You will see most players who have been playing for a significant amount of time say something like the following:
“My win rate is x bb/100.”
A lot of the time they will have x correctly figured using some hand history tracking program. They know exactly how many big blinds they’ve won for every 100 hands they’ve played. They call that their win rate. What they get wrong is the verb. Is.
No one’s win rate is anything. It was x over a given period of hands. Win rate is a historical measure of a player’s results. Just like a hedge fund manager can tell you their fund has provided x% return on investment over the past five years, a poker player can tell you that they have won at x bb/100. But neither can truthfully tell you that’s how much they’ll grow or win next year.
Win rate can be a useful indicator of future performance, or a reasonable measure of skill over a large number of hands, within the context of certain game conditions. But win rate is not a constant, and neither is it an independent variable. It’s a function.
Specifically, win rate is a function of:
• Player skill
• Opponent skill
- The match up of specific strategies (not just the differential between player and opponent skill, but the interaction of their styles)
- Emotional control
None of this is to say that win rate is useless. We can use it to calculate various helpful measures. We can use the player’s standard deviation along with win rate to calculate how likely it is that this player should expect to run at a certain win rate in the future, given static conditions.
Of course, conditions are dynamic. Some players improve and others don’t. The rake may change, and so may legislation. New players will move up to a given level and others may move down. The player whose win rate we’re looking at may improve or go on tilt. So we can use win rate as a guideline, but shouldn’t take it as an absolute.
To complicate matters, we add the element of variance. Again, we can use standard deviation and win rate to calculate how likely it is for a player with a certain win rate to perform at a certain level, given static conditions.
Even assuming that conditions don’t change, there is no guarantee that a player will get results anywhere near expectation. It’s possible to run really, really bad for a really, really long time. Stretches of hands that you wouldn’t think possible are, in fact, possible. You can run bad for a million hands. That’s a lot of poker. A bad run that long is unlikely, and you shouldn’t expect to face one. But you should be prepared.
If you plan to play poker for a living, you need to consider the likelihood of running below expectation, and figure out how you’re going to deal with it. If your monthly expenses are $2500, you can’t play an amount of poker where your expectation is $2500. Even if you have savings in the bank, eventually you will run into a stretch worse than you have imagined. Find a way to have an expectation higher than your monthly nut. That way, a few bad months won’t put you off track. And if you are lucky enough to run above expectation, you’ll have an excellent year-end bonus.
As a prospective pro you should have:
• Living expenses saved up. 6 to 12 months is a good place to start. Exactly how much you need saved up depends on your living situation. What are the consequences of falling behind in your bills? How hard is it to catch up if you fall behind?
• A higher expectation than your monthly nut. Having an expectation of two to three times your expenses will help protect you from bad stretches. It will also give you opportunity to put money in savings or build your bankroll so you can move up in stakes and increase your hourly earnings. If you need $2500 a month to get by, we suggest you play a number of hands that will allow you to average $5000 to $7500 in profits. It’s better to get out in front than it is to fall behind. Don’t forget to include rakeback or bonus money in this number, though. That spends just as well as winnings.
• A large enough bankroll to withstand the vagaries of variance. The chances of going broke depend on the size of your bankroll, your expected win rate, your standard deviation, and your willingness and ability to move down in stakes should you hit a rough patch. If that sounds like a lot to calculate, we encourage you to follow Dusty’s guideline of always maintaining 100 buy ins for your current limit (assuming 100-blind games).
It is possible to succeed without meeting any of the above conditions. In fact, both authors of this book were lucky enough to survive a complete lack of early planning. But if you plan to have a long poker career, why not give yourself the best chance possible? You’ll need to get it together eventually. Why not start off doing things right out of the gate?
The fact is that most good players overestimate their ability and their win rate because they ran well when they first started playing. There is a selection bias here. Those who try to play well and get poor results often quit. They won’t make it to the long run. The players who start off on the
lucky side of variance have a better chance to survive. They eventually see the bad runs of cards themselves, but they’ve had time to build up the strategic and emotional skills, not to mention the bankroll, necessary to see it through.
Variance can be brutal. Those unprepared quit poker because of it. Be prepared.