Dealing with downswings in poker is a common occurrence for avid players. If you play long enough, variance will inevitably strike and you will be forced to deal with a soul-crushing downswing. In fact, running bad enough to generate a bad luck streak will happen multiple times a year.
Unfortunately, playing poker professionally, or semi-professionally, is unique to other jobs in that, day-to-day, you never know whether you will actually make or lose money. Imagine if your job was to dig ditches, and one day you finish up a hard 8 hour day of work and your boss walks up and says, “here’s your negative $120 check, you owe us money.” That scenario sounds ludicrous, but it’s a part of life as a poker player. Sometimes it’s really hard to focus on your long-term hourly rate when your bankroll seems to be just melting away. I know from personal experience the frustration and sense of self-doubt that creeps in during losing periods. There’s nothing funny about a downward spiraling graph.
Climbing out of the abyss and being able to mitigate the poker slumps that we encounter is an extremely important skill to master. Unfortunately, everyone is different so there is no magic bullet to halt a downswing that works equally well for everyone. You have to find what works best for you.
My Own Experience With Downswings
I have dealt with enumerable downswings over the past few years. The most recent occurred during my spare change challenge. Everything was going great the first 25k hands, as shown below:
Then, when I took my first shot at 400NL, boom; doomswitched!
After a few really bad days, I took a deep breath, called upon my mental fortitude, and managed to get back on track.
Hold’em Manager poker graph for the entire spare change challenge
In the end, I made it through and went on to have a successful challenge, running my bankroll up from $25 to $4,000 in just a few months of part-time play.
Based on experience, here are my 10 creative things that I recommend trying to end or mitigate the effects of downswings, and trust me, I have tried everything under the sun. Some are a bit more extreme than others, so feel free to pick and choose the ones that speak to you and give them a shot. My goal is to give you ideas on how to quickly break you out of that slump and get you back on track to winning as quickly as possible.
1. Reproduce Your Game By Making Charts
Do you have a standard range for all situations? If you don’t, you should.
Adapting your game to other opponents is what poker is all about, and it’s impossible to do so if there is no standard baseline from which to adjust. Charts also make the game much easier when you are in a vacuum or read-less situation. During a session, you can just go with your standard ranges and lines as a fallback and then begin adapting as information comes in.
I recommend having a standard positional range for each of the following:
- Donk Betting
If you have read my book, Automatic Poker Volume #1, then you already have a good idea of how to make charts based on your standard ranges. If this is a new concept to you, here are two examples for you to copy. There is one chart for pre-flop and one for post-flop. As an example, I filled out UTG on the pre-flop chart and the Flop on the post-flop chart. Feel free to download the Excel version as well.
Once you have your standard game reproduced in chart form, I recommend embedding it in your desktop below your tables. That way, when you are unsure what to do during a session, you can just refer to the chart. By the way, if you want to see some basic charts for 40bb play, I created a newbie guide that you can get for free by signing up for my newsletter.
2. Move Down Two Levels and Loosen Up
I have seen people advocate tightening up during downswings. And, while I agree that getting back to basics is helpful, that should not include becoming a huge nit. Instead, I recommend playing hyper loose-aggressive and trying to put yourself in even more marginal spots to get the creative juices flowing.
However, before doing so I suggest that you move down at least two levels so that you are deeply rolled for the loosening up. For example, if you play 50NL, go to 10NL. In order for this to work, you need to be able to play freely and not be worried about dumping a large sum of money. The point here is to take the fear of losing out of the equation. You also want to be able to fully concentrate, so play no more than 2 tables at once.
During your sessions really focus on the dynamic and pushing the boundaries of exploiting your opponents. If your gut instinct is to run a multi-street bluff against an opponent who is capable of folding, do it. If you get to the river and face a polarizing bet for your entire stack and you feel like your bottom pair is good often enough, go ahead and make the call.
Just keep in mind that I am not advocating that you turn into a spewing maniac. You still need to stick to the fundamentals of playing in position, maintaining the initiative, and applying pressure. All I am saying is to attack the table and force yourself to navigate as many marginal spots as possible. If you happen to lose a few stacks, don’t get frustrated. The price of the education you are getting will be worth it. While you play, take note of the spots that you are having the most problem with and dedicate the bulk of your study to those areas of your game.
When I have played this way over the years, I have generally had stats somewhere along the lines of 32/30/50 (VPIP/PFR/AGG%). My typical experience is that I will hit a big upswing, with the red line going up at a fairly nice clip. And then, my opponents will adjust and things get a bit dicier. At that point, make sure you readjust and get creative on that front as well.
Once you have put in a couple of hyper LAG sessions, go back to your regular stake and play your normal game. There is a good chance that your standard ranges will make almost all of your decisions crystal clear, and you will have lost the fear of pulling the trigger in big pots. It has worked well for me in the past and I hope it does for you as well.
3. Do A Database Reset
If your graph has been tanking lately and your positional stats are in a rut, sometimes implementing a hard reset can have a positive effect. Often, when we are running bad, we may begin making more sub-par questionable plays than we normally do. Sometimes these decisions can even be happening on an almost subconscious level as a form of soft tilt. We know we are losing, so we have a natural inclination to press and try to get our money back quickly.
If you feel this may be the case, try a database reset. In other words, start anew at square one as if you have no prior hands in your Hold’em Manager or PokerTracker database. I am not advocating erasing all your own hands, instead either set the filters to only show hands from the current session onward or just create a new database altogether.
Once you have done the physical reset, play your “first” session and focus on playing mistake-free poker. If a decision seems marginal, ask yourself honestly if this play is likely to make money long term. For a time, take the conservative route and avoid the tough spots.
The goal here is to get a few tilt-free sessions under your belt and create a positive vibe going forward. Purists may laugh at this notion and call me superstitious, but I’m okay with that. I don’t believe in luck, but I do believe that a protracted run of bad luck can poison the mind and cause us to play sub-optimally without us even realizing this. We are humans here, and sometimes we just need to sit up straight in our chair, take a deep breath, and make a fresh start.
4. Use Extreme Table Selection For Awhile
It’s no secret that the most important key to winning at poker is to play against competition worse than you are. Sometimes, for whatever reason, we get slack on how well we game select and end up with a long break even stretch or downswing as a result. This is a common problem if we are trying to get in more volume to “play through the downswing.” Sound familiar?
To remedy this issue, I recommend forgetting about volume for a time and instead becoming a serial bum hunter. Do not make major changes to your game, just become really picky about what tables you decide to sit down or stay at. If you do not have a fish in the two seats to your right, sit out next big blind.
The only change I’d make to your game is to focus all of your efforts on attacking the weak spots at your tables. When you assess the table dynamic and go through your planning process, look for ways to exploit the fish first. Only move on to other targets if you cannot find a +EV way of extracting from the weak players.
Keep using this method until your downswing is over, which should be sooner rather than later, assuming you are a solid winning player. Heck, you may decide that winning money is fun and just keep using this style of table selection stubbornness indefinitely.
5. Find a Good Poker Player To Emulate
Back when I was still finding my way in poker, I came across a 100NL video by a player named jonnycosmo, who played a loose-aggressive style. I was mesmerized at what seemed to be, at the time, a crazy way of playing. After watching it the first time, I just had to give it a try.
While I was admittedly really bad at it, it felt really good to play so many hands and force your opponents to adjust or get run over. Over the next few years, I would load up that video and it really helped me get my mojo back. Watching him play seemed to always get me back on track in my own game. (By the way, if you are ever reading this, thanks JC!)
You may already know of a player that you have watched on training videos or even on Twitch. If not, I recommend that you find a few winning players who play your format of poker and choose the one that has traits you most want to emulate. Watch all of the videos they have ever made, or, start tuning in for their live Twitch sessions. You may even record some and download them to your hard drive. Then, when you go through a period of negative variance, fire up some of their videos and channel their style of play. Try to find the rhythm of how they play and duplicate it in the next session.
Hopefully, it will translate into being a shot in the arm for your struggling poker game.
6. Reread your Poker Bible
This idea may not seem so unorthodox, but today it is really easy for us to forget our roots in poker. Most everyone has that favorite poker book that really speaks to them, or spoke to them the first time they read it. Usually, the book will exemplify a style of play that you find appealing or seek to emulate.
If you ever find yourself in a long downswing, stop playing for a time and reread that favorite poker book. Once finished, come back fresh and with a refreshed perspective. If you don’t have a favorite poker book, take a look at my list of recommended books and see if one is a good match.
7. Diversify To Thrive
Often, we take poker too seriously even though, for most of us, it is not our main source of income. However, even if it is, allowing your entire self-worth to become tied to the success or failure of one thing in your life is never a good thing. If this is an issue for you, one way to remedy it is to branch out and enrich your life via another activity.
An idea is to either start a hobby that has always interested you or pick back up an old one that you did earlier in your life. For example, you could implement a program to try and run a 6-minute mile or start playing basketball again. You don’t even have to join a team or play pick-up games, you could just make it your goal to make ten 3 pointers in a row. Feel free to choose anything to better yourself that is adding value to your well-being.
The main point is to realize that your poker results aren’t the most important thing in your life. By mixing another activity into your schedule, you are spreading your happiness out into multiple different avenues. So, make sure you don’t have all of your emotional eggs in one basket and you will become a much more balanced and centered person who is naturally more resilient to tilt and the negative effects of downswings.
8. Do An Activity You Are Really Good At
Maybe you already are really skilled at one or more hobbies or activities. If this is the case, make sure that you work it into your daily routine or even as a way to take your mind off of a negative poker result. You could even take a break and refocus your attention on that “side” hobby. Go crush it for a while and rebuild confidence, then come back to poker for a fresh restart.
9. Teach Someone Poker
Sometimes the best way to look for answers within ourselves is to look for solutions in another individual. To this end, I find that there’s no better way to get my analytical mind flowing than by teaching another person, who is struggling to build a bankroll, how to play poker. The hope with this exercise is that by being forced to regurgitate the basics, you will “re-educate” yourself on what’s most important in the game of poker. Often, spending time focusing on the ABC’s of poker can help us start winning again. After all, the engine of any strong poker game lies in the fundamentals.
10. Play Two Street Poker For A Week
One interesting way to get back on track in poker is to make a drastic change to our playing style for a short period of time. The idea is to get the creative juices flowing and make it impossible to auto-pilot decisions. A way to do this is something I call two street poker. In other words, you choose the post-flop line that makes it most likely that most of the play will occur over the Turn and River.
Here is what you do:
In position, c-bet 0% of the time for an entire week with your entire range. On the Turn, base all of your decisions on what your opponent does along with the texture of the board with 4 cards out there. Play no more than 4 tables so that you can really focus. That’s it!
Doing this will hopefully throw you off balance with your value range and force you to take different and creative lines. You are basically forced to pot control all of your mid-strength hands and can have much less of a chance of over-playing them, a common issue among struggling players. With the River basically being the Turn, the pot will seldom become bloated and decisions will become a lot easier.
Don’t worry about losing value with your nut hands. Your opponents will stab often enough on the turn when they might have folded to a flop c-bet. The extra money you gain from those bets should help mitigate the losses.
Every time I have done this exercise, I find that it adds a level of finesse to my game that is necessary for today’s hyper aggro games. It feels really powerful to have the two-street game as a weapon to use against certain opponents, namely overly aggressive players. You’d be amazed at how often players will just fire big bets on the turn and then river with really odd holdings. If you try this, I guess you’ll find out!
I hope you have enjoyed reading about a few things that I have done to help me break out of poker slumps over the years. Keep in mind that these techniques will only help you if you are already a winning player. If you are a losing or break-even player, the only thing that will make a difference is to focus on getting better and learning how to win. Even so, it is never too soon to start learning ways to build consistency into your game.