Poker Variance

The Best Strategy to Minimize Downswings

I’m willing to bet: you are not as good at poker as you think you are. Neither am I. And that’s perfectly normal. The majority of people coming up the learning curve tend to overestimate their skill level.

This is a long-standing cognitive bias echoed as far back as Shakespeare:

The Foole doth thinke he is wise, but the wiseman knowes himselfe to be a Foole (from As You Like It)

More recently, David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University found support for this idea after conducting some experiments and publishing the results. Dunning stated the following:

If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent. The skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s fine, sometimes even beneficial, to be confident but only insofar as it motivates you to perform well. You must always keep an open mind and entertain the notion, especially in the early days of your poker training, that the downswing is more than just variance or run bad.

How I Deal with Downswings

I personally think the best strategy for dealing with downswings is to go back to the drawing board. Sure, you could spend hours doing database analysis to confirm that your recent results are due to variance. Or you could start with the assumption that poor performance played some significant role, and amp up your study efforts. This might even be a good time to get some poker coaching or at least find some peers or a study group.

Even if it was run bad, at least you’ll still come out of the experience with some improved knowledge and skills.

It’s All about your Win Rate

Ultimately the best strategy to minimize downswings over the long term is to improve your win-rate. Of course that’s easier said that done, and obviously we’d all love to boost our bb/100. I emphasize this however because I don’t think people fully understand the role your winrate plays when it comes to variance.

If you’re playing close to break-even, you’re going to suffer wild swings. If you’re crushing it at something like 8 bb/100, then it’s rare that your downswings will ever last very long (at least online).

This fact is best illustrated with the following info-graphic:

Winning Poker Players Vs Luck Variance and Downswings

Infographic courtesy of

If you’d like to learn more about win-rates and how to calculate them, read my post on how much money poker players can make.

  • brian- Coach @ PokerInABox

    One straight forward approach is to move down 1 or even 2 notches in stakes and play that for a week or even two. Get that winning feeling back. Play your normal amount of tables minus 1 or 2, this gives you quite a bit more time to really try and think about spots and come up with better decisions / actions.

    • Absolutely. You have to swallow the ego, which I think is hard for some people. But it really shouldn’t be. There’s no shame in it. I do it, especially if I’m not feeling 100% – maybe a bit hung-over or something.
      The risk is that if you don’t things can really start spiralling downwards until you’re FORCED to drop in stakes because of your bank-roll.

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