Expected value helps you make difficult calls at the table. Find out how to calculate and use it to your advantage.

If you want to play poker for money and be profitable, you have to understand that every play has an expected value. While Wikipedia offers a dense, technically-heavy explanation that is worth reading if you have a doctorate in math, the simplest version of expected value is that it’s the amount of money that you’d win or lose on average over time when making the same bet.

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When people write about poker and strategy, they’ll typically use EV as a way to tell you whether or not a choice is a good one. A bet with +EV is a good choice to make as a poker player. A bet with –EV represents a poor choice that will cost you money over time.  To help you understand a bit more clearly, let’s take a look at a “perfect” example of expected value (something that has an EV of zero)

You and a friend decide to play “war” with a shuffled deck of cards and you agree that you’ll get a dollar every time you win and he’ll receive one every time he wins. While you might end up three or four bucks ahead after one game and down by three or four after another, over time you’ll see that the amount of money you can expect to see from a game is basically zero.

However, let’s say that for some reason, your friend decided to play War so that if you played it in such a way that you’d win $2 every time you won a hand but only had to hand him $1 if you lost. That would mean you were playing with +EV on your side. You’ll still only win half of the bets when you make them, but with double the dollar amount on your side, your +EV will be $1.50. When you play poker, you want to do your best to only make bets that show +EV and avoid –EV bets whenever possible.

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Having a good understanding of expected value in your poker game can help you understand variance and how it’s generally a short-term problem over a long-term game. Accepting that you are going to lose sometimes when you’re “supposed” to win is easier when you have expected value on your side. Expected value, when combined with an understanding of your opponents’ betting patterns, can make the vast majority of decisions at the table much easier.