Poker players could learn a lot from casinos.

One can make a case that the only reason poker is a profitable game for skilled players is that downswings happen. You may regard them as somewhere between mildly annoying to mentally crushing, but if you step back and look at the bigger picture, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that they play a critical role in allowing better players to win.

Casino owners and their predecessors have understood this principle since games of chance first grabbed the imagination of our species. The only way that people will keep investing in a losing long-term proposition is if they sometimes win.

Think about a slot machine that returns 95% of the money that is dropped in it. Suppose it literally did that on every spin. You feed in a dollar bill, pull a handle, and into the little tray beneath the reels the machine spits ninety-five cents in a cacophonous clatter.

It’s immediately apparent that the buckets of loose change produced would be only slightly less annoying than the net result of this bizarre operation. Clearly nobody in their right mind would play such a machine. Now you might argue, and I would probably agree, that playing any game that gives back 95¢ on the dollar suggests the player is a few sticks short of a bundle. But a cursory glance around any casino floor will confirm that a pay-out schedule that allows players to occasionally book wins is all it takes to fill the place.

Following this analogy, it’s hopefully apparent that when a slot player hits a huge jackpot, the casino has just suffered a major downswing. So how do the casino executives react to this? Do they call the winning player a lucky idiot, curse their terrible fortune, and shake their fists at the unfairness handed out to them by the Slot Gods? No. They make a big production of congratulating the player that just beat them, take that player’s picture, and spread it all over their promotional material.

Poker players could learn a lot from casinos.

A winning poker player is basically emulating the standard operating procedures of a casino. She has tilted the playing field in her favor by playing against weaker opponents so that her skill edge guarantees long-term profit. But the only reason she has any customers is that, despite their skill deficiency, her opponents sometimes beat her. A downswing is nothing more than the clustering of such events which are required in order for there to be a game at all.

All professional poker players understand this at the intellectual level to varying degrees, but I’ve met few who embrace their downswings. I confess I don’t embrace mine. Why is that?

There’s a passage from Ed Miller’s “The Course” that I have heavily dog-eared:

“If you let it, no-limit hold ’em will torture you in nearly every way imaginable. Eventually you’ll hit a stretch, weeks maybe, where you’ll lose every single all-in pot, whether you get it in good or bad. You’ll run the biggest bluff of your life and some guy will snap-call with king high – and win – and you’ll sit stupefied wondering how he could make that call. Then he’ll say he misread his hand and thought he had a straight.” (The Course, p.211.)

So on the one hand we recognize that our downswings are necessary for the game to exist at all, while on the other hand these downswings “torture” us.

We could just conclude that human beings are silly and leave the matter there. But since this is an almost universal problem I feel it’s important to figure out how we can survive these things without feeling so dreadful. And perhaps more important still, how do we get through downswings without our game going to crap?

I’ve been meaning to write on this topic for some time, and what finally brought me to the keyboard was a thread on the forum.

The OP was looking for methods of dealing with downswings, but the responses revealed something equally interesting. Many people acknowledged that, during downswings, they became much more passive. In other words, it seems that there is a specific form of “downswing tilt.”

I think the reasons for this particular tilting pattern are easy to understand. Our main experience during a downswing is that we’re putting chips at risk and those chips inexorably migrate to our opponents’ stacks. An emotional solution to that problem is to put fewer chips in play. We check when we’d usually bet, and call when we’d usually raise. And assuming that our baseline strategy is sound, these deviations are unlikely to improve our results.

In fact for some players the situation is even worse. One of the main weaknesses I see in low-limit players in Las Vegas is that they are extremely variance-averse. They have developed a strategy, the primary purpose of which is to avoid, or at least minimize, downswings. If you’ve studied the training material here at Red Chip you’ll understand immediately that such an approach is not good poker.

It all comes back to the same point. Losing is a critical part of winning, whether it is in the general sense of variance giving long-term losers occasional wins that keep them coming to the tables, or the immutable fact that no-limit hold ’em, when played well, involves losing large pots.

But as I concluded above, human beings are silly. Even if poker is our job and we understand the fiscal realities and the importance of variance, we let other stuff muddy the waters. We compete to win, and when we don’t win we get upset. You could walk through the poker rooms of Vegas right now and easily identify dozens of players who are somewhere between mildly irritated to borderline apoplectic thanks to… well, thanks in part to the random distribution of bits of plastic over which they have no control whatsoever.

You want it to hurt less? You want to negotiate downswings not only with less pain, but also while playing your sound, winning game?

I’ve never had a mental-game coach. I was in psychoanalysis for over five years and was compelled to teach my analyst the rudiments of PLO so our sessions went better. I have a close-knit group of poker-playing friends in Vegas whom I trust. I read “Painless Poker” by Tommy Angelo. I meditate erratically. All these things help.

Perhaps the most useful observation I can offer is that Ed Miller’s quote above on being tortured by hold’em leads with the critical qualifier: “If you let it…” Whatever solution you find to negotiating the final mental-game frontier, I’ll bet the first step is the recognition that ultimately this is a matter of choice.

Choose wisely.

This is the last scheduled article in Kat Martin’s series on $1/$2. If there are other topics you would like him to discuss, please message him at the forum or leave a comment below.