Four Tips To Surviving Poker Downswings

Downswing. It’s the most chilling word in the poker world. The inevitable periods of time when nothing goes right. You mostly get unplayable cards, and when you do get playable cards, they turn into extremely good second-best hands, or hands that are unbeatable, right until the river card was dealt.

How do we play our best game and maintain emotional equilibrium when the poker storms are ripping sails from the mast of our boat, threatening to blow in the windows of our financial cottage, and other scary analogies?

Here are four tips for keeping your boat upright and the windows secure.

1. Check your play

Before you do anything else, stop and review your own play. Unless you play perfect poker (I don’t know anybody who does), you’ll find places where you could improve. I know there are times when I make a play and immediately know I’ve made a mistake. If you do nothing else, write it down immediately. Make a note about the hand, and what you did wrong. “Raise UTG 4x AKo. One caller. Flop K-4-7. Me 5, call. Turn 7. Chk chk. River T. Chk chk. He shows KJ. Should have kept betting.”

A few notes like that and you’ll probably start to see some patterns. You’re calling too much preflop. You’re not value betting enough. You’re calling too many big bets on the river with weaker values. Whatever it is, you’ll start to recognize your own missteps, which is obviously the first step to correcting them.

2. Look for their mistakes

After—after—you’ve carefully reviewed your own play for errors, start looking for errors your opponents are making. As we all know, “If you can’t spot the sucker in the first thirty minutes, you are the sucker.”

Things to look for:

  • Seeing too many flops. This is the first and most unforgivable error most players make, and it’s easy to spot. Just pick one player at the table and compute his VPIP (percentage of the time he voluntarily puts money in the pot). When you see a number north of about 40%, remember that person—they’re almost certainly donating to the game.
  • Insufficient respect for big preflop raises. In particular, you’re looking for people cold-calling 3-bets. There are very few hold’em hands which can reasonably cold-call a 3-bet. Most hands should be quickly folding, and a small few should be 4-betting. Somebody who cold-calls a lot of 3-bets is too committed to seeing too many flops.
  • Calling big turn and river bets with weak (usually one-pair) values. This is the guy who can’t stand to be bluffed out of a pot. So he calls, in case you’re bluffing.

After some serious watching, if you can’t see the mistakes your opponents are making, then either (a) they’re not making mistakes (which I grant is unlikely), or (b) you don’t recognize the mistakes they’re making. Well, if you don’t recognize their mistakes, then they might as well not be making them. Either way, you’re in the wrong game.

But I doubt that will happen. More likely you’ll spot a bunch of serious errors your opponents are making. That brings us to the next section—how to exploit those mistakes.

3. Are you properly reacting to your opponents’ mistakes?

It’s highly desirable for your opponents to make mistakes, but it only serves you if you respond correctly to those mistakes. For example, suppose you find a guy who, once he has top pair, is never folding it. Well, this is not the guy who you try to three-barrel bluff off top pair. Of course, when you’re beating top pair, you can let him pay for a first-class ticket to value-town. But please don’t try anything fancy on him and then come to me whining when he called you down. His mistake is calling with values that aren’t strong enough—that’s not the kind of person you try to bluff.

I spoke above about people calling too many hands preflop. When you see ten-five suited and king-six offsuit winning big pots, it can be tempting to jump in there and gamble with them. Don’t do it. When people are playing too many hands, snug up your range, and make big hands against them.

When they’re cold-calling 3-bets too light, don’t make light 3-bets – you end up in bloated multi-way pots with weak values. That does not make for fun poker. But when you have a hand that deserves a 3-bet, then do so. Print your Sklansky Dollars - Sklansky Dollars tells you how much money you expect to win from the pot based on your equity at that point in the hand - preflop, and then collect when you hit the flop and they hit it less.

4. Don’t lose your cool

This is both the most important and most difficult task of all. They say the first casualty of war is truth. The first casualty of a downswing is confidence. When nothing is going right, it’s easy to wonder if you’re playing well. We covered above how to confirm you’re playing well. But that doesn’t address the emotional pain of getting walloped despite good play.

Here are a few things you can do:

  1. Take a break from the game. Don’t worry, when you come back, poker will still be there. Go away for a week, refresh, and return with a cleared mind and bright eyes.
  2. Move down in stakes. Not up, down. Go where the competition isn’t so strong, and the monetary swings aren’t as big. There’s nothing like beating up on soft competition to get your mojo back.
  3. Be sure you’re “ready” to play. Don’t play when you’re rushed, unfocused, distracted, tilted, or sleepy. Get your body and head into a good place before you start playing.
  4. Don’t play overly long sessions. When you misread a board, make a couple of mis-clicks in a short period, or catch any other signs of suboptimal play, get up and get away. Your curve for that session is not likely to go up from that point.
  5. Book a win. When you get a buy-in or two ahead in a session, close the laptop, and go for a brisk walk to celebrate the win. That might not be the technical grinder-approved action (“Wait—you walked away from a good game?”) but the dopamine rush you get from putting a mark in the “W” column can more than compensate for the theoretical dollars you didn’t earn in the game.

Executive summary

  1. First, review your play. You should do this regularly, but it’s all the more important during downswings.
  2. Look for mistakes your opponents are making. This ensures you’re in a game that’s good for you.
  3. Once you’ve spotted those mistakes, be sure you’re exploiting them correctly.
  4. Finally—and crucially—maintain your balance. Don’t tilt, don’t play bigger trying to get the losses back. Find whatever works for you to stay centered and play your best poker (including walking away from poker for a while). Then focus on that until the sunlight finds you again.

Lee Jones plays poker every chance he gets, and coaches poker. You can contact him at www.leejones.com.