Nick Wealthall explains why you should never let variance turn to tilt: “If you’re having a bad run and it’s happening on all the tables simultaneously it can feel like you’re a boxer on the ropes”

Struggling against the slings and arrows of outrageous variance, Nick Wealthall turns to an esteemed military veteran for advice…

Do you remember Dad’s Army, the show about the old people pretending to be soldiers? And by ‘do you remember’ I mean can you think back about three weeks to the last time it was repeated on primetime TV? There was an hilarious character whose only line, presumably because that’s all he could remember, was ‘Don’t panic!’ Well, after years of it being phenomenally boring, I’ve finally found a use for it.

I’m not sure if you’ve heard but playing poker contains a lot of mathematical deviation from true results, or variance. That’s the technical definition. The real-time playing definition is ‘aaarrrggghhhhh!’ Being on the end of negative variance or ‘a lot of bad luck’ can feel like getting beaten up. This is never truer than during a multi-tabling session of cash poker. If you’re having a bad run and it’s happening on all the tables simultaneously it can feel like you’re a boxer on the ropes. Actually it can feel like you’re a boxer whose been retired for 30 years being beaten up in an alley by six blokes with lead pipes.

This was happening to me after a disastrous start to a session this month and I was reminded that the key is not to panic. I’d managed to finish work in time for a really long session and settled on to my normal four tables. I’d found a couple of soft tables and was confident I had a good edge…and then they started dealing cards. All of a sudden it was like they’d changed the rules of poker and made it a game where Nick has to run repeatedly into a brick wall.


In less than 200 hands I got stacked three times, lost most of the pots I entered, had almost every c-bet raised and, on the rare occasion I had a big hand, got no action at all. I was four-and-a-half buy-ins down and starting to head in the direction marked ‘tilt’. Generally speaking, I set a stop-loss of five or six buy-ins in a session – it’s not rigid but after a certain amount of pain it’s really hard to play with the right attitude, and I’m not really into feeling sick when I wake up…unless I have a really good night to explain it.

As I felt the red mist gently descending it was time to remember Corporal Jones with his ludicrously hammy catchphrase and take an honest look at the situation. The great thing in cash games, as opposed to donkaments, is that if the fish take your money it’s often sitting there for you to get back. I looked back through the big pots I’d lost and confirmed there really was nothing I could have done differently. In one hand my opponent’s flush draw had got there, in another my A-K ran into K-K preflop, and in the third I’d made a semi-bluff shove that had been called and not got there – all super standard. So I hadn’t played badly and I still had a decent edge on my opponents.


The only question was, could I play well from here on in or had this car crash got to me? The golden rule in cash is don’t let bad luck turn to tilt and lose double what you should. I took a deep breath and decided to play on – stopping if I lost a couple more buy-ins.

This pause in the session worked wonders. Of course it didn’t let the random number generator know but it did stop my rising panic and feeling of loss. I was calm and thinking clearly again. Soon after I played a pot where I reraised with J-J from the small blind against an aggressive button-opener. The flop came low with two hearts. I made my continuation bet and my foe shoved over the top. My heart sank with the prospect of yet more pain and having to log off early. The villain was capable of playing Aces and Kings like this, as well as a set, two pair or a big draw, but I felt like he was making a move enough of the time that folding would be a huge mistake. I called to be shown Ah-Qh and we were flipping coins.

Luckily for my night the board ran out with lovely-looking bricks and I won my first stack of the night. I slowly fought back over the next few hours, and though I ended up a loser for the session, it was one buy-in and not the dreaded six. I decided to celebrate by enjoying some episodes of Dad’s Army. I got about as far as the third ‘Mr Mainwaring!’ before deciding the old duffers had taught me all they could…

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