How you survive downswings as a poker player is central to your long-term profitability. In fact, if downswings really crush your spirit and cause you to tilt, you may not have a future as a poker player at all. Critically, it’s important to recognize that downswings are an integral and inevitable part of poker, while simultaneously acknowledging that some downswings are produced, or at least exacerbated, by bad play.
So how do we know if we’re the victim of variance, or the author of our own demise? In general, we want to avoid wagering online at live casinos, making sports bets and any type of advantage play with the idea that we’re entitled to win.
Poker players frequently use “variance” and “downswing” as if the words were synonyms. They are not. And differentiating them helps us understand what downswings are and how we can recognize and handle them.
Variance is a rigorously-defined statistical term. Since this isn’t a chapter from a textbook, let’s avoid too much rigor, but give a working definition. Roughly, variance quantifies how far an observable deviates from the mean.
To illustrate the idea further, let’s suppose you’re a breakeven poker player. Taken over a sufficiently long sample of sessions, your net profit is precisely $0. Let’s also assume you win precisely 50% of your sessions. You are the epitome of breakevenness.
If you play a session and lose, you are not shocked by this fact. And you likely don’t regard this as a downswing. You have some sort of intuition that you’ll win some and lose some, and that on occasion those losing sessions will come in a streak.
Statistical variance can be used to quantify, in a probabilistic sense, quantities of great interest to our breakeven player. For example, what is the probability of ten consecutive losing sessions? In the next fifty sessions I play, what is the probability that I will be down twenty buy-ins?
There are online tools that allow you to probe these questions, which include the ability to input your own win-rate. (If you’re a losing player, I’m afraid your entire poker future will be, in the long-term, a single downswing, and I encourage you to improve your game through Red Chip training material.)
One final technical point about variance before we leap into downswings, which you can verify using the calculator linked above. Variance occurs about the mean of a quantity; in this case, the mean win-rate. One important consequence of this is that players with high win-rates tend to experience less frequent and less severe downswings. There are second-order effects such as playing style that can mitigate those trends somewhat, but in general, if you’re a winning player, but only slightly so, be prepared for some downswing doozies.
But what precisely is a downswing?
Unlike statistical variance, there is no neat, mathematical definition. In fact, whether a poker player claims that they are currently experiencing a downswing likely depends as much on their personal psychology as the red and black numbers in their income tracker.
First, it’s important to acknowledge that people invariably insert a bias when identifying a downswing. Let me illustrate this with a coin-tossing experiment.
We are now a breakeven coin tosser, where heads (H) represents a win and tails (T) represents a loss. Here’s a twenty-toss trial (I really did this; I’m that pedantic):
I think in common poker parlance it would be reasonable to look at that sequence and claim we were running bad, while acknowledging that this run-bad is consistent with a breakeven player’s expected results. However, this is not what what most poker players actually do.
Imagine for a moment those are winning and losing poker sessions in your log. You start off with four wins to two losses, and are thus probably happy. Then you book eight losses in a row. Oh no! Calamity! It’s a downswing!
Notice that you’ve made this as bad as possible by arbitrarily defining a “streak”, starting it at the first loss in that sequence and continuing it to the most recent one at session #14. Admittedly that’s the linear way in which we experience life, but is it really good for our well-being (and our game) to chop up the data in this way?
To put it another way, there’s no doubt that losing eight sessions in a row is a relatively low-probability event for a breakeven player, but low-probability events happen all the time. Moreover, the bigger the sample (more poker sessions) you include, the worse those downswings are going to get. And nearly every poker player will make those downswings look worse, by splicing their data and carefully extracting with care and self-loathing those stretches that look the absolute worst.
I mentioned earlier that players with a strong win-rate tend to experience less profound downswings, but even here, you need to be prepared for occasional weeks of losses for a couple of additional reasons.
First, good players of no limit hold’em tend to have an intrinsically high-variance style. If your arsenal includes triple-barrel bluffing, frequent thin value bets, and other recommended strategies, this is unavoidable.
Second, and something that is frequently overlooked in these discussions, each session takes place in a different game, with a different line up, and possibly you at different levels of poker competence.
Unless you game select very aggressively, thereby always putting yourself in the best game, these line-up variations can drive downswings to even greater depths.
Let’s take our breakeven player again. The statement that they are break even and win 50% of their sessions is derived from averaging over all the sessions they’ve played. The variation in the toughness of the games has been convolved in to the calculation. But there will be times through bad luck or bad table selection, that our player will be sitting in games where their long-term expectation is negative. It’s like doing the coin-tossing experiment with a biased coin. Thus you can also hit a run of “bad luck” when you sit with better players than usual, thereby increasing the probability of a downswing.
Finally, it’s worth noting that most poker players play less well when they perceive themselves to be in the grips of a losing streak. This can sometimes be as subtle as taking more defensive betting lines, to going on full-blown tilt. Neither approach will terminate the downswing.
So how can you insulate yourself psychologically from the impact of a downswing?
The best advice I ever got was from Doug Hull. He told me to look at my win-loss graph that I keep on my phone. And to look at the big picture. Yes, the humorless black line has been tracing steadily downwards for the last couple of weeks, but what if we start this artificial streak three months ago? Oh nice. I’m a winner again.
Just remember that downswings happen to the best poker players, there’s nothing you can do about them, and the worst one of your career may be about to start. As Ed Miller has noted:
“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.)
Downswings are a direct result of cold, impersonal statistical variance. Trying to control them, and getting upset by them, is as pointless as trying to influence whether a coin comes up heads or tails. Your only path to mitigate them is to become better at poker, and play in the best games you can find.