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Another Point of View: Tournament Variance

by David “The Maven” Chicotsky

In tournaments, unless you are one of the chip-leaders throughout, you’re sure to run into a situation where you’ll be forced to get your chips all-in, or call another player all-in. Instead of taking a fatalistic or negative view of the variance associated with these all-in plays, put your mind at ease by simply accepting that it is going to happen.

 Knowing when to get your chips all-in on your own, alongside calling off or re-raising your opponents all-in will lead to increased profits. Aside from helping you profit, being mentally prepared for the variance you will encounter helps alleviate some of the mental burden associated with tournament poker.

 If you get knocked out of a tournament where the average chip-stack is twenty blinds, for example, you’ll know that you were in a very high variance part of the tournament. Recognizing the level of variance you’re encountering will allow you to adjust your game accordingly, focusing solely on making the correct decisions - instead of focusing on obstacles and constraints outside of your control.

 It’s important (in tournaments) to look a blind-level or two ahead, anticipating the changes that you’ll more than likely encounter from a chip-stack position. If you’re at 40 big blinds now, barring a large increase or decrease in chips, the blind levels themselves will erode your stack to let’s say 25 blinds within a couple of levels. The point here is to recognize that given general playing conditions, we’ll be encountering shallower and more volatile stacks as we proceed deeper into the tournament.

 Don’t become overly focused solely on your own stack, don’t play with blinders on; as the other stacks at the table will also be getting naturally shallowed-out as the tournament progresses. A loose opener with 25 big blinds might not be the ideal target to re-steal by re-raising the player all-in for their chips, but in a blind level or two the player’s stack will be. As the old saying goes, let the game come to you. Especially in tournaments, anticipating the blind level changes and their effects on our stack and our opponents stack will give us an edge against less thinking players. As more of a mid to long-term tip for keeping tabs on yourself, takes notes on yourself after you get done playing in all of your tournaments. One important rating that you can give yourself is a measure of how well you monitored and kept track of the chip-stacks at your table. Keep it easy by making zero the least and one-hundred the greatest. Having a finger on the pulse of your own actions will help put you in a better position each and every time you sit down to play poker.

 Don’t forget that we can very easily come up with an estimated amount of variance we can expect to encounter before the tournament begins. We can use the same zero to one-hundred ranking of the expected level of variance, which we can jot down before the tournament begins. Say 90 for a high-variance tournament, maybe because it’s a live 30 minute level, fast-structured tournament. You’ll be able to come into the tournament with a certain level of risk and variance tolerance that appropriately matches the tournament structure, buy-in level, and other factors.

 As humans, we share a very common tendency, and that’s a general fear or uneasiness relating to the unknown. Don’t let the variance you encounter in a tournament be an unknown factor; anticipate and keep track of tournament variance. If looked upon using the right lens, tournament variance can be thought of as something to embrace rather than reject.

 David “The Maven” Chicotsky is the 2008 Online Player of the Year and a former No. 1 ranked online tournament poker player. He is also an experienced poker coach and can be reached at

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