You can’t pay poker without losing a hand. Similarly, you can’t get through your poker career and always take home a win. This is something that you can’t control, no matter the form of poker that you play, tournaments or cash, from hold’em to razz. We will all have losing poker sessions. What separates the good from bad poker players, is how well they handle losing days, weeks or even months.
The mental side of poker has always held my curiosity. In my early playing days, I would get hung up on losing sessions or even hands. I would allow these events to affect me mentally. An aspect of the game I’m sure many players can relate to. Ultimately you can’t be attached to the swings of poker, you will learn to resent the game and generally be unhappy.
In this article I’ll be discussing the methods that you can use to move past negative sessions, learn from them, and overall keep a positive mindset both on and off the table.
Being Self Aware at the Poker Table
Self-awareness is a trait vital for all winning poker players to have. If you turn a blind eye to your losing sessions, you’ll never know if your play is down to variance or your ability in the game. If you stay self-aware and keep yourself honest, you can dissect your game and learn from your mistakes.
It’s almost impossible to play a perfect poker session, even as a professional I remain self-critical and always study my decision making. The good thing about a losing session is that there are normally several hands you can choose to analyse. Namely, the ones that you lost significant chips in. Use these as a springboard into studying or re-studying a poker topic.
Tilt, lack of knowledge, and variance can all be the culprits for a bad game. The good news is that two of the three can be controlled. Pinpointing the area of the game that you struggle with and constructing a plan for dealing with it is best way to handle the situation.
How do you construct a plan for dealing with these factors? Let’s investigate what to do if you decide that the losing session was down to you as a player and not the cards.
Lack of Poker Base Knowledge
Now that you have examined your play to find your faults, you should study the game in the area that caused you your biggest losses. You can check my article about how to study in poker here.
By working hard away from the tables, you can return to your sessions with more confidence alongside a higher win-rate. I find that this also increases my ability to deal with poor variance and bad beats. I feel less impacted by a losing session when I know that the decisions that I’ve made are correct, but the outcome was unfavourable. This ability to deal with good decisions yet unfavourable outcomes is something that is also a great piece of personal resilience that you should use outside of the poker world.
Controlling tilt effectively is a skill you pick up with time and experience. There is no good way to control tilt, and everyone is different. Eventually you will learn when you become tilted. Generally, I find that after any big loss, or big win, I need to sit out and bring my emotional state back to a baseline.
Another thing that I see in players I teach is how negative variance can cause a positive feedback loop (which is a bad thing). You get sucked out on, play overly aggressively or passively subconsciously- making negative expected value (-EV) plays. This then causes you to lose more chips, which leads to more -EV plays. The only way I have found to break this cycle is to stop playing poker for a time, be it a few minutes or even a few days.
It’s vital that you take breaks. Not just throughout a session but also during the week or month. It can be tempting to just keep playing every single day, but you will find yourself feeling burnt out and generally feeling worse, especially if a downswing continues. This can further add to tilt.
We must also remember that we are all human, no person can keep being handed losses, especially when money (or in the case of professionals, livelihood) is on the line. So how do we deal with a downswing due to variance and ensure that it has no significant impact on the way we play future sessions?
Variance Associated Losses
Try as you might, you will never control variance. Being a winning poker player does help you reduce it though, the more of a skill edge you have on your opponents, the less you will be subjected to variance. One way to reduce variance is to play poker with a higher winrate. Let’s compare these two graphs:
One solution to reducing variance is playing at stakes where you have a higher win rate. Reducing the stakes that you play at can be beneficial for improving confidence and moral- more winning sessions in-between losing one’s is much easier on your mental state.
Because poker is such a mentally demanding game, you need to ensure you have hobbies outside of poker. I’m incredibly fortunate, one of the main reasons that I coach is that after every coaching session I feel great. Writing articles and coaching are things that I do which give me great satisfaction. Spending some time away from the tables can help reduce the negative emotions you get from a downswing and can help lead to more, long-term success.
Your poker playing experience is another factor that contributes to how much you get effected by negative variance. As a player who has played millions of hands, I’ve got plenty of bad beat stories that would make for a great YouTube highlight reel. This exposure to bad variance builds resilience, the last time I lost with quads I barely batted an eyelid. Perseverance and understanding can lead you to be less effected by your losing sessions.
Obviously, studying more, finding hobbies, or playing more poker doesn’t change the negative emotions that coincide with having a losing session or hand. One of the first students that I coached made one of the most +EV decisions that I’ve ever seen a student make. He had a 200 big blind downswing at 2nl and decided that he couldn’t deal with the negative emotions that come with playing poker. He understood that if he couldn’t deal with losing $4 in a session then there was no way that he could deal with losing higher stakes. He quit and put his mental health first. I’m not suggesting that you quit poker over a small downswing, but you should always prioritise mental health.
Be self-aware at the table
Use different techniques to deal with the different reasons that you caused your losses
Learn to accept variance over time
Reduce the stakes you play to increase win-rate, subsequently reducing variance
Take breaks, do not play every day when you are on a downswing
Study hard and learn from your mistakes
Having hobbies outside of playing poker can help
Prioritise mental health