Luck or Variance?


We had a post in the forum recently asking how often should you cash playing sit and go tournaments. The optimists out there would probably say either every time or maybe nine out of ten times you should be cashing. But is this a question that you can answer? Of course not! In reality, there are many deciding factors to whether you win (or cash) at a game of poker. Some of these being, quality of the cards dealt (and I don’t mean are they plastic cards or paper etc.. 🙂 ) the quality of player you are up against; how good a player you are and so on.

One major factor that everyone will go on about though is how LUCKY they are at the table, or UNLUCKY as the case may be. But is luck a major factor in poker?

It is a well known and well written fact that the better poker players will win more than they will lose. They have an edge over most of the people they play. They have honed their skills at the table and are focused in what they do. They can pick up the slightest of tells; they can sense danger and can fold what we mere mortals would probably consider ‘all-in’ hands; they know how to get information and how to use it. But at the end of the day, they can still lose to a complete novice, even when playing their usual game. Is this just that luck was not on their side, or was it a factor of variance? Pretty much both to be honest!


Here are the dictionary meanings of the two words (in the context we are looking at).

lucknoun – the force that seems to operate for good or ill in a person’s life, as in shaping circumstances, events, or opportunities; A combination of circumstances, events, etc., operating by chance to bring good or ill to a person

variance – noun – the state, quality, or fact of being variable, divergent, different, or anomalous; An instance of varying; difference; discrepancy.

Luck in poker basically means that you have a force with you that will decide whether you win or not. You take your chances and see how it goes!

Variance in poker is different concept. It does not mean the same as luck. People like to get lucky, we all know that. But poker players know that the laws of probability dictate that you cannot be ‘lucky’ all the time. You have to get ‘unlucky’ at some point. But to the seasoned poker player, they know that they will win more than they will lose. Why? Because they have an advantage! They have the Skill factor.  They know that in any given (short) period of time they can go on a losing streak. They know they can’t win every game, or cash in every game they play. But in the long term, of say over a year, their skill factor will dictate that on average (for the year) they will win (or cash) more than bust out.

The players who think themselves as ‘lucky’ at the table will normally be quite loose players who catch flops or make rediculous calls and suckout a lot of the time. They like to gamble without weighing up the information in front of them. Playing like this will virtually guarentee a loss by the years’ end. The better players will play more solid poker, take the beats and suckouts and just get on with it in the knowledge that they will be in overall profit by the years’ end.

I’ll take an example that was featured in the April edition of the UK Pokerplayer Magazine to explain variance, and how solid players know they will be profitable.

luckySay you have a standard 6 faced die. Instead of the numbers (dots) 1 thru 6, three of the sides are blue and the other three are red. Over the course of 10 spins how many times will red come up, considering you have a 50-50 chance of hitting? You would think it should maybe be 5 times it would hit but that would be a very rare occourance. Normally, over 10 spins one colour would win more often than the other.

However, if you asked the same question but over one million spins, then you would see practically a 50-50 split between colours. No colour has an edge or advantage over the other.

diceNow if we had another die, but this time FOUR sides are red and TWO are blue. You bet $1 per spin. how many times would you expect red come up over the course of 10 spins? Again, you cannot tell! It could easily be blue every time!

But the difference here is that over the course of one milliion spins, red will dominate blue by around 2-1. Red has the advantage – or edge – over blue as obviously there are twice as many red sides than blue!

Transfer this to the poker table. The skillful player is the die with 4 red sides – they have an edge (skill). The poorer player is the 2 blue sides (relies more on luck). Over the course of ten games, the poor player could win more than expected. He could get ‘lucky’ and win every game. But over the course of a year and many hundreds of games, the skillful players’ “edge” comes into play. He will win more often than he will lose over the long term.

Variance dictates that you cannot win every time you play. There are so many factors at work – luck being one of them! But in the long term you will win more than you lose.

So back to the original question. Is luck a major factor when trying to work out how many sit and gos you should be winning or cashing? NO, it isn’t a factor over the course of say, a year’s worth of games. If you are a good player, you will have an edge over your opponents and will beat them more than lose to them – but only over the long term. Variance dictates that you have to lose at some point, but that edge you have will prove to be profitable in the long term.


6 Responses to Luck or Variance?

  1. gangbusters says:

    Very insightful and a good eye opener for anyone asking that question.
    I would like to add a little to this if I may.
    “Notes on Players” is a feature on almost every poker site. Use it. However: Most players don’t date their notes. Big booboo.
    The player you put a note on a year ago may say they are a “fish” or similiar novice type comment. What if their game has improved 10 fold?
    You now are playing them like they are a novice and they turn that against you and take your chips by “slow playing” or another “advanced” player technique”. So you get sucked in before you realize none of your notes show a date stamp. This would be comparable to playing a live game where you cant see your opponents.
    So…Now your playing people you either can’t remember their faces, or you have no idea how they play, or the info you have on them is outdated.
    Would’nt it be nice if before we entered into a game we could see who is in it and the notes we have on them before we bought into the table?
    Hmmmmm?…now there’s a software idea someone should jump on.
    As it stands we are able to see who is already in it, but no corresponding notes until we sit down.

  2. Blagger says:

    Wow.. I wrote a long reply to someones blog of post in the forum only a couple of days ago.. and..

    It was practically the same as that article you just quoted! I didn’t post my words in the end simply because I thought I was going over the top and getting too wordy.. but honestly mate it is uncannily similar.. about rolling a die and then rolling it 100,000 time etc.. shoot I am gonna go look see if I got it in a text file somewhere..

    And of course luck plays a part, if it didn’t then the best player in the world would win everygame or near as dammit.. 🙂 And the best player/s dont win everygame they win a majority percentage only..

  3. netsson says:

    OK Gofer this is absolutely one of the best i’ve read, well put there!

    It’s a real sound idea to take the bad luck in consideration and count it in short termed and know that on the yearly basis you do a profit by playing your own game and disciplined. Not letting the bad streak get to you!

    That you’re a living proof of and i’m real proud of ya for it!

  4. Blagger says:

    Well looks like Gophers bad luck has at last turned the corner, he now seems to be striding down Lucky Variance Street.. 🙂

    Nice win again mate..

  5. dagopher says:

    LOL, yes mate it seems so. The corner has been turned! Watch out…. the Gophers gonna sink his teeth into ya!

    Thanks Netty, I think I am living proof that sticking to your game (if you know you are doing the correct things) will pay dividends eventually. Even after the dismal last 3 months I’m still in profit for the year.

  6. netsson says:

    WTG Gopher both about turning the table around and to the profit!

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