Handling Poker Downswings – Confidence Is Everything

We’ve all been there. You sit down scared, expecting to lose. You can’t remember the last time you won a hand, never mind a session. You’ve endured endless weeks, maybe months of bad beats, set-ups and running into the top of everyone’s ranges… let’s not even mention that gaping hole in your account balance. The thought of playing poker makes you feel sick and you’ve likely scoured the web for any crumb of solace, anything to make you feel better… “Handling a poker downswing, Worst poker downswing, poker downswing help”… but the empty feeling remains. Why? Your confidence is shot.

I honestly think that a knock in confidence is what it all it boils down to. You see this is sports all the time; sports performers play at their very best when it’s all going well, it’s just a fact. Pro Soccer Strikers can score goals galore then go on a 10-game lean spell and look a shadow of their former selves. Poker players stop pulling the trigger, get anxious in big pots and fear every raise is the nuts. Confidence breeds confidence and poker players need it as much as anyone. If only if it was that simple…


So where the hell does our confidence go? We certainly haven’t forgotten how to make +EV plays so what’s the deal? I think a big reason for the aspiring player (myself included) is the uncertainty of it all. When will I win again? Am I still a winner?… was I ever really a winner? That last one was always a big one for me. Because winrates aren’t really reliable over any given 100k sample, the standard deviation factor will just blow away expectations you had of repeating the previous 100k. Just plug some numbers into a standard deviation calculator like the one below from PokerOlymp (no affiliation)

Variance Graph Possibilities (2)


The blue line is our winrate, the squiggly lines are random plots for 100k. So even if you win at 4bb there’s a 5% chance over 100k you can lose! And one-outers do happen…

Expected winnings 4000 Big Blinds
Standard deviation 2372 Big Blinds


So for any 100k sample you can be 2372 bb’s either side of your ‘expected’ 4bb winrate! Humbling stuff.

It’s even worse with a lower winrate as the downswings will likely be more volatile and lengthier too and this just intensifies the uncertainty in the strength of our game. This IMO makes the whole thing concept of downswings much trickier to grasp, evaluate and to truly know if you really are a winner. I won’t patronize you and tell u to ‘accept variance’ and ‘respect the laws of standard deviation’, I don’t really think that helps, but we do need to be cognizant of them and the massive affect they can have on our short term results.

Whether you know you’re a winner or not, downswings are soul crushing and I’ve battled myself for years over them. I eventually realized and accepted they were never going away and developed a routine, a systematic way if you like, of dealing with them. I’d like to share it with you. I’ve found my step-by-step, 1, 2, 3 approach of getting ‘back-on-track’ very helpful indeed.

Step 1: Remember the good times

No one ever posts in forums how good they ran. It is great for your sense of perspective, to see the times you ran hotter than the sun. I’d hazard a guess most of you have never even looked. Check your database for sessions won and look at the run-good patches. Write these down as a reminder. It is not uncommon to see several 30+ buy-in heaters putting your single 20 buy-in downswing in a new light…

Step 2: Being accountable

“You are never as bad as you think you are, but you are never as good as you think you are”


You can’t just look at ‘All-in EV’ as your guide to running bad. I had a month lately where I was losing at -3bb/100 over 22k hands, but my EVbb (what I should have won ) was +8bb/100. I was getting killed in EV… BUT I was definitely making mistakes too, exacerbating the run bad.

You will know your normal in-game mistakes right? OK, well triple the magnitude of them for run bad stretches. You may think you’re not making mistakes, but you will be.

Some common examples of what I call ‘Losers Tilt’ are:

  • Raising/calling without a plan or reason
  • Repeatedly calling with hands you would normally 3bet
  • General aggression dropping –too much guessing
  • Getting sticky
  • Calling-then folding on blanks (or worse still… check-call, check-call, check-fold.)

What do all these have in common? A lack of aggression. Passive poker is not winning poker. You may recognize some of these traits, but maybe you apply mindless aggression which is just as destructive, if not worse. Either way, isolate the downswing patch and sort these filters by biggest first:

a)      Big pots >20bb, showdown = true b) Showdown = false i.e. your redline hands

Close calls and setups aside, do certain hands/lines get you in trouble? Maybe you failed to get some value? Remember if you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t learning. So this is all good, just vow to not keep making the same mistakes next time. So write these down, we’ll need them later.

Step 3: Back to Basics

Now we’ve gained a sense of perspective and worked out our leaks, we want to keep slowly building our confidence up… so we need to take to the virtual felt again.

Standard ranges

Write down or pull up on a separate screen, your standard ranges for: Raise-first-in by position, 3b, and cold-call. Deviate from this list for a reason i.e. a read on an opponent. From here we can build back up to our normal game style.

Game selection

Play lower limits until that ‘dreaded’ feeling is gone. Its tons easier to play when it’s not with scared money. If you are playing with dread or fear you will never be able to play well. Also play less tables than you normally do, let’s not run before we can walk. Lastly, play shorter sessions; you are not running at 100% efficiency yet and you have new leaks to plug. So if you normally play 3 hours, play 2 instead. Take it sllowwwwwly and before you know it, you’ll be loving the game again : )

BTW I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas on this subject!


Up next… Blind Defense – Unorthodox calls


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