Dealing With Downswings the Right Way
No matter how skilled you are, every player goes on downswings. In high variance games like texas hold'em and omaha, these can have magnitudes of dozens of buy-ins, and that's for a winning player.
If you were a robot when you played, downswings wouldn't be an issue and would have no effect on your long term results. For regular people however, learning to deal with downswings properly is one of the most crucial things that will decide how much of a winning player you are.
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Before we can move on to dealing with downswings, let's define them and get on the same page.
"A downswing is a string of predominantly losing sessions"
If you look at a graph of the results of all of your sessions, it will be easy to see where you lost for long periods. Note that downswings can be due to bad play, bad luck or in some cases both.
The Effects Downswings Can Have on Your Game
Everyone responds to losing at the poker table differently. Some get angry, others get quiet or lose interest, but some interesting reactions occur in players during an extended downswing.
Lack of Confidence
There will be times where you may be second guessing whether or not you are actually a winning player. There's only so many beatings a sane person can take and not have it take a toll on their confidence. The problem with this is that it will start to affect how you play. You start believing that good players can read your mind, and get cautious against bad players as you start to lose sight of the fundamentals.
A Victim's Mentality
The concept of a victim's mentality was not designed for poker, but applies quite well to this situation. In short it refers to a person blaming other things when something doesn't go well in their life, or in this case their game. The problem with this is that it's easy to start expecting to lose, which changes the decisions you make at the table. Instead of critically thinking about decisions, it's common to get lulled into making obvious choices and then whining if it doesn't go well.
The Dangers of "Playing Through" Downswings
One of the most common pieces of advice that can be disastrous to many players is to simply play through the downswing. The idea behind it is solid, if you are losing due to variance, it will even out as you play more hands. The problems with this, as alluded to earlier, is that people are not robots, and even experienced professionals can have problems playing through downswings that can lead to poor results.
You Can 'Disconnect' Mentally
One of the risks of trying to play like a robot, is that you stop thinking about your decisions and play on autopilot, picture your eyes glazed over as you stare at your screen for hours clicking your mouse. While this alone isn't usually disastrous, you lose a lot of your edge in uncommon situations where you'd typically outthink your opponent. It's easy to make a lot of small mistakes that add up.
You Ignore Bad Play
When playing a large volume of hands, each one takes up less attention in your mind. When you make a mistake, it's easy to brush it aside and move onto the next hand, or just attribute it to bad luck. When you are in a downswing, you can't do anything about bad luck, but you can control bad play - don't ignore it.
The Ultimate Disaster: Going on Tilt
When you take a bad beat, you're usually fine as long as you have time to recover. When luck is against you and you are playing a lot of hands to grind through a downswing, it's very possible to see several horrendous bad beats in a row. This is extremely frustrating for even the most disciplined and logical of players. Early in my career I lost two large pots as a 90%+ favorite within 10 hands and nearly lost my mind. Even as you get better at controlling yourself, putting yourself in a situation where you might tilt is not a good idea.
Using a Downswing as an Opportunity to Grow
If grinding through a downswing isn't the answer, then what is?
The best motivation to learn about something is when you want to be better at it. When you are constantly losing playing poker, trust me, you will want to become better to minimize losses in the future.
As mentioned before, you can't control bad luck, but you can control your play. If you can pinpoint a few key mistakes that you make in each losing session, you can make great strides as a player. You can typically find enough bad play that, if corrected, would have led to a breakeven or winning session.
Play Fewer Hands and Focus on Quality
This appears to be the exact opposite of the standard advice at first glance. While variance has a larger effect over the short-term, it also has a larger effect when you have a small winrate. By playing fewer hours, and maybe even fewer tables, you can consistently play your "A" game to maximize your winrate. This can turn huge losing sessions into minor losing sessions, and breakeven sessions into tidy profits.
The most important aspect to keep in mind is that your long term results will reflect how long you consistently play. Use this to shift your mindset from worrying about the results from session to session to worrying about how you play. Nothing should make you feel better than having a session where you make very few or even no mistakes, no matter how much you win or lose.
The bottom line with downswings is that while everyone experiences them, the best players know how to avoid making excuses and going on tilt, and instead use the experience to better themselves as players. Come out of the downswing stronger than ever and crush your opponents over the long-run when things balance out.