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Nothing is constant, be it life or poker. Variation is certain to occur.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, variation is “a change in form, position, or condition.” Better yet, variation is “divergence in qualities from those typical or usual to a group.” And variance is “the degree of variation” – the deviation from the norm.

If you happen to be skilled in math, you probably know “variance” is the mean of the squared deviations; it is the spread of a statistical distribution about its norm or mean value. That’s rather complicated for most poker players.

If poker is your game, we can simply regard variance as the ups and downs – the swings that occur during a poker session or over a period of time. The higher the variance, the larger the ups and downs in your poker bankroll. In a sense, we might relate variance to luck and skill. In the long run, you might average a win rate of X dollars per hour of play. The more the win rate deviates from that value, the greater the variance.

Then too, poker players often are regarded as “low-variance” or “high-variance” players. Tight players who avoid playing high-risk hands, are bound to exhibit less variance than loose-aggressive players. The latter players have greater potential for winning more chips during a session; but they could also lose more – depending on luck and skill.

Playing against a maniac (a very loose-aggressive player who is prone to bet/raise/re-raise with almost any hole cards) is bound to increase your variance.

Positive and negative variance: In a late position in a limit hold’em game, you caught four-to-the-nut flush on the flop. Your card odds are about 2-to-1 against connecting for the flush on the turn or the river.

 The Big Blind comes out betting; three opponents call. Now it’s your turn. You raise, knowing all four will call your raise, so you are getting 4-to-1 money odds on that raise. The turn fails to connect. Your opponents usually will check to you after your raise on the flop.

You decide to semi-bluff. If they all fold, you have succeeded in bluffing them out. If one or more call your big bet, you might still connect on the river. Aw, shucks.

The river is the wrong color. All you have is Ace-high – not even a small pair. The only way you can win this hand is by bluffing. After the two remaining opponents check, now it’s a good idea to fire a third barrel.

Using your bluffing skills, especially the Esther Bluff tactic, you win the pot when both fold their hands. That gives you a very attractive positive variance!

On the other hand, if you were not familiar with the Esther Bluff, one opponent is much more likely to call your bluff bet, and take the pot with his small pair. In that case, you have a negative variance.

“Variety’s the very spice of life that gives it all the flavour” – William Cowper (1731 – 1800).

It’s an often used phase. Trying different things, enjoying a variety of experiences keeps life interesting as well as exciting. That may, indeed, be the case, but in poker we would rather reduce the variations and seek only positive swings.

“The Engineer,” a noted author and teacher in Greater Los Angeles, is a member of the Seniors Poker Hall of Fame. Contact George at [email protected].

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About the Author

George Epstein

A retired engineer, George Epstein is the author of “The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!” and “Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision.” He teaches poker courses and conducts a unique Poker Lab at the Claude Pepper Senior Center under the auspices of the City of Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks and at West Los Angeles College.

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