poker downswings

How to Handle Downswings Like a Poker Pro

What’s the only thing worse than losing money in one session of poker? Going on a poker downswing that causes you to lose money an extended period of time. Bad beats can seriously test your mental game.

Downswings are an inevitable part of poker. It doesn’t matter whether you are brand new to the game or if you are the greatest player on the planet. Cruel variance will take its toll on you at some point.

You may even run A♣️ 9♣️ into A♦️ A♥️ on A♠️ 9♠️ 8♣️ 9♥️ 3♠️, and there’s nothing you can do but lose all of your chips when that happens.

The fact that downswings are inevitable is why it is so important to learn how to handle them. Often times, handling downswings appropriately is what separates the best poker players from other good players. In this article, you will learn some helpful methods for doing just that.

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How Long Do Downswings Last?

This first point sounds harsh, but needs to be stated: If you are a losing poker player, you will always lose money in the long run. There is no way around it.

If you are a winning player, the most important factor in understanding the severity of downswings is your win-rate. Your win-rate, calculated in big blinds won per 100 hands (BB/100), is the way that poker players measure their edge in a game. The bigger your win-rate, the less you will be impacted by variance.

For online players, this can be tracked easily using programs like PokerTracker 4. For live players, it is a little bit trickier, but there is a way to track your BB/100 manually.

How Do You Calculate Your Live Poker Win-Rate?

To calculate your win-rate, you need to figure out how many hands you have played and how many big blinds you have won. Since you probably don’t know how many hands you have played, you can approximate by assuming you played about 25 hands per hour.

Let’s look at an example:

You have played 1,000 hours of live poker and have won 5,000 big blinds. So, you multiply 1,000 hours times 25 hands per hour, resulting in 25,000 total hands. Since you have won 5,000 big blinds in 25,000 hands, you are winning 0.2 big blinds per hand. Multiply that by 100 and you get 20 big blinds won per 100 hands (20 BB/100).

Once you know your approximate win-rate, you can use a Poker Variance Calculator to see what a typical amount of variance can look like over a given hand sample. It is a general consensus among poker pros that you need at least 100,000 hands to have a pretty good idea of your true win-rate, but for live players, 50,000 is more attainable.

Once you play around with the variance calculator above, you will quickly realize the impact that variance has over a given sample. For example, here’s a simulated range of possible long term results for a player with a win-rate of 20 BB/100:

poker variance downswings

The range of possible results over 50,000 for a player with a true win-rate of 20BB/100. Note that this is just a simulation – results would differ if we ran another one or if the standard deviation was adjusted.

The maroon line (with the red arrow) is the worst possible result for our hypothetical player, while the light blue line (with the blue arrow) is the best possible result. Notice the huge gap between them and the fact that the maroon line goes through many more downswings throughout the sample. Thanks, variance!

How Do Live and Online Downswings Differ?

There are two major differences between downswings in a live and online games:

  • In live games, your win-rate will be much higher because the players are generally worse, so your overall variance will be lower.
  • However, you can play a much greater volume of hands online, so you can get to the long run much quicker.

Aside from these differences, poker is poker so you are subject to the same situations in both live and online environments. No, you don’t get more bad beats online. It just may seem like it sometimes because you play more hands in the same amount of time.

How Do You End a Downswing?

There is no definitive answer for how to get out of a downswing. You cannot control the cards that come your way, unfortunately. However, there are still ways that you can lessen the devastating impacts that they can have on your bankroll:

  1. Maintain a healthy number of buy-ins for your regular game.
  2. Be willing to move down in stakes.
  3. Review hands.
  4. Take a break from playing.

The first and most important way to ensure that you minimize the impact of downswings is to keep enough buy-ins for the stakes you are playing. In general, Upswing recommends that you keep 20-40 buy-ins if you are a live poker player or 100 buy-ins if you are an online poker player. A more comprehensive look at bankroll management can be found here.

(If you don’t play poker for a living and can easily replenish your bankroll with earnings from your day job, you can be a bit more aggressive with your bankroll.)

The second way to minimize downswings is to be willing to move down in stakes. Say you start with $1,000 to play $0.05/$0.10, but a bad downswing has your bankroll down to $700. You had 100 buy-ins, but now you only have 70, so it makes more sense to move down in stakes to rebuild your bankroll and your confidence. Poker is a marathon, and the bigger games will still be there when you get back.

Thirdly, be sure to to review hands with people in your poker network. Are your losses caused by bad luck, or are you making mistakes? It can be hard to analyze your own hands, so consulting with other people whose opinions you respect is always a good idea.

Note: When you join the Upswing Poker Lab, you gain access to the Upswing Engage Group where members and coaches discuss hands and theory every day.

Finally, you should consider taking a break from playing poker if you feel like a downswing is starting to negatively impact your mental state. You can still study and think about the game, but avoiding time at the table altogether is a great way to conquer tilt and get back to a winner’s mindset.

A Quick Word on Tournament Downswings

This article has primarily focused on cash games, but tournament variance is also an extremely important topic to cover.

In tournaments, even successful professionals with proven track records can go long stretches without a deep run. This can significantly damage a player’s bankroll and mental game. Here are 6 Essential Tips for Dealing With Downswings in Tournaments:

  1. Maintain a healthy bankroll
  2. Move down in stakes when necessary
  3. Sell action when necessary
  4. Temper your expectations
  5. Avoid playing when tilted
  6. Study more

One final thing to remember: Variance, while brutal, is the reason that poker is still a profitable game.

If the best players won every time, there would be no incentive for the worst players to keep coming back. So while bad beats suck, remember that most of the time, they are leaving broke while you are sitting on a healthy stack.

That’s it for today!

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About the Author
Patrick Harvey

Patrick Harvey

Graduate student trying to make money in poker so that I don't end up having to drive Knish's truck.

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