Let’s Talk About Downswings


I’ve decided to cover this topic, because although it’s something that’s a major component of the game, rarely gets covered in detail. Whether or not that’s because it’s a sensitive subject, or because it’s far too player-specific for anyone to attempt, is unknown. But despite either fact, I think it’s essential to analyze because of its frequency.

What makes downswings such an interesting concept is that they can depend on so many different factors. The reason you’re on an extended losing streak could be because of your own knowledge and approach on the felt; you’re ability to control tilt, or more unconscious characteristics such as external stress or mindset. But regardless of its source, they need to be dissected by us players so that we can understand the root cause and try to resolve it.

I’m going to take the time to mention several of the reasons people downswing, what some ways are to prevent or shorten them, and how to truly tell if you’re actually “downswinging”. Hopefully this doesn’t become a rigamarole of random thoughts and observations thrown together, and I apologize if it turns out that way. I’ll try to edit this, but only if need be.

So what is a downswing?

For those who aren’t familiar with the phrase, in poker a downswing refers to an extended period of time in which a player loses. Usually, downswings rely on vast periods of bad luck, but that’s not always the case. Depending on the player and his competition, a downswing could be indicative of his edge, (or lack thereof) against his current opposition; or worst case scenario, the absence of his skill set as a whole.

One of the underlying reasons it’s difficult to talk about downswings is because no players enjoys admitting they lack understanding or talent, or that the players at their current stake are far ahead of the curve. Also, they’re also hard to quantify. Luckily, there are several useful poker programs such as Hold’em Manager and Poker Tracker, that help players statistically follow each hand they play, along with the mathematical equity calculations which assist in determining whether you’re consistently making profitable decisions or you’re lose money over the long run. Although platforms such as these are indispensable, the downside is that they’re specifically designed for online play. While there are a few cell phone apps that provide adequate statistical evidence of your play, the reality is they’re not very complete, and live players often forget to document their results anyway.

In general, most players tend to call their results a downswing after they’ve lost between 15-30 bis. We should note, however, that dependent on the buy-in level, your adversaries, and your skill you may tweak this number a bit up or down for more realism. (I.E. If you’re easily a level 3 thinker, who had to move down to live 200NL because of the limitations with online play, you likely won’t be going on 20-30 bi downswings. If you are, it’s more likely that you’re making mistakes, rather than experiencing temporary bad luck.)

To be upfront to many readers, if you’re asking yourself the question, “can I go on a downswing for 2, 3 even 4 months?” The answer is YES. Even the best players in the world won’t win every session. It’s just a part of the game. What’s most important, however, is to understand the root cause of your losses. Getting it all-in pre-flop with A-K vs. A-Q and losing is sad. Sure. But you should also recognize the long-term value you’ll be earning by frequently being in that spot. Using a poker odds calculator or one of the aforementioned applications, you will see that you’re over a 2-to-1 favorite to take that pot. On the flip side, if you review your sessions in Hold’em Manager, and see that you frequently have trouble folding TPTK after increased aggression from your opponent, that’s likely a leak in your game that you need to address.

But there are ways to correct an extended losing streak.

How do I get myself out of this…

…will likely be a question you’ll yell at yourself repeatedly after weeks or months of frustrating sessions. Everyone deals with downswings differently; some swear at their computer, some blame the dealer, some tell their opponent they’re a huge nit donkey who couldn’t play poker if they had an extra hole card and 7 community cards. We understand. We’re losing, and we don’t like it. But let’s not forget that we’ve won before, and we can win often. So, for us to get back in the swing of play and tackle our problem analytically, we should look for specific clues that could indicate our issue:

1. Have I played longer sessions when I’m losing? Tired? Unfocused?
2. Do I play shorter sessions when I’m winning?
3. Are there specific opponents I should avoid? Could I “table select” better?
4. Am I distracted with other external problems?
5. Are these players beating me consistently?
6. Am I in frequent spots where I’m way behind?
7. Are there specific hands I have trouble folding?

If we start by answering some of these questions, we should be able to get to the primary issue with our play.

At a quick glance, adept readers may notice that other than the last two questions, many of these hypothesizes are based on mental behaviors. It’s commonplace for poker players to consistently ignore conscious distractions, and while this can often be to their advantage, it’s also a deterrent to quality poker play.

Rather than attacking each question individually, I think it would be more efficient to generally examine the correlation between your mental state, and your poker attitude.

Let’s get one thing straight; even though we’re poker players, we’re not robots. The upper echelon of the poker climate is consistently capable of suppressing emotion, avoiding tilt, and maintaining even-keel during a poker session. But don’t forget, we’re human. It would be foolish to think that during a downswing you’re not thinking about it, or your play isn’t at all affected. It’s still money. Ideally, smart players will be playing at a stake in which the downswing doesn’t affect their finances dramatically, but it’s never fun to lose X amount of dollars.

In some situations, and personally for me, I believe it’s a very smart idea to move down in stakes. I tend to change my approach when I go on an extended downswing, and by playing against new competition, I get an honest response of how effective my tactics and playing style are at the moment. Obviously over time, those whom you’ve played with regularly at your current stake will become accustomed to your play, and maybe they’re adjusting better than you. By moving down, not only should you feel more comfortable monetarily, but you’ll have a fresh way of thinking because you won’t know most opponents, and they won’t know you. It should also help stop the bleeding; if you continued to downswing by losing $1k buy-ins at 5-10NL, you might tilt much harder than you would losing $500 buy-ins at 2-5NL.

To put things in layman’s terms, you should be reducing variance by moving down, which will allow you to regain some mental confidence. It should also allow you to rebuild your bankroll and skill set.

If there is one question from above that deserves its own conversation, its how external factors in your life can affect your poker downswing. Martial discrepancies, family issues, or problems at your 9-5 job can influence your decision-making in more ways than you anticipate. It’s essential to relieve the angst before you ever sit down. If you haven’t already, develop a firm understanding that regardless of the outcome of a session, afterwards you’ll still remain content with your lifestyle, and that there is a world outside of poker. Taking time away from the game isn’t always detrimental, often times it will be a catalyst for a renewed outlook.

Prevent more downswings from happening by playing when you’re more at ease, and when you truly feel like playing. Unlike most careers, the life of a poker professional comes with the benefit of being able to choose your own hours. When you don’t feel like going to work, don’t go! It will affect your performance. I’m not advocating only playing when the stars align, but don’t be afraid to look objectively at you to determine whether or not it’s an appropriate time to play. Don’t neglect other activities, (often times which can be more fun than poker) just for the sake of it. Poker, and its monetary rewards will always be there, experiences with family and friends are priceless.

How can I tell if I’m on a downswing?

Well, to give a simple answer, you’ll be losing money. In 99% of situations, you’ll be losing a lot more than you’d prefer, or an unusual amount of it. But what’s harder to grasp, is a sure-fire way to classify your losing streak as bad luck. Fortunately, with the help of a little math, we’re able to quantify certain poker hands and decisions as positive or negative “Expected Value.” (See my previous article on EV here. We’re also able to view a small sample of our overall luck by calculating what’s called our All-In Expected Value, or AIEV. This particular statistic is very useful because it determines your equity – or the likelihood in % that you’ll win the hand – whenever all of your money went in the middle. A very telling stat – even if your actual winnings aren’t up to par, many players look to this calculation for renewed confidence. Look at it this way, if you were losing consistently, but noticed that you lost AA vs. KK 7 out of the last 10 instances, you could have faith that although you’re down money, if you remain in this situation you’re going to come out ahead over the long run because the odds are in your favor. Ideally, your AIEV graph and your winnings graph should converge over time. (See below.) You don’t want these two lines to diverse further apart over time. (An indication that you may be playing terribly. See graph 2.)

Graph #1
Graph #2
Even if you’re getting unlucky at the tables, I still recommend deeply critiquing your play to determine whether or not there’s situations you have trouble with, or could avoid. With live players, taking quality notes after or during your sessions with help greatly with review. Online players have the benefit of accessing programs like “Leak Buster” that can analyze your database of played hands and give feedback and suggestions on how to improve. There are few things more beneficial when it comes to getting yourself out of a downswing than objective investigation. It should help find some of the issues, along with determining whether or not your overall play needs work.

Most likely, you’ll have a hunch or instinct that you’re on a downswing. It’s good to trust your instincts. However, in poker, it never hurts to deeply scrutinize the problem to find the underlying issues. The best players take the time to research exactly what’s wrong, and fix it immediately. We all want the best win-rate, and you should do what you can to maintain it.

Hope your next downswing is shorter than your last.

Good luck at the tables.

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