Just the other day “Cinch” wrote a very compelling article on poker downswings. The argument was strong and I really enjoyed reading it. Let’s start off with what I really like about the article “Cinch” wrote. Instead of bemoaning his weak mental game during poker downswings, “Cinch” talks about being accountable and getting back to the basics. This is a great approach to take and is a bit like hitting the reset button for your computer when it freezes up. Too often players allow running good or bad to determine how they are playing. Getting back to the fundamentals can really help.
In the beginning of the article “Cinch” argues that confidence is everything in poker and in sport as well. He draws an analogy to pro soccer strikers who go on scoring “streaks” but then struggle mightily at times. There are many parallels that can be drawn between sports and poker. Let’s examine some of the similarities.
Many players who are winning feel on top of the world and players who are in the midst of poker downswings feel like they will never win again. Success tends to breed confidence not the other way around in poker. You’ll also want to keep in mind the following.
1) Skill plays only a part in determining the outcome in poker. Great play will pay off in the long run but not necessarily the short run.
2) Confidence is commonly thought to be a “Key” component in success. However, I would argue that success is a far more important component in confidence. Don’t mix up what is causing what here.
3) Lady luck also plays an important role in determining outcomes :). Especially, when teams or individuals are evenly matched. As win rates are compressed against high quality opponents luck plays an increasingly important role.
In scientific experiments an important part of the process is identifying what is the dependent variable and what is the independent variable? At this point I am going to ask you is confidence the dependent or independent variable?
For me confidence is the dependent variable. It comes and goes depending on how I am running. However, In my experience in both poker and sports confidence has relatively little affect on how I actually play. I have made some really bad plays when I was incredibly confident and many good plays when I had little confidence.
There is no question that confidence comes with success. So in order to turn yourself into a confident player you don’t need to play jedi mind tricks on yourself, but you need to become a better player.
1) Hard Work. There is no substitute for hard work in poker. When you work hard and know exactly what to do in a variety of tricky situations because you have studied them before, you will feel confident. I almost didn’t even want to mention hard work though because I assume that most people work hard. I know lots of people in life that work hard, but working hard isn’t good enough if you want to achieve stellar results. You also need to work smart! For me the single biggest breakthrough was working on understanding the process required to compete at my highest level (in depth study of ranges etc). The more that you refine the process and improve as a player the better your results will become and the more confident you will be.
2) Play Lower Stakes. Only do this if your caliber of play has been compromised. Sometimes its helpful to spend a little bit of time at a lower stakes games just to get the feel for what its like to win again. I’ve found this to be helpful in the past and I suspect you will as well. If you do this when the caliber of your play hasn’t been compromised you are only reducing your win-rate.
3) Have Fun! Yep, I know its hard to have fun when you are losing but if you aren’t enjoying the challenge of poker then you probably shouldn’t be playing it.
4) Take a break. Sometimes, you may just need a bit of time away from the tables to enjoy the grind again. This is especially true for people who play tens or hundreds of thousands of hands. I generally advise against using this strategy except in the most extreme of poker downswings. Most of the time doing this will just reduce the amount of positive expected value you are creating.
Several critical factors in the process of being successful at poker and avoiding poker downswings are….
1) Do not take a results based approach to poker hand analysis. Your biggest mistakes may be in missed opportunities or hands that you win but paid too much for a draw etc. Also, just because a bluff worked doesn’t make it a good one, and just because it failed doesn’t make it bad. Poker hand analysis should be independent of results.
2) Avoid distractions while playing (even if you are crushing the tables and think you can get away with it). Tons of players are guilty of not being focused while playing (myself included) and this can be very costly
3) Spend a consistent amount of time working on your game regardless of how you are running
4) Identify bad habits such as (tilt late in sessions, uncertainty early in sessions, struggling after vacation, etc) and work on solutions
5) If your red line (non-showdown winnings) is sloping massively downward and you are struggling to win you probably don’t have a “confidence” problem but a lack of smart/controlled aggression in your game. I talk about red line and several other critical factors that are essential for winning in my book “Exploitive No Limit Holdem”.
Poker downswings will always be frustrating. However, our job is to work on maintaining our level of play even when our confidence struggles. As “Cinch” mentions in his article players commonly reduce their aggression when they are running bad. This is not the correct approach to take, and “Cinch” correctly points out several example of ‘losers tilt’. His discussion of writing down “standard ranges” is also solid.
There are a couple of of points made at the end of the article on “Game Selection” that I want to offer my opinion on. IMO there should generally be no need to play shorter sessions when you are losing (assuming that you are playing well of course). The key here is I don’t think that losing and playing poorly have to be synonymous. Some of my best sessions are when I lose money. Also, some of my worst sessions are when I win. I agree that you should play a shorter session if you are playing poorly or have a logical reason to believe you will start to play poorly, otherwise I say keep going even if you are in a downswing. You need to know yourself and what your limits and capabilities are. I have cut short many winning sessions because I felt like I was slightly “off” that day. Again, don’t let results be your guide but focus on the process.
Same thing goes for playing lower limits. There is no need to drop limits if you are playing well and focusing on the process of winning (assuming that you are properly bankrolled). You really shouldn’t be playing at games where you aren’t properly rolled, and therefore going down stakes when you are “running bad” should not be necessary. Assuming you are playing well, all that going down stakes does is lower your win rate and lower your variance. Clearly if you are playing with dread or fear that is not a good thing. Those issues should be addressed when studying and should be clear from your mind when you sit down to play poker.
Confidence as a critical component of success is often misunderstood and misused in poker and in sport. Confidence is the bi product of hard/smart work, success, and working on a process to consistently perform at a high level. I think that confidence is routinely used as this catch all “euphemism” for all of the ingredients that go into success. Unfortunately, that makes it more challenging for players trying to learn and improve. If we are able to break out the fundamental building blocks that create confidence and success it will be easier to improve and help your mental game. One small step at a time is the way to improve your “confidence” and your winrate! I would love to hear your thoughts…
If you enjoyed this article and are interested in reading about how to increase your win rate and play exploitively get a copy of my book Exploitive No Limit Holdem.
by Paul Ratchford (ThePokerCapitalist)