downswings in poker

6 Essential Tips for Dealing with Downswings in Poker Tournaments

Downswings hurt no matter what poker format you play.

But downswings in poker tournaments are the stuff of nightmares because variance increases as more players enter a tournament.

Avid players of large field tournaments will experience incredible highs–like winning a WSOP bracelet–and devastating lows–like losing for months on end.

If you are running bad in poker tournaments and feel like you just can’t win, it’s time for some rational and reassuring advice. 

Let’s dive right in.

Note: For info on dealing with cash game downswings, read How to Handle Downswings Like a Poker Pro.

1. Maintain a Healthy Bankroll

The most common mistake made by tournament players is buying into tournaments outside of their bankroll.

Given the huge variance in multi-table tournaments (MTTs), it’s crucial that your bankroll can sustain the 100+ buy-in poker downswings you will experience.

A good rule of thumb is to have at least 300 buy-ins for the stakes you play. But this number changes based the structure and format of the tournament.

You need a larger bankroll (350-500 buy-ins) if your playing habits are described by the following:

  • You play tournaments with particularly large fields
  • You play quick-structured tournaments like turbos or super turbos
  • You like late registering with a short-stack

Conversely, you can get away with having a smaller bankroll (~200 buy-ins) if you play:

  • Small field tournaments–like 180-person sit and go’s
  • Deep-stacked and/or slow structured games

So, if you play micro-stakes tournaments ranging from $3-5 per buy-in, your bankroll should be somewhere between $600 and $1500 depending on the games you play.

Downswings will feel like the end of the world if you don’t manage your bankroll carefully. Having a nice cushion to fall back on during the rough times will help you stay emotionally stable even when your graph might not be.

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2. Move Down in Stakes When Necessary

A lot of poker players have big egos, and want to brag about playing high stakes. This presents a problem when said players go through a downswing.

It may feel embarrassing, or like you’re wasting your talent, but there’s no shame in moving down in stakes after a downswing. It’s a smart strategic decision and you should feel good that you are taking the appropriate steps to avoid going broke. You shouldn’t feel pressured to play tournaments outside of your roll for any reason. 

Far too many good pros have gone broke because they hesitated to move down in stakes. Don’t follow in their footsteps!

3. Sell Action

Selling a piece of your tournament action is an effective way to reduce variance without having to alter your playing habits.

When you sell action, investors then get to keep an equal percentage of your profit depending upon how much they’ve invested. For example: if they invest $100 and you are playing a $1,000 buy-in tournament, the investor is entitled to 10% of your winnings (assuming no mark-up).

Selling action is easy if you have friends in the poker community. If not, you can sell your action on poker forums (like the 2+2 marketplace), amongst the Twitch community, or apply to sell on action-selling sites like Stake Kings.

CAUTION: Avoid selling your action in a risky way. Make these arrangements with people that you can trust or use a service like Escrow that can protect you from scammers.

Ryan Fee explains a few must-read tips for investing in MTT players in this article.

4. Temper Your Expectations

Tournament players tend to be overly-optimistic when estimating their future profits, which makes downswings feel extra crippling when they occur.

You can’t expect to win–or even cash–in every single tournament that you play. You are going to lose a lot more often than you are going to win; that’s the nature of poker tournaments. With large swings looming, it is important to be realistic with your expectations.

Imagine registering for a $25 buy-in tournament with 700 players that pays the top 100 spots.

If–for the sake of example–we assume that all players are of equal skill, you are only going make the money 1 in every 7 times (14.2%). This frequency will be higher if you have an edge over the field, but not that much higher.

Estimated your expected return on investment (ROI) is more difficult given the variance in MTTs. A player who absolutely crushes MTTs over a large sample (5,000+ games) will have an ROI of around 35%. For solid winning players, a 20-25% ROI is attainable.

Now let’s do the maths to prove the reality of the MTT predicament:

If you play 5,000 tournaments with a $5 buy-in, a 20-25% ROI would result in an expected profit of $5000-$6,250. That’s a fair amount, but not a ton considering many large field $5 tournaments pay upwards of $1000 to the winner.

Don’t be disappointed because you don’t make a run in every single tournament that you play. This is a deluded mindset that will stop you from approaching poker in a rational and objective way.

5. Avoid Playing While Tilted

When you’re on a downswing, it can feel like it doesn’t make a difference if you play well or not–the cards are going to spite you either way.

You play patiently with your short-stack, finally pick up KK and lose to a fish that out-flops you after calling your 12BB shove with A2o. While on a downswing, standard beats like this can feel soul-crushing. Monkey-tilt ensues and you punt off stacks in tournaments for the rest of the evening.

If you start to feel a negative mindset coming on, you should stop registering for new tournaments immediately. Finish up your session and take some time away from the game until you can return with a positive mindset and your A-game.

Poker isn’t going anywhere – the games will still be there tomorrow, but a big chunk of your bankroll won’t be if you lose your temper at the tables.

If you regularly struggle with tilt, learn how to combat it here.

6. Study More

It is normal to lose confidence in your game while on a downswing.

Variance may be at the root of your downswing, but you should still take time to review your hands and analyse your strategy. If you can, don’t hesitate to bring on a second set of eyes to look through your hands as well.

There is always room to improve your game, and spending just a few hours reviewing your play and patching any leaks will not only improve your expected ROI, but also restore your confidence for your next MTT session.

If you’re not sure how to study, I wrote an article which guides you through the many different ways that you can (see: The Ultimate Guide to Improving in 2017).

Final Thoughts on Tournament Downswings

Downswings have plagued every poker career. Ask any MTT grinder about their worst poker downswing and they’ll have a story that you can relate to.

Don’t be disheartened by all of this downswing talk though. MTTs still draw many recreational players and there is a lot of money to be made as a result.

As long as you follow the 5 tips above, your seemingly endless bad luck in poker will turn around soon enough.

PS: What’s the worst downswing you’ve ever experienced? Let me know in the comments.

Note: Want to crush your competition like a Super High Roller? Get your access to a Super High Roller’s strategy for winning tournaments when you join Nick Petrangelo’s expert-level course. Learn more now!
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George Mathias

George Mathias

Zoom reg turned live poker reg post-death of PokerStars

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