Improve Your Mental Game Pt. 3 – What Is Variance In Poker?

I like to talk about mental game, because us neuroatypical players tend to often have mental game problems. One thing in poker, that often causes mental game problems, is variance. What is variance in poker? How to deal with it, and is there any way to decrease poker variance?

Today, I´m going to start by talking about what variance in poker means. Next, I will discuss how poker variance and the Dunning-Kruger effect are connected. I´m going to talk about the importance of bankroll management due to variance, and how to handle downswings mentally. Game selection tips for decreasing variance will also be given.


What Is Variance In Poker?

On Improve Your Mental Pt. 2, I talked about bad beats. Well, variance is basically why bad beats in poker happen. To put it simple, variance is the element of luck in poker. Poker is a game of skill, and skilled players can make long term profit in poker. Because of this, poker is different from gambling on slots or roulette. Slots and roulette are based on pure luck; you can not beat those games by any strategy.


Nevertheless, poker is not a game of pure skill either; there is also chance involved. This makes poker different from games of pure skill, such as chess. By the way, I´m really bad at chess, and I admire good chess players. I just never seem to be able to pay attention to everything in chess, and the opponent always gets me trapped.

Variance causes the upswings and downswings in poker. Based on how much profit you make in poker in a long run, you have an expected win rate. For losing players, this is obviously how much they lose on poker in a long run; their expected losing rate (most of them do n´t know this, though, because most losing poker players think they are winning players). Upswings and downswings cause a poker player´s short term results to differ from their long-term win rate.

Poker Variance And The Dunning-Kruger Effect

Because of variance in poker, bad players can beat good players short-term. This leads to many bad players thinking they are better poker players than they actually are. This is due to the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is a term in psychology. It means that people have a tendency to overestimate their cognitive abilities and skills in any area of life. People with a low ability tend to think they are better than they actually are.


People who are not very good at grammar, for example, overestimate their grammar skills. When someone has a low skill level at something, they also lack the ability to estimate the different abilities required for a certain skill. The Dunning-Kruger effect does not only apply to cognitive skills. Most people think they have a better sense of humor than other people, that they get along with other people better than most people, and that they have a healthier lifestyle than an average person.

Obviously, the same thing happens in poker. Poor poker players overestimate their skills. Good players understand how much there is to learn in poker, so they do n´t overestimate their skills. Typically, when bad poker players win, they think it is because of their poker skills. When they lose, they say it´s because they were unlucky. It is possible to deceive oneself for a long time like this, because of the luck factor in poker.

chess-menDunning-Kruger effect does not seem to influence on pure skill games such as above mentioned chess. In chess the best player almost always wins, so bad players have no reason to overestimate their skills. Like I said, I´m a bad chess player, and always losing at chess is enough proof of that. In poker, winning or losing in a single game is not a proof of anything. Because of variance in poker, long term results define a player´s win rate.

How To Deal With A Downswing?

Because of variance, even winning players have downswings. Winning players can have losing months. I have even heard of a winning player having a losing year, but I wonder if a losing year can be just due to a downswing. If a winning player loses for a year, chances are that a downswing is so hard for this player mentally, that he or she is tilting and starting to play poorly.

In order to survive the inevitable downswings, you need to have a large enough bankroll. For Texas Hold´Em tournaments, a bankroll of 100 buy-ins is a bare minimum. It is better to have a bankroll of 200-400 buy-ins.


Not going broke makes it at least a little easier to handle the downswings mentally, but they can still be very straining. A downswing can cause a winning player to suffer from a reverse Dunning-Kruger effect, making the player underestimate his or her poker skills. The worst possible outcome is, that a winning player actually starts playing poorly in a downswing. This causes the downswing last for longer than it normally would.

When you are experiencing a downswing, you should not start playing much more than usual, straining yourself trying to desperately win some money. You should not quit poker either, but it is better to take some time off the tables and do something else.

Study the poker strategy out of the table, focusing only on improving your poker skills. Ignoring the bad luck is not easy, but when you just focus on playing your A game, the downswing will pass inevitably. There is an upswing in the end of the tunnel!


Decrease Variance By Game Selection.

Last Sunday I had a big Sunday poker session. Big tournaments, big expectations. It was not a great session, though. My concentration was not so great, and I had too many expectations about those big Sunday tournaments.

Why are Sunday poker sessions often either big paydays or big disappointments? That´s because the big Sunday tournaments tend to have big prize pools – and big fields.

When there are thousands of players in a poker tournament, variance gets very high. Unless you want to experience huge variance, your tournament schedule should not consist of these mega field tournaments. You should only play them occasionally.


Tournaments with fewer players have smaller prize pools, but you win at them much more often, so you can get a much steadier income playing the small field tournaments. Tournaments with less than 100 players have a low variance and you can win money on them very often.

I play many online poker tournaments with less than 100 players, or at least less than 200 players, regularly. If you play mostly online poker tournaments with less than 500 players, you win money much more often than by playing the mega fields, and decrease your variance.

In a recent post about playing short stacked, I talked about short stacked tournaments such as hyper-turbos and Spin And Gos. You should keep in mind, that these short stacked tournaments have a higher variance than deep stacked tournaments. That is because you need to go all-in a lot more in short stacked tournaments. Because of this, you need a bigger bankroll for short stacked tournaments.

Variance In Poker – Endure It And Play Well.

Variance in poker causes weird things. Bad players think they are good and vice versa. A fish can win a big poker tournament and bust out a world-class player. You just have to endure the ups and downs in poker. The bad players keep playing because they also get the upswings, but the good players also have to deal with the downswings.

You need to have a bankroll that lasts through downswings. Keep your thoughts on your long term results and evaluate your game based on how well you play each hand, not the outcome. You can also choose tournaments with smaller fields to decrease variance.


Have you experienced any big downswings and how did you survive those? Feel free to share happy upswing stories as well. 🙂 It would also be interesting to know what you guys think about the Dunning-Kruger effect. Do you recognize it in your own life?

Comments 10

  • This is some very interesting information. I like the way you have it laid out. As a rookie poker player I can definately use some of the tips and strategies on your site. Keep up the good work..

  • This was an amazing post as it is the first I have read on WA that is not really about online business.It was refreshing and enlightening .Since I have been interested in learning how to play poker .I wanted to start online initially and get into a few tourneys once enough knowledge was absorbed to play against a real opponent without using much buy in coin.Thanks for the share Kirsti .

    • Thanks, Nigel! Yeah, you can make a niche and a website about almost anything. Poker is a sort of online business too (making money playing online poker), but obviously different from the “make money online” niche.

      Yes, it is a good idea to learn some basic strategy before starting online poker. Of course there are some freerolls too, so you can start playing even without risking any money.

  • I like your post Kirsti. I have always wanted to get into poker, but didn’t know how to start. You really have opened my eyes to some terms I knew nothing about.

  • What a nice post you wrote! I really enjoyed reading it and I could not be silent about your post so I decided to leave my comment here and say Thank You! For sharing this quality post with others.
    Actually this is exactly the information that I was looking for about improve mental game and when I landed to your website and read this post, it answered all my questions in details.
    So I’m happy that you decided to write about this topic and share it with people. It’s very useful and can definitely be used as a great source for improving mental game.
    I will come back to your website again for sure and I’m looking forward to read your new posts.)


  • It is an important topic you address here. Enlightenment about this can help poker players keep their motivation up, even if they experience bad luck a few days. There is always an element of luck in poker (you never know when the worst player crushes you!) Over time you will win if you know what you are doing. Unfortunately, coincidences do not always follow a particular line.
     Often it comes in bumps here and there.

    That said, there is something else I have experienced closely related to this with downswings. Not downswings because of bad luck, but self-inflicted downswings because you play when you really shouldn’t (you are tired, tired or unmotivated – and your poker game gets really bad). My experience is that such days one should stay far, far away from poker. Personally, such days have ruined more for me than those days I have had good energy and just had “bad luck”.

    But, as you mention in the article, if you have real bad luck and get a reverse Dunning-Kruger effect, then many people are likely to experience this condition and gain self-reinforcing downward spirals. They become unmotivated. They wonder if they are doing anything wrong. They are starting to change their game in the strangest ways, and everything goes wrong. They become irrational.

    There may be something that has happened if a player has had bad luck for a whole year in a row. lol

    • Yes, because of variance it is hard to tell if you played poorly or if you just had bad luck. You just need to analyze your hands and try to figure out.

      Oh yes, I know too well what you mean, that you should n´t play poker when you´re tired and unmotivated! I have made that mistake many times, and I hope I have finally learnt my lesson. On days like that you can use your time much better than playing poker. Poker is a challenging game, and if you are not fit to play because you are tired, have a really bad day, a headache… you name it. If you are not feeling so great for any reason, you are not able to play well.

      That´s tilt for sure, if a player starts playing poorly because of a downswing. They may not necessarily notice that they are actually on a prolonged tilt. Taking a little break from poker would be the best option in that situation.

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