Poker Downswings

Professional players are likely to face poker downswings, a period where they barely win games. There are ways to manage and break out of a downswing.

At some point, every professional player will experience a poker downswing. This psychological condition can have a lasting negative effect on a poker player's mental health.

How can you prevent a downswing from affecting your poker game and your mental state when the ugly side of variance rears its head? This article will take a close look at poker downswings and how you can manage it when it happens to you.

Psychology Behind Poker Downswings

Poker downswing psychology

For those who are unaware, a poker downswing is a run of negative results over an extended period of time.

These results are attributed to negative variance rather than the skill of the player, but the underlying skill level can affect how long the downswings last.

Part of the reason why everyone dreads a downswing is that they're really hard to play through - especially if you're a professional player. It takes a lot of mental strength to keep coming back day after day when you just keep losing, and even more, strength to not let it affect how you play. Those who are still learning poker are also severely affected by downswings when they are just starting their cardplaying career.

No one likes losing, and what makes poker more brutal than other games is there is often nothing you can do about losing. You can do everything right but still end up losing. This makes poker a very tough game for humans as we're so skilled in pattern recognition; what happens is we go on a run of negative results, assume that what we're doing must be bad because we're losing, and change the way we play to try and 'fix' the problem.

However, in reality, the problem is variance rather than the way we're playing. It takes a lot of confidence and self-belief in your game to not change how you play when you're experiencing a downswing, particularly if it's a long one.

Experiencing Poker Downswings

When you're in a poker downswing, you'll notice that your results are a lot more negative than they usually would be over a sustained period. Everyone has small ups and downs throughout a session, but winning players will see their profit line steadily increase over time. However, when a winning player is on a downswing, that profit line will decrease.

Downswings can happen to anyone; even the best professional poker players in the world go on downswings for thousands and thousands of hands. Most people think that once you're a winning player, then you're going to print money every time you sit at a poker table. This is untrue, and even after tens of thousands of hands, a winning player can lose due to variance.

There are tools out there called poker variance calculators that can help visualize what variance looks like and what to expect when you're grinding poker over a long period. You plug in your estimated win rate, the standard deviation in bb/100, and the number of hands to simulate. We've at an example of a normal winning player that we want to share to give you an idea of what kind of downswings it's possible to go through.

Most people think that 100,000 hands of online poker are a good benchmark to see if you're a winning player or not. It seems like enough hands that any variance would have evened out, and your results will purely be down to your skill. However, using a poker variance calculator, we simulated 100,000 hands with an estimated win rate of 2.5bb/100 and a standard deviation of 100bb/100. Here are the results:

  • Expected Winnings: 2500bb
  • Probability of Loss after 100,000 hands: 21.4598%
  • Probability of 1,000bb+ Downswing: 76.84%
  • Probability of 5,000bb+ Downswing: 30.00%
  • Probability of 5,000 hand Downswing Stretch: 84.23%
  • Probability of 30,000 hand Downswing Stretch: 67.08%

These numbers are quite shocking for a long stretch of hands and a pretty attainable win rate. The fact that over 20% of the time a player with a 2.5bb win rate can lose over 100,000 just shows how much of a factor variance has in this game.

Another eye-watering part of the results is the 30% probability of a 5,000bb downswing - that's a 50 buy-in downswing that happens 1 in 3 times over 100,000 hands! If this doesn't convince you that you need to pay close attention to your bankroll management, I don't know what will.

Ways to Break Poker Downswing

So what are the ways you can break through a poker downswing, or at least mitigate its effects on your bankroll?

Move Down In Stakes

The most common solution to going through a poker downswing is to move down in stakes among UK and US online gambling sites. Not only does this have a lesser impact on your bankroll, but it can also help you break out of your downswing altogether.

At lower stakes, you're likely to have a greater skill edge over your opponents than you do at your normal stakes. Therefore, the effect of variance on whether you win or lose is decreased, meaning you're more likely to have winning sessions.

What makes a downswing dangerous is how it affects your confidence. Poker is a purely mental game, and if you're in a negative state of mind because of a downswing, it will affect how you think through a hand.

Poker seems like the easiest game in the world when you're winning. When things go your way, and you're raking in the pots, it feels like you're untouchable. Part of what gives you that untouchable feeling is the confidence you get from winning. This confidence allows you to make better decisions at the table and therefore increases your chances of winning.

Do More Research

Another great way to break out of a poker downswing is to increase your studying. The recommended ratio of studying to playing is around 1 hour of studying for 5 hours of playing. If you're going through a particularly brutal downswing, readjusting this ratio to increase your studying and decrease your playing time can help manage your downswing.

Less time at the tables means less money being lost, and an increase in studying can help you make a breakthrough that gives you a bigger edge on your opponents. If you have a bigger edge on your opponents, the less of an impact variance has on your overall results, which makes downswings less frequent and less brutal.

Taking the time away from the table to go over the fundamentals one more time or learn something new that you haven't used before can help give you the confidence to play your best when you next sit at the table.

Start Again with a Clean Slate

If you've been taking a beating at the tables over the past several sessions or past few weeks, it's going to have a real impact on how your results look. If you're someone who lives in their Hold'em Manager or Pokertracker, having to look at that plummeting graph daily has a real impact on your mindset. No one wants to be constantly reminded of how bad things are going.

A way to combat that is to start again with a clean slate. Now, this isn't to say you should erase your past results and pretend they never happened, rather, create a new database and start your tracking as if from scratch. This allows you to keep your old hands for analysis and eventually combine them back into one large database; while tricking yourself into thinking you're starting from square one rather than the tail end of a large downswing.

Find Other Activities

When you're playing, poker feels like the be-all and end-all. It can have a large impact on your short-term emotions, and if things aren't going well, it's easy to feel like the world is ending.

You are more than your poker results.

Even if you play for a living, you should know that short-term results aren't necessarily an indication of your skill level, and a run of bad results shouldn't dishearten you.

Having other hobbies or activities you can do instead of poker can help put you back into a positive mindset. Whether this is spending time with friends or family, hobbies such as woodworking or arts and crafts, or a side job where you can earn extra income, all of these can calm your emotions and put you back in the right frame of mind to start playing again.

Be a Poker Mentor

A great way to reinforce ideas you already know is to teach them to someone else. Explaining an idea or a concept to someone who isn't aware of it forces you to understand it on a deeper level if you want to get it across in a way they'll understand.

When we have a basic knowledge of a topic, our brain allows us little shortcuts to understanding more complex subjects based on our original knowledge. However, when we explain it to someone else, those shortcuts aren't there, so we have to have a comprehensive understanding of the topic we're explaining.

Being a mentor for a new player helps you to reinforce the most important parts of poker - the fundamentals. As you learn more complex strategies, it's easy to forget how important the fundamentals are to playing good poker. Going through them with a new player will help you relearn them in a way that you can apply them to your game. You can always find new players looking for a mentor through poker forum sites or chat rooms.

Look for an Inspirational Player

Sometimes, when we're at our lowest point, we need a reminder of why we started playing this game. That first time we were truly captivated by the game and wanted to play it ourselves. I'm sure each of you reading this remembers that moment, and reliving that feeling when things aren't going well can give you that boost of inspiration you need to turn things around.

For me, it was watching Tom Dwan play on Poker After Dark. Watching a player bet hundreds of thousands of dollars with no fear was so enthralling it made me want to open an online poker account and start playing.

Downswings are a drainer on motivation. No one wants to keep coming back to a game where they lose day after day, but having that well of motivation topped up by the players that inspire you can give you back that motivation you've been missing.

Don't Become a Nit

When you're losing, the instinct for most players is to tighten up to stop the bleeding. You cannot lose what you don't put in, right? This is falling into the trap of changing your game because of negative results, and it's not good for you long term.

While playing tight to avoid losing seems logical, folding hands you would usually play is an opportunity cost. You're losing the money you would usually make playing that hand.

For example, you're UTG at a 6-handed table, and you fold 77 because "all overcards are going to come anyway, so might as well save myself the 2.4bb". This is flawed thinking. Say over the past 200,000 hands, you've raised 77 500 times in this position, and you've made $500 with it. This averages to $1 every time you raise. If you fold thinking you're "saving yourself the 2.4bb", what you're actually doing is costing yourself that $1 in EV.

Be Smart With Selecting Your Tables

If you're playing regular cash games (as opposed to tournaments or zoom cash), table selection is a skill in itself. Picking the right table to play at with the highest number of weaker players can mean the difference between a player being a winner or a loser.

When you are a winning player at your stake level, you may not put a lot of stock into table selection as you feel like you can beat any player you come up against.

However, when you're in the middle of a downswing, it can be a great help to table select properly. By playing on more tables with a higher percentage of weaker players, you're helping to eliminate the role that variance plays in your session, helping you break out of your downswing.

On top of that, it's a great habit to get into in order to maximize your winnings, even when you're not in a downswing.

Infographic on poker variance and breaking out of poker downswings
Poker downswing infographic

Dealing with Poker Downswings

So far, we've covered how you can try and break your poker downswing, but sometimes you just have to play through it. Here are some tips to help you deal with your downswing at the table.

Cool Off

There's nothing wrong with taking a break! Just because you've sat down to play a poker session, it doesn't mean you're not allowed to get up and take a couple of minutes to yourself.

What makes downswings so lethal to a bankroll is the tilt they can put players on, which is one of the costly poker mistakes any professional can make. Losing hand after hand, cooler after cooler, will get to you after a while, and if you start to tilt, then you will just make your downswing even worse.

When you feel things are getting a bit too much, stand up and walk away from the table. Ideally, get some fresh air. Just do what you can to relax, gather your thoughts, then go back to the table in the right frame of mind.

Set Achievable Goals

When you're in a downswing, the natural reaction is to try and get out of it and win all your money back straight away. This isn't always achievable, especially if you've been through a particularly long downswing, so don't set yourself crazy goals.

Setting these unreachable goals will only knock your confidence and push back your recovery timeline even further.

Instead, set reasonable short and long-term goals to help you rebuild your bankroll. By being reasonable with your expectations, you're more likely to achieve your goals which will give you confidence at the table.

Stick To Your Plan

Once you've made a reasonable plan to try and recuperate your bankroll, make sure you stick to it! Don't assume that the work is done now that you've got a roadmap, and similarly, don't try and fast-track things because you want the money back now.

If your goal is to play 30,000 hands in a month at a lower stake level to try and get your confidence back and get back some of your losses, don't play 30,000 hands in a week to try and get yourself back to your normal stake level quicker. Doing this will greatly reduce the quality of the hands you play and will keep you at that level for longer.

Poker Downswings: FAQ

We've collected and answered the most common questions about poker downswing.

What are poker downswings?

A poker downswing is a run of particularly negative results over a period of time as a result of the variance. It can happen to a player of any ability in any poker variant.

How would you know if you are experiencing poker downswings?

You'll know if you are experiencing a poker downswing as your results are far more negative than they usually are. This may be in the form of a winning player who is now losing or a losing player who is losing at a greater rate than they usually do.

How long do poker downswings last?

There is no set amount of time that a poker downswing will last. The factors influencing the length of a downswing beyond variance are the player's skill edge and the game's volatility. If a player has a large skill edge, the effect of variance is reduced.

Is there a way to avoid poker downswings?

Every poker player, at some point in their career,w will experience a downswing. It doesn't matter how good you are; even the world's best players go through downswings. They cannot be avoided, so the trick is learning how to deal with them better than your opponents.

Can playing a different poker game help me out of my poker downswings?

Playing a different game than your usual can be a way out of a poker downswing, as long as you're only playing for fun/tiny stakes as a way to relax. Switching from your main game to a different game in an attempt to win your money back is not a good idea - there's a reason you don't play it often, and it's because you're not as good at it.

Should I ask for help when I am in a poker downswing?

Absolutely, there are a variety of poker forums out there filled with like-minded people that can help you through your downswing. You may even be able to find an experienced player who can mentor you and help improve your mindset.

It's inevitable that you'll face a poker downswing at some point in your career, so use the tips you've learned in this article to better deal with it when it comes.