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Downswing - a psychological consideration


In this Article
  • What exactly happens in a downswing?
  • What can I do against it?

The spontaneous switch to a downswing

Many people ask themselves what's going wrong during a downswing. Some open up a thread in the troubleshoot boards. There are two kinds of threads:

1. I'm doing everything right but these dumb American fish keep giving me bad beat after bad beat.

2. Help, I'm at the end of my tether, dead, nearly dead, almost dead, dead and buried, that's all folks, worst player; something like that.

In opinion, those who say "I'm the best and I'm just complaining" have it the worst. Trying to give them tips is tiring, since you'll often hear "oh I just went back in the plus after 5k hands, so it's okay!". Furthermore, I think encouragement, like saying that certain hands aren't significant, or saying "keep your chin up" or "it'll get better" isn't helpful on it's own. It takes the player's focus off of the present and potential development.

The second type of player is so unnerved that he no longer has any idea where he stands. The despair is in the subject header. No tip is really helpful. He also has it hard - his focus has totally disappeared.

Let us restore the focus, however, and see what happens (can happen) with a downswing:

The downswing learning pitfall

A downswing puts you in a very difficult psychological position. You are unsure in many ways. You no longer have the sovereignty over yourself to apply your own abilities. The good feeling of fun and self-confirmation is missing. When I play and lose, I have to be very experienced and knowledgeable to judge whether I've played correctly or not.

What happens exactly?

Negative thoughts and processes have an effect on what follows. In similar situations these negative thoughts become particularly prevalent. These thoughts consolidate into ideas. In the long term, this leads to leaks. You change your game to counter-steer. A plausible chain of events: you do something and take it on the chin. Then you find yourself in a similar situation...hmmm, you don't want to get hit again.

Example: you no longer raise a certain hand to make your opponent's draw more expensive because you think: they won't fold to my raise anyway and they'll hit their draw on the river or turn anyway, so at least I can spare myself this one bet.

A learning effect from game experience. This is actually contrary to the theoretical knowledge. But: experience is more firmly grounded. We apply more often that which we have already experienced in application than that which we "merely" know.

We make hypotheses about our defeats, including irrational assumptions about our own style of play, the chance factor, the opponent etc.

An example:

"Whenever I have pocket aces, my opponents always hit a two pair, set, straight, or flush on the river."

"I don't need to bother playing pocket queens; a king or ace will show up on the flop anyway."

"The fish regularly hit their two outer, but I never make my flushdraw"

"I play too weakly"

"My WTS is too high"

The last two examples are irritating. They seem to be very plausible assumptions about your game behaviour. Probably that player has posted his stats and an experienced player had told him that his WTS was too high or AF too low etc.

This may be true, but does not help during the downswing phase. The player grasps at straws because the situation seems so complex and confused. Thinking about his "bad" stats, his weak points, influences the player to form negative ideas and decrease his abilities. They block the game, and he goes on tilt.

A rational view

Let's make a rational definition of the downswing: a downswing is a chance pileup of events or things that deviate markedly from the assumed expected value, so that negative results are achieved over an uncertain time span. A weak point of this definition is the expected value, since this is unknown. This value is contaminated by leaks and other unknown factors, which increase the variance and can move the expected value.

You cannot stop a downswing. We cannot influence the factors that cause the downswing, but they can influence us. Learning effects as described above are strengthened, and they decrease our expected value further. We must work on that.

What can I do?

We are under particular psychological strain during a downswing. Our game behaviour changes as does our learning behaviour. We have a certain emotion that motivates us to make changes. We want to correct our trajectory. But if I increase my learning in just this situation, I have two problems. First, I'm not playing to my full potential. Second, the motivation to continue working on my self during the next upswing will diminish. For this reason, we must go about this situation with a plan.

The three phase model for the downswing

From our considerations so far, I have divided going through a downswing into three phases. All tips for each phase can, of course, be applied independently and outside of a downswing. The division into phases helps stay in control during a downswing by providing a structure when you otherwise feel like the floor has been pulled out from under you.

In the first phase of a downswing, it's worthwhile to concentrate on avoiding thoughts that have a negative impact on your psyche. Questions like, "How can one tell that I am a bad player?" are warning signs. The depression expressed by this must be intercepted before it grows.

A few rules for this:

  • Never end a session with the thought "I had better stop before it gets worse." It's better to play in fixed sessions and stop when the time is up. If it's going very well, of course, you play on.
  • Stop every type of thought that is negatively directed at yourself or your game with an active stop-think. This is a technique from psychotherapy where you give yourself the command "stop" whenever such thoughts arise, thereby breaking up the thought. Classify these thoughts as irrational and counter-productive. (This is also good for bursts of rage at bad beats. Interrupt the rage and dismiss it. It won't help you, only hurt you.)
  • If you cannot stop the negative thoughts, end the session.
  • If you are tense, nervous, or depressed, end the session
  • Do not look for self-confirmation in winning an individual hand.
  • Don't compare yourself to the success of other players, who reach a limit faster than you, for example.
  • Don't pressure yourself with short term goals (playing for bonuses, faster limit change, etc.) .If it goes badly for you here, you must consider carefully whether playing for bonuses under these conditions is still +EV.
  • Stick to the rules for bankroll management
  • Play strictly according to your best knowledge under the best possible conditions and don't change your style of play.

If the downswing continues, you will enter the second phase. Here it's all about things going good for you! Forget your win rate, the state of your bankroll, your losses so far, your leaks...

A break is strongly recommended. It disrupts erroneous learning and the consolidation of stable negative cognitions. You should be clear about your situation and seek relaxation. Pent up tensions must be released (stress phenomena). Play sports, go for a walk in the woods, a bike ride, whatever you like.

Leave PokerTracker off, don't look at your stats.

Build yourself up. In the trouble hotline in the Pokerstrategy forums, you can read about others undergoing the same thing. Don't work with what you're possibly doing wrong, it's not important in this phase! The leaks and game mistakes will still be there during the next upswing, they don't make that big a difference.

This phase is just about making yourself feel good again.

For this reason, it's not recommended to work on your weaknesses and mistakes. Concrete analysis of errors and the formulation of goals for learning along with planning your training should be recognized as necessary, but should be delayed until we can work on it more effectively.

We enter now the third phase: Learning the game of poker takes good abstraction skills; the game is theoretical and long term in context. Make sure you are aware that learning poker takes work. If you want to be a good player, then you are setting out on the right path here. Set goals for yourself and make a plan that you can reach. You must work with how you learn poker. If you feel free and capable, you can go to work.

An important note for when you're playing well again: never go to the table and think "We'll see if I'm still in a downswing" or "now I have to recover my losses". Or the next time you hit a bad beat, don't think "shit(!), just like before."

Go back to the first phase in that case, no matter how annoying it might be. You must work through it.

I wish you the best success!
Shark Attack!

Comments (14)

#1 mouse89, 06 Oct 08 14:30


#2 bakoy, 28 Dec 08 22:40

There are only 2 phases here...?

#3 Taiwan185, 09 Jan 09 15:50

bankroll management will help you overcome downswing.

#4 aceonetheriver, 24 Jan 09 23:33

i don't get this site 1st they say " there is no downswings, only poorly played hand" and now they give us advice about it !

i think phase number 3 is about making u feel good again ! but donno

#5 squishy, 27 Oct 09 11:46

im definatedly getting off the tables for a while, phase 4 for me lol

#6 Sinnology, 06 Jan 10 17:48

Downswing can be pretty devastating and sick for a player.
But as stated above its a phase which every player will go threw and probably several times in carer

#7 UPAY4DINNER, 14 Jan 10 02:00

Taking the break advice, a full year!

#8 Edukator99, 03 Sep 10 10:41

Hmm....is it just me or do they only mention 2 phases?

#9 David, 06 Sep 10 06:43

@8: Hi Edukator99, the paragraph about the 3rd phase is currently missing, we are about to update the article as soon as possible.

#10 LemOn36, 06 Feb 11 22:12

ok its still not upped ;o

#11 belayd, 31 Mar 11 18:38

A number of these bronze didactics articles are poorly written and fluffy, unlike the BSS bronze articles, which are well-written and substantial. I'm wondering whether to bother reading the rest of the didactics articles at all.

#12 AceKing223, 13 Jul 11 20:43

Still not updated until now. I feel stuck in the second phase...!!!

#13 Pouserly2, 12 Aug 11 09:11

Still a good and interesting read.

#14 JimmyChances, 11 Oct 11 17:45

Great article. I'm not sure how much other people got from this if they can't see that the 3rd phase is working on your game after getting rid of all the negativity during phase 2.