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Expected Value, Part 1

by Lou Krieger

In this short, three-part series, we’ll examine expected value, or EV. It’s one of poker’s foundations, and it’s difficult to imaging winning at poker without understanding this concept. Good players take it into account whenever they’re faced with a decision at the poker table.

 What is Expected Value? Even real poker mavens do not win all the time, which means even poker’s biggest names book losing sessions, just like you and me. If that sounds counterintuitive, consider playing a game or sport for money in which you had no chance to win. If you found yourself in a boxing ring with a top-ranked heavyweight, or were confronting a grandmaster over a chess board, how long would you continue to wager on the outcome of these matches?

 If it were me, I’d sprint out of the boxing ring at light-speed, though maybe I’d get in a game of chess as long as not too much money was at risk and I could come away with a nice story to tell. But I wouldn’t make a habit of it. It’s too expensive when you can’t ever win.

 But in poker the lettuce occasionally eats the rabbits, which is just enough motivation to keep the weaker players coming back to the table, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 Expected value, or EV for short, is a way to show the long-term predicted gain or loss resulting from any action at the poker table. EV is the amount a bet should win or lose in a specific situation, based on millions of trials. It’s an average, of sorts—and a way of looking at how profitable or unprofitable a decision might be.

 EV takes the luck out of the equation because it looks at a decision’s positive or negative value over a long period of time. How long? Theoretically, it’s quite long—long enough for luck to be bled out of the equation, and a player’s results to be equal or very close to a theoretical expectation based on the laws of probability.

 An easy way to look at this is to consider positive expected value, or +EV, to be a good choice. It’s a choice that will make money for you in the long term. Negative expected value, or –EV, is a move that costs money in the long run.

 Your Goal at the Poker Table. If the notion of EV is starting to become clear, you’re on your way to a sea-change in how you view poker. Your goal at the poker table should not be about winning pots, but about making good decisions. If you make good decisions in the long run, luck will eventually even out, and the money you earn will reflect the quality of your decisions.

 When it comes right down to it, the quality of your decisions is all you can control. You can’t be sure of how your opponent will respond to you, and you have no control at all over the turn of a card. But you can make good decisions, and that’s how good players manage their game.

 Don’t be concerned about whether an opponent catches a miraculous card to win a big pot from you. In the long run, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that if you make better decisions than your opponent— if your EV is more positive than the EV associated with his decisions—you’ll win money in the end. We’ll get deeper into EV in the next installment of this series.

 Visit Lou Krieger online at, where you can read his blog, and check out all of his books. Write directly to him at

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