Whether you have been playing poker casually or you are a professional player, you have experienced some sort of a poker downswing at some point.
Poker is a numbers game and one where equities often run close. For that reason, variance is a natural element of the game, and the downswings that it brings are just as natural.
For most beginners, downswings in Texas Hold’em can be mentally exhausting, as they are hard to accept if you don’t have a strong understanding of the game.
If you want to be a great poker player, you will need to learn how to handle poker downswings, and this article is designed to help you with that.
I am going to talk about what a downswing is, how to deal with tilt, how to manage your bankroll, and what your options are when going through a downswing.
The one thing I can promise is that if you take my advice, your game and your bankroll will thank you. The hard thing, of course, will be to actually go through with it.
But before we can talk about handling them, let’s talk about what downswings are, why they occur, and how likely you are to encounter one.
What is a Poker Downswing?
No matter who you are, you have surely had a losing poker session. If you have played a bit of poker, you’ve probably even had a few consecutive losing ones.
Losing sessions are a part of the game, regardless of how good you are or how bad the players you play with are. In fact, we have all seen top pros lose on occasion on live TV.
So why is this the case? Shouldn’t the better player always win? These are the questions that amateurs often ask, and rightfully so.
The reason for good players losing is the fact that there are very few scenarios in poker in which anyone has 100% equity in a hand.
The best players thrive on exploiting even the thinnest of edges.
When you play a game where the edges are slight or simply not as great as they would be in a game like chess, variance is bound to kick in – and poker variance can be quite brutal.
In poker, losing multiple sessions in a row, and losing a chunk of your bankroll in the process, is called a downswing.
All players go through downswings from time to time, depending on the games they play in, their skill, win rate, and the quality of their opponents.
Whether you play online or offline, there is a theoretical win rate that you are making. Players track this win rate in terms of bb/100 hands over the long run or as ROI (Return on Investment) in tournament poker.
The higher your win rate, the less common and severe your downswings will be. However, even if you are the best player in your game, you will have downswings on occasion.
Just think of it in terms of the biggest fish in your game getting lucky on you in multiple big pots in a row, and you will quickly understand the effect poker variance can have on individual session results.
Dealing with Poker Downswings
A poker downswing can have several negative implications when it happens. For that reason, every player needs to learn how to deal with it before approaching the game seriously.
The first, and the most obvious implication of a downswing, is that you are losing money, which can impact your bankroll negatively, depending on how limited it is.
The other, more sinister implication is the fact that a poker downswing can start playing with your head and hurt your mental game. This can lead to bad play at the tables and make the problem even bigger.
Finally, a downswing in poker can lead to other bad decisions in life, which can be a byproduct of your poker tilt. We are going to talk about tilt in a bit, but let’s talk about bankroll first.
Managing Your Bankroll
You often hear poker players talking about how many buy-ins they have for their games, and you may think it's ridiculous at times.
After all, why would anyone want to have hundreds of buy-ins just sitting around? Why not just play bigger?
Well, while we all might want to play bigger, the fact that pros know and understand is that downswings are inevitable.
Professional players prepare for downswings by keeping a big bankroll at the ready. When things start going badly, they simply push through it and keep playing their game.
If you don't have a good enough bankroll, a downswing can destroy it completely. How much of a bankroll you need will depend on your game type, your overall skill, and win rate in that game.
If you intend on playing poker professionally or even just on a regular basis, you will want to set up a bankroll proportional to the stakes you are looking to play and manage it accordingly.
When a poker downswing does hit, moving down the stakes to rebuild the bankroll is a good idea. If you have a big enough bankroll, that might not be necessary at all, as long as you keep your mental game sharp.
Managing Tilt during a Downswing
The biggest problem with poker downswings, if you are a winning poker player, is that they can impact your game in negative ways. In poker terminology, this is called tilt.
Tilt is any deviation from your best game that is caused by emotional or unreasonable decision-making.
During a downswing, you may end up losing hands that seem like they should never go the other way, but it’s important to keep things in perspective and understand that bad beats and coolers are a part of poker.
If you get in the state of mind that you can’t win regardless of how you play, you can start making the wrong moves and misplaying your hands.
When you do this and experience tilt in poker, your downswing will only get worse. In fact, most bad downswings are caused in part by tilt.
I wish I could tell you how not to get tilted while playing, but the best I can do is to tell you to keep things in perspective and approach poker as a marathon, not a sprint.
You can view all your poker hands as one big session, so if you lose ten buy-ins, don't think of that, but rather of the hundreds of buy-ins you have won over all the time you’ve been playing.
One thing you can definitely do when experiencing a bad poker downswing and are starting to tilt is simply walk away. Stop playing for a while and focus on other things. This will help you clear your head and rekindle your passion for the game.
Studying Poker as a Downswing Remedy
When poker variance shows its ugly head, and you go on a downswing, taking a break from playing for a while can be a great idea. However, this doesn’t mean you have to remove yourself from the game completely.
Spending some time studying instead of playing can be a great idea and a top remedy for poker downswings.
There are a few ways you can approach this. For one, you can go ahead and find a good poker training site or simply keep reading articles like this one.
An even better approach is to analyze your own hands that you played during the downswing. Analyze your play with an open mind, or use a solver if you have access to one to help you figure out the mistakes you made.
Talking with friends who also play poker is yet another great thing you can do. Go over some hands together and see what they think. Try to take constructive criticism and talk the hands out in terms of hand ranges and bet sizes instead of in terms of “good or bad.”
Top 5 Tips for Managing a Poker Downswing
So you have been experiencing a downswing and are looking for ways to deal with it? There are many things you can do, but I have decided to compile a shortlist of the most important tips that will surely help you manage your current downswing.
Even if you are not on the losing end of poker variance right now, keeping these in mind for the future will do you good. After all, a downswing is bound to come sooner or later.
These are the top 5 tips to help you survive through your downswing and allow you to thrive after it.
1. Keep Realistic Expectations
High expectations can break a poker player very early in his or her career. We are all programmed to think we are smarter and more skilled than we really are, but this is a trap that must be avoided.
As a poker player, you should try to play your best game at all times, and after some time, come up with your realistic win rate in the games you are playing.
Once you know your approximate win rate, you will know what you stand to win when playing. Anything below or above this will simply be an anomaly.
Understanding equity and standard deviation will be key, so educate yourself on these concepts. You need to know what kind of a poker downswing you can expect and be prepared to face them.
Remember, the closer you are to breaking even, the more common downswings will be, and the more they will sting when they happen.
2. Never Deviate from Your Strategy
Downswings themselves are not the worst thing that can happen to a poker player. They are an expected and common part of any poker career and will not impact your long-term win rate.
What will impact your win rate is the way you play, both during an upswing and a downswing.
In ideal conditions, you should always be playing your best game and making decisions based on your understanding of poker, not on your emotions.
Tilt in poker is a very common problem, and it can cause you to play looser, tighter, more aggressive, more passive, etc.
This is why as a great poker player, you should be confident enough of your plays that you can make them regardless of whether you are winning or losing.
At times, it can seem that every time you bluff, you get picked off, leading you to believe your bluffs are ineffective. To find out if they are, consult your overall poker stats, not just those from the particular session you ran bad in.
3. Take a Break
If you notice your emotions are not letting you play properly, you should take a break. When you start making emotional decisions, it tends to compound, and you keep making more and more mistakes with every minute you play.
If you sense your emotions are playing with you, simply walk away. Take a break for as long as you need to get all the beats out of your head.
Later on, you'll be able to approach the new session with a fresh mind.
The truth is that even an hour's break can be of great help when looking to get back into the right mind frame, so don't just keep playing until you are “unstuck.”
You may have goals of the number of hours or hands you want to play in a day, but none of this matters if you are not playing good poker.
4. Study the game
As a poker player, you should always be investing some of your time into studying the game. Simply playing is just not enough as you need to keep getting better to win consistently.
However, studying can be most helpful while you are on a downswing. It may help you find mistakes in your own game or those in the game of your opponents, which you can exploit.
In either case, studying will help you reaffirm what you already know about the game and possibly remember some concepts you have been neglecting in your bad sessions.
There are many ways to study poker, but when running bad, it is best to use poker software to look back at your own hands and realistically assess your plays. If you are playing well, there is no reason for concern. The variance will even itself out eventually.
5. Have a Life Outside of Poker
Poker is a magnificent game, but if you spend too much time on the felt, it will make you miserable. As a professional player, you want to have pastimes away from poker.
I can’t tell you what to do with your free time, but doing things outdoors and socializing with other people is probably the best way to go.
Since poker, especially the online kind, has you sitting in one place and not interacting too much with people, you should make sure not to neglect that part of your life altogether.
A poker downswing is probably the best time to walk away, do something else for a while, and completely remove yourself from the game.
Poker will always be there when you are ready to come back to it, so there is nothing to worry about.
Final Thoughts on Poker Downswings
You would not be a poker player if you hadn't blamed a downswing or bad luck for your results at some point.
Sometimes this is the true way of things, and at other times, it is just an excuse.
The thing to remember is that poker downswings are very real, and they will happen no matter how good you are.
If you want to have a career in this game, you have to know how to deal with poker downswings, how to not get tilted, and how to keep a healthy balance in life.
I recommend applying the tips I presented in this article but also working more on your mental game in general and preparing yourself for downswings at all times.
Look at your results on a yearly basis or after you have played a significant number of hands, and you will realize that poker downswings don’t really matter at all. Keep on studying, learn and adopt new poker tips, and your bankroll will keep moving in the right direction.