Dealing with Downswings

“Blame Sir Isaac Newton.” That’s how one Las Vegas poker player deals with downswings at the table. “What goes up, must come down,” he says. “It’s just gravity at work.”

Of course, not all players are quite so glib. Many feel a quiet desperation when their losses start exceeding their wins. They begin to wonder what they’re doing wrong. They start changing the way they usually play. And then the losses continue to mount, in spite of or because of their reactions.
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Identifying Downswings

A useful definition of a downswing is “any prolonged series of losing poker sessions, resulting in a significant negative effect on the player’s bankroll.”

First of all, losses are to be expected. Bad beats and bad cards are natural aspects of the game. And a series of losses is not at all unusual, even among top pros. The key word in the definition is “prolonged.” For a weekends-only casino patron, a poker room downswing may last several months. For an online grinder who multi-tables for hours on end, even a single day of steady losses can be a downswing.

Second, players commonly mistake downswings for negative variances—short-term results falling below expectations. More accurately, they are “streaks” of negative variances, and that’s what makes them so dangerous.

The acid test of a true downswing is its “significant negative effect” on the player’s bankroll. When the losses are causing financial distress, the situation is more than a hiccup or variance. It can be a real threat to one’s ability to play.

Reacting to Downswings

Interestingly enough, only winning players have downswings. Poor players never get up enough to slide down, so when the slump begins, give yourself a little pat on the back. Also, how long a downswing lasts depends more on the stricken player than sheer luck, so there’s no call to panic.

As soon as a downswing seems evident, take a deep breath, take a break from the tables and refresh. Concentrate on some other hobby or project. Clearing one’s mind makes it easier to return and calmly focus on the problem. A lot of players find it useful to go back to the basics, studying recent hands, analyzing their play and looking for patterns that might have brought on the losses.

Quite often it’s found than nothing at all could have been done. It really was just bad fortune or “gravity” exerting itself. Sometimes, however, the player will discover a shift that’s responsible for the losing streak. More aggressive play, lack of sleep, distractions—it could be anything. A clearheaded, dispassionate review will uncover the fault, if it’s there. If it’s not, no need to beat oneself up over the uncontrollable elements of the game. Downswings happen.

Getting Out of Downswings

Because downswings happen only to winners, if you’re one of them you will want to soon get back to your winning ways. That means playing through the storm to the success that waits on the other side. Of course, you’ll correct any missteps you uncovered in your analysis of recent sessions, but you should not alter your usual playing style, especially in the first session back at the tables.

Trust in your abilities. Maintain a positive attitude. If you make a mistake, remember that you’ve made mistakes before when you were winning. Nobody is perfect. Stay focused. Be very aware of any signs that you might be about to tilt and take a break if necessary.

Win or lose, after your first session back at the table, take some time to write down your thoughts and feelings about your play. If you have a support network of friends and family, share with them what’s going on inside. Bottling up emotions can keep a downswing in motion. Let them out so you can play without negativity. Remember you will start winning again. It’s just a matter of time, and the right attitude makes it seem to pass quickly.

One other very important factor in getting out of a downswing is to be able to afford to ride it out. Follow money management basics. For cash games, have funds enough for 20 buy-ins for no-limit games and 300 big bets for limit games. For Sit & Go tournaments, 100 times the buy-in is an appropriate level. Sufficient funds ensure survival. They also instill confidence. You’re a winner. You may swing down, but you won’t swing out.

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