Thinking about downswings

Poker is a game where skill rules in the long run, but luck completely dominates the short run.  The difference between winners and losers is that winners will extract more money when they hit the good hands and lose less money when they are holding the short end of the stick.  I always laugh when I read a post on one of the message boards by someone who says that they never have had a losing streak.  There are only players who have been through a losing streak or players who are going to go through a losing streak.

I’m pretty sure that the better you play, the more likely you are to experience more frequent and more pronounced downswings.  This is because if you are extracting every last drop of EV, you are playing a higher variance style.   If you play a very rockish style, you probably get fewer big losses and you see lower overall gains.  When I first started to play, I played a tighter style than I do now and I played against much softer opposition and I almost never experienced a serious downturn.  The first time I dropped 200 BBs, I was seriously unhappy.  I really believed that the people who had gone through it were simply making big mistakes and didn’t recognize it!

Given that these turns of fortune are inevitable, you need to focus on that which you can control. You need to avoid thinking you are the biggest genius that ever played when you are winning and to avoid freaking out when you lose.  Some people become more reckless when they are losing, as they try desperately to win back what they have lost.  This is almost certainly going to doom you, particularly if you are doing so at a table where you have been losing.  The other players will recognize your tilt for what it is and punish you.  More often, people who are on a downturn pull back into a shell.  They miss value bets when they are ahead and they fold to bluffs more easily than they should.  Even worse, some people do both — they play too many hands pre-flop and play them too passively post-flop.  That is a recipe for disaster.

People who are losing often post “I hate poker” or “I’m going to quit” on the forums.  I feel really bad for these folks and I intellectually understand what they are going through, but I have a hard time knowing what to say to them.  You simply must learn to deal with losing or you will never be a good player.

As you should have guessed, I’m losing right now.  It isn’t a world record downswing and it comes hot on the heels of one of my hottest streaks ever, so it isn’t as soul-sucking as it might be otherwise.  I really think that resistance to tilt is one of my strongest poker qualities.  When I take a bad beat I might utter a quick curse or roll my eyes, but it doesn’t bother me a second or two later.  I file away the information about what the other guy played and how he played it so I can use it next time and I keep playing my game.  The longer downswings are more frustrating, but I have a big PokerTracker database that tells me I’m a comfortable winner at every limit I’ve played which helps reassure me that I’ll come out of it.  I review my hand histories more carefully when I lose, which is probably a good thing, and I watch the hands that I’m not supposed to play for signs that the losses everyone predicts for them are now coming (small pairs and Axs/Kxs mostly).  I always end up convinced that I’m still a good player and that this one will turn around like all the downswings before.  Usually I find something to work on (this time, it is not being so damn stubborn with middle pair in a blind defense situation) and I figure I’ll come out of it a better player.

In many ways, I was pretty lucky.  I started winning from the very start.  I turned $500 into $1,000 within a few weeks.  I took out my original stake from Neteller and was playing with winnings from that point onwards.  By the time I hit my first rough patch, I was so far ahead that my winnings were never remotely threatened.  If it had happened early on, I could not have been confident that it was just the random statistical fate that awaits everyone.  If it is happening to you and you haven’t been a net winner yet, I can’t answer the question you are dying to know.  Are you a winner on a bad run or are you one of the much more numerous players who is destined to lose?  I feel bad for you.  I wish I could give you answers.  I can only tell you this:  Play within your bankroll.  If your downswing is big enough, drop down in limits.  Never play at a limit that threatens to break your poker bank.  Never.

By Nsidestrate

I'm a hard-core limit ring game poker player who is becoming a degenerate sports bettor. I'm sure it will all make more sense if you read on.