How to Deal With Poker Variance (Pro's Guide 2024)

How to Deal With Poker Variance

This article was written by contributor Fran Ferlan.

Handling the inevitable swings in poker is one of the biggest obstacles to success for any aspiring poker player. 

Doing everything right and seemingly getting punished for it over and over again is so incongruent to the human experience and preconceived notions of justice and fairness that most people will eventually just throw their hands up in desperation and find a less stressful endeavour or play a couple of hours on weekends to unwind after a long week. 

And there is nothing wrong with that. 

However, for others who are more serious about the game and put in bigger volume, lengthy downswings are basically inevitable, so approaching them with a right mindset is one of the most important skills to master on your way to poker greatness. 

Like any skill, you get better at it with practice. It is a long and arduous process though, but so is everything else that is actually worth doing.

This article will hopefully provide some insights into a phenomenon that presents a big problem for many players. 

By understanding variance better, you’ll be better equipped to deal with it better, and by doing that you get a huge leg up on the competition.

What is Variance in Poker?

Before we get into the details, let’s define what we actually mean by variance in poker terms. 

Without getting too sciency, we can say that variance measures how much data points are spread from the average. In plain English, it means that how much you expect to earn and how much you actually earn will differ over a small sample. 

The bigger the variance, the bigger the difference between the two, and conversely, the smaller the variance, the closer your expected results and your actual results. This means that in poker, your short term results will always be all over the place. 

Some game formats inherently have more variance built into it than others, for example, there is more variance in tournaments than in cash games, and more variance in a 6-max game than full-ring game. 

This article is written with cash games in mind, but most of the concepts apply to other formats (such as tournaments and sit-and-gos) to a certain extent as well. 

With all that in mind, let’s get into the actual tips...

1. Accept It and Expect It

The first step to deal with variance better is to internally accept that it is an integral part of the game. Without it, poker wouldn’t be poker. Variance is what actually makes the game profitable in the first place, so you have to learn to take the bad with the good. 

Without it, bad players would quickly get overwhelmed by superior competition and eventually stop playing altogether, leaving just a bunch of sharks cannibalizing each other and shuffling money around, while the house takes their cut.

If you can’t accept variance for what it is, you can try a zero variance game, like chess. In chess a superior player will win close to a 100% of the time, and that’s why there’s really no money wagered that way. Think of it this way: would you bet a 100 bucks that you could beat a chess grandmaster? 

If you weren’t a world class expert yourself, you wouldn’t. But would you bet a 100 bucks to play a heads-up session with Phil Ivey? You just might. You can get lucky and beat the best in the world (and get bragging rights for life).

That is why Phil Ivey is able to make bank. He knows his superior skills will prevail, no matter how many times someone “gets lucky” against him. That is why poker is so profitable. 

Everyone can play, and everyone can win, but over the long run, skill prevails. Over the short run, luck prevails. So accept a few bumps in the road, embrace them and prepare for them. 

So how can you actually prepare for it better and diminish the negative effects of it? This brings us to number two on the list…

2. Have a Big Bankroll

In order to succeed in poker it is necessary to allow and endure all the never-ending swings of fortune, and the only way to do so successfully without going broke in the process is to have a sufficient bankroll. 

However, in order to not only survive the inevitable swings, but also not be negatively affected by them it might be prudent to have more money than would be considered the norm for the limits you’re playing. 

I’m not going to go in full details about bankroll management here, as it is a topic deserving of its own article, but suffice it to say that it is better to be over-rolled than under-rolled, for obvious reasons.

For example, let’s say that you are playing 10NL and have a $300 bankroll. If you are a winning player at your limit, 30 buyins is certainly enough to handle basic variance. 

However, if you play long enough, there is certainly a chance that you could encounter a 10 buyin downswing, even through no particular fault of your own. 

Now your bankroll is 33% smaller, and every other session puts an additional pressure to cut your bankroll in half. Then you’d have to grind the lower stakes again to get it back, or even reload to feel comfortable playing your current limit again.

Winning players should never need to reload. They should be taking money out of the site, not the other way around. 

Now let’s compare it to say, a $500 bankroll for the same limit. A totally standard downswing of 10 buyins is only 20% of your total bankroll and won’t hurt as much. 

If you keep playing well, you might as well not even notice that you were down 10 buyins at some point. Peace of mind is not to be underestimated, especially in today’s competitive environment. 

Get a fat bankroll and save yourself the trouble of fretting about variance in the first place, and focus on playing to the best of your abilities.

Make sure you check out the BlackRain79 complete guide to poker bankroll management for today's small stakes games.

3. Don’t Look at the Cashier

One of the advantages of having a big bankroll is not having to focus on short-term results at all. If you know you are beating your current limit, there is absolutely no reason to fret about how you are running session to session. 

Sometimes you get on an insane heater and seem to hit every draw in the best possible time, sometimes you get dealt garbage hands for hours on end, and when you finally do get a decent hand, some idiot donkey catches a backdoor flush draw with 92s, or you get set over set, or any other horrible string of never-ending disasters that keep coming your way. 

That’s poker. 

But focusing on how you are running instead of focusing on making the most +EV decisions is only going to exacerbate the problem either way. 

If you check the cashier to see that you are behind, you might start to get the feeling that you need to “win it back”, start chasing, forcing the action, pile up even more losses, get more frustrated, until you inevitably rage-quit and break your mouse. Hopefully it doesn’t get that bad, but you get the picture.

On the other hand, if you see that you are ahead a couple of buyins, you might want to “protect your winnings'', tighten up too much, not pulling the trigger on a big bluff you think might be profitable, and overall stop playing great poker that made you money in the first place.

Don’t look at the cashier. Hide it, or better yet, put a post-it over it on your monitor with some kind of inspirational message or a smiley face. 

You won’t feel the compulsion to check your results, which will make you focus more on making better decisions, which will improve your results, which will make you less likely to feel the need to check your results. 

Break the negative feedback loops, and your bankroll will be better off for it.

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4. Take a Break

Just because variance is unavoidable and an integral part of the game, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should play through it no matter what and wait for your “luck to turn around”. 

Sure, it’s important to put in volume, but that volume should be filled with your A game or a solid B game at least. 

Players who run bad tend to play worse, and conversely, they play their best when cards are falling their way. This is no big surprise by any means. 

A professional poker player will play his best, or close to it, no matter how he’s running, but for us mere mortals, short term results do tend to affect our performance to some extent. If during a session you feel that’s the case, ask yourself: can I still play to the best of my abilities? 

If the answer is a resounding no, quit. There’s no shame in it. It takes some honest self-reflection to realize your limitations. That’s the only way to overcome them. If it goes from bad to worse, live to fight another day. 

5. Study More

When cards don’t fall your way for an extended period of time, use it as an opportunity to study and improve your game. It might be that your “bad luck” is actually just bad play. 

Everybody has leaks in their game, and taking some time to reflect on ways you may be bleeding money is going to pay dividends. Improving your technical knowledge of the game will undoubtedly improve your results over time. Bigger win-rate means less variance.

Reviewing your hands is one of the most effective ways to study. If you conclude that you played perfectly, great, but more often than not, you will realize that you made a mistake and should have taken a different line in a certain spot. 

For example, you get set over set and lose the whole stack. Definitely unlucky, but you review your hand and realize that you were set mining with incorrect implied odds. 

Or you flop a straight in a multiway pot, get all the money in, and some whale catches a backdoor flush draw with 84s. 

You could have squeezed preflop and he might have folded. Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn.

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6. Flip the Script

There’s three ways to go about this. First, recognize there is also positive variance. Sometimes you actually win more than you normally would. 

Humans are naturally prone to focusing on the negative outcomes and conveniently forgetting all the times we got lucky, or our hand actually held up. It’s easy to attribute negative variance to bad luck, and positive variance to our great play, but that kind of thinking is detrimental to our improvement as players.

Secondly, recognize that a player sucking out on you is actually a good thing. You put your money in with a mathematical edge. Just because that edge didn’t manifest in that particular hand, or two hands, or ten, means nothing. Over a large enough sample, you win more than you lose. 

Third common situation that tilts a lot of people are coolers and setups. While not as clear-cut as a suckout example above, it might help to think what would happen if the roles were reversed. 

For example, if you put all your money in preflop with pocket kings, and you run into pocket aces, think what would happen if the cards were reversed. 

The money would go in either way, except this time you’d be the 81% favorite. Sometimes you’re lucky, sometimes you’re not. 

7. Think in Sklansky Dollars

Having your aces cracked 3 times in a row is a frustrating experience. However, from a mathematical standpoint, it’s hardly an anomaly. It can and it will happen. 

Human brain is not equipped to deal with math, odds and outs, percentages and equity and what have you. Its primary language is emotion. So when you get the best possible starting hand and lose with it over and over, it doesn’t seem fair.

You feel slighted and cheated, and start to create narratives like “This ALWAYS happens to me”, or “I NEVER get my fair share of luck” etc. 

By the way, check out this recent BlackRain79 YouTube video for a deeper discussion of how to react better when you receive a bad beat:

This kind of thinking isn’t helpful (or true), but it’s completely understandable in the heat of the moment. But if we take a step back, we’ll see that there is nothing particularly unfair about it. If it can happen, it will happen sometimes.

Our opponents almost always have some portion of equity in hand, and that equity will manifest against us sometimes. To accept it, it might be helpful to think in Sklansky bucks, a term coined by legendary David Sklansky. 

To put it simply, Sklansky bucks tell us not how much money we actually won or lost in one particular hand, but how much money we earn on average in that situation when considering our equity.

For example, we go all-in with Aces versus Kings and we lose $10. We know our equity in this spot is 81%, which means that on average we will lose every fifth time. 

So on average, we made 8.1 Sklansky bucks, even though in reality we lost $10. In the long run, Sklansky dollars earned and real dollars earned will be about the same. 

Even though Sklansky bucks are imaginary, thinking in these terms helps us to focus on the long run and making the best decisions, no matter the current bad outcome.

8. Think in Business Terms

If you are serious about playing poker and want to make it a lucrative and sustainable endeavour, you need to approach it differently than the vast majority of people. 

Most people treat it as a hobby, they play here and there, and if they lose, they can always reload. All hobbies cost money, so why should poker be any different? 

But if you want to make money consistently, you should look at it more like a business.

You are the CEO, you decide when you play, how long you play, what stakes you play, and ultimately, you decide how profitable you want your business to be. 

Every business has income and expenses, and the difference between the two is profit. If you look at poker this way, you see that the pots you won can be considered income, and the pots you lose are the expenses. 

The problem is you don’t know how much you will earn or spend in any given time, so you have to look at your skills as an investment that will earn you money over time. 

When you look at it this way, you don’t have to worry about the constant ups and downs that come with it. There is always risk when doing business, and poker is no exception. 

What’s important is that your business is profitable over the long run. 

As long as you’re making good decisions and work to improve your game, your business will thrive. It might take a while, but it’s important that you get there eventually.

9. Play Tighter

While most of these tips are about handling variance better, this one can actually reduce variance altogether, albeit at the cost of also reducing your potential earnings. 

If you are more risk-averse and don’t mind slightly worse, but less volatile results, you might benefit from being more selective with hands you play and avoid marginal spots that you’re not quite comfortable playing. 

Poker is a game of incomplete information, and a lot of variables determine if a play is +EV or not. 

Since we don’t have all the information, a lot of times we are forced to go with our gut and often find ourselves in those “either way ahead or way behind” situations when we have to make a decision for our whole stack. 

But you can choose not to get into those situations in the first place by folding marginal holdings preflop, and save yourself the mental strain of having to make big decisions too often.

 While highly skilled players will opt to play in marginal spots and look for small edges, they do so in accordance with their skill edge. 

If you are struggling in certain situations, make a note of it, study off the felt and try to improve, but do so at your own pace. You don’t HAVE TO do anything. Play tight, pick your spots, and the results will follow.

If you are in doubt about what hands to actually play, just pick up a copy of the free BlackRain79 poker guide, which includes charts telling you exactly what hands to play in Zoom, 6max etc.

10. Take Responsibility

Finally, something that was touched upon briefly in previous points, but so important that it deserves to be emphasized again, take responsibility. 

You cannot control the cards and you cannot control variance, but what you can and definitely should control is how you react to it. 

Bad things happen, in poker and in life in general. How we deal with it is what matters. 

If you play perfectly, there is only so much you can win, but if you play badly, there is no limit to how much you can lose. It takes a thousand steps to success, but only one step to ruin. 

Be mindful of that, and remember that no matter how bad things are going, we can always make it a hundred times worse. 

Everybody loses sometimes, but in the end the big winners are the ones that make sure they lose no more than is necessary.


Dealing with variance is hard, and being negatively affected by the never-ending swings is normal. You can study all the advanced poker theory in the world and this will still not change.

However, in order to have long-term success in this game you need to be prepared for variance and be willing to tackle it head on. 

To do so, make sure you are sufficiently bankrolled for the stakes you play. Expect obstacles along the way and make peace with them. Learn to take bad with the good. 

Sometimes you’re lucky, sometimes you’re not. Don’t focus on the short-term results and focus on playing to the best of your abilities. If it gets too bad, take a break and use it as an opportunity to study and improve your game. 

And most importantly, take responsibility not for the cards you are dealt, but for the way you react to them. Do all these, and poker greatness will come. In due time.

Lastly, if you want to learn the complete strategy to crush the micros online for $500+ per month, make sure you grab a copy of the free BlackRain79 poker cheat sheet.

How to Deal With Poker Variance