-$10k, and have never been impressed with his game. He made his name when poker was in the infancy of it's growth spurt when there were a lot of bad players (and online play was juicy and profitable) and he hasn't done a whole lot since, now that many other players have improved upon their play. Time to find another career.

 
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Venable
over 5 years ago

I have to give the guy a lot of credit, he's on a massive losing streak because of variance for the most part but yet he puts it in an article for the world to read, not many other players would have the honesty or integrity to do that, they would either lie or just go away ,,,,,,,,, i assume he has coaching video's on some of the training sites, but what would be wrong with an established player like himself watching tons of video's by other top players just in case he's gotton into some bad habits he dont realize yet? ,,,,,,,,,,,, also that 30/60 level is still high and dropping down even more could help, but i'm sure he'll figure all of that out, good luck Bryan!

 
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bparmalee
over 5 years ago

Venable I could not agree more. It's refreshing to hear a real account of what playing everyday for a living can be like. It's nerve racking and for 99% just not worth the aggravation. I like that he is real about his results and has enough conviction to put it out for public consumption. In a world where every person you meet has "25k" to "2million" allegedly trapped on Full Tilt at least one guy is putting it out there. The only thing I would have added is people should always be looking for other sources of income in case they can't fade the swing. Sometimes you have to finish that degree or get a real job before you go completely bust.

 
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quest
over 5 years ago

Enjoyed this honest and thought provoking assessment.

 
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jimmytang
over 5 years ago

The point of the article is variance exists and be prepared for it, it's quite easy to say he's a bad player - but all of us had stretches of insane +ev situations gone wrong.

If you have played poker daily or just focused on tournaments - this is a reality and you have to be able to adapt and lower stakes, evaluate your game, but to keep it real and stay focused and results are not there - it is tough if he's relying on this for sole income.

We get a poker player who admits true numbers and we dump on him (not all) but c'mon - I think this reflects the true nature and how difficult it really is to make a true living in poker - I just played in WSOP circuit and saw younger kids throw their arms in dismay when they lost a hand because they don't have a pot to piss in but they're a pro now Bryon pedigree is better than that but that's the reality out there, it's a tough business and as a player you have to be ultra smart in all areas of your game - money management, self evaluation and to maintain the drive.

You don't see honestly from too many players today. You'll turn it around ..

 
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heatrate
over 5 years ago

Looking forward to Sam Grizzel's article "Variance and the 50 year downswing."

 
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TheFly
over 5 years ago

and "How I cold-cocked Phil Hellmuth".

 
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TheFly
over 5 years ago

At what point do you analyze your actual playing ability, and not just mathematical variance while assuming you game is optimal?

 
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NoFear
over 5 years ago

Having played poker for 25 years - pro and semi-pro - mostly 40-80 limit and higher (but also 10-20 up to 50-100 NL), I can attest that variance is a difficult part of poker. Most players underestimate the proper bankroll with which to play a certain stake game day in and day out. My rule of thumb is a limit game requires a bankroll of 1,000 big bets, but my win rate is higher than Bryan uses in his numbers. It is important to carefully track your results. Hourly win rate by game type and limit, average daily win %, and daily win/loss. This allows you to run your own analysis of variance and see in what games you are making the most money. My long term win % is right at 67% - I'd be curious as to how that compares with other pros. Personally, I have run absolutely horrible for 6 months straight (defined by extremely high % of +EV hands losing; example - losing 12 times in 6 hours with KK playing 100-200 LH, flopping quads and losing to runner runner straight flush capped on every street, stuff like that), yet still had a profit for the year. I don't think a top pro should ever experience a losing year unless they are (1) playing in the wrong games, or (2) their game has deteriorated. Of course this is hard to always know and assess - nobody is ringing a bell to warn you. Part of being a pro is being able to shift and find where you have enough edge to be a winner. Many higher stake players have a hard time beating a low stakes game as they cannot use many of their skills. Also the % rake can be higher in smaller games.

Bryon has had good success in tournament play; he may want to try something I do from time to time - start at 20-40 LH or 5-10 NL with a buy in of $1,500 and play WSOP tournament style - after 2 hours move up a limit and keep doing that but stop after the fourth level and cash out (8 hours). How many times have you survived the first 4 levels? I'm guessing a lot, right? Give it a try - if you bust it is only $1,500.

 
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