Poker players and fans are all too aware of bad beats and wild swings in poker. In fact, bad beats are probably the single biggest factor why the average person thinks poker is just another big game of luck. While experienced, winning players are certainly convinced that poker is a game of skill over the long run, running bad for short periods of time frustrates even top pros in this growing sport.
Poker players usually call these short-term swings “variance.” Both good luck and bad luck are kinds of variance (positive variance and negative variance). Of course, players are looking to take advantage of the positive variance, but no one can avoid the bad side for too long. The luck factor in poker is responsible for these swings, which can be highly exhilarating on the positive end and downright depressing on the other.
Students of statistics and probability would not be surprised to see these major winning and losing streaks. It is often said that, no matter how many times a coin flipped in the air comes up heads, it is still 50% likely to come up heads again on the next flip. Why is this so? Simply put, flipping a coin is a random event. The universe does not take over and control these events, and the coin does not know variance. That said, we can infer that playing poker is a combination of both good strategies and luck.
In the past, unscrupulous peddlers of gambling systems would sell a system based on doubling your bets in craps or roulette every time you lose since, theoretically, you will eventually win. Short-term variance kills this kind of system right out of the starting gate. While gamblers may last a while with this system, that one killer losing streak will eventually either bankrupt their gambling roll or reach the casino maximum bet (the latter is used because casinos are very aware of this double-up theory and cut it off at the knees).
While variance can never really be your friend in doubling-up systems, the same is not true for poker. Think what happens if you play five thousand hands of poker (a small sample but enough for this example). Inevitably, you are going to have some losing streaks during that run and winning streaks to balance out those losing streaks. Poker players hate it when they run bad (negative variance), but someone is winning. The opponent or opponents are winning when a player is on a bad streak. Especially in tournaments, a player could never win if not for these winning streaks. Someone has to get hot. It is mathematically impossible for no one to get hot and hit a run of positive variance.
Pretend that you enter twenty poker tournaments. In nineteen of these tournaments, you could easily suffer a bad beat despite playing well, particularly because you can play well for a long time but then lose one key hand and instantly get knocked out of the tournament. However, it is simply inevitable that that cold streak will get canceled out by a winning streak. If you lose the key hands nineteen times in a row, you can bet that, eventually, the tide has to turn. It is when the tide turns that you finally accumulate chips and do well in a tournament. When you win six or seven key hands in a row, that is the positive variance taking over for all those bad beats you suffered before. Although the actual streaks are random, the luck factor evens out over time. So losing several key hands in a row is actually a good sign that you will eventually win several key hands in a row and make a run for the final table.
In conclusion, the next time negative variance pops you in the head, buck up and just keep making good poker decisions. This is a sign that a winning streak is on the way to even out your variance, and that is what eventually allows you to win.