Dealing with Upswings
No, the title of this article is not a typo. Every serious poker player has likely had many conversations with other players about dealing with downswings. Ian Taylor and I spent an entire chapter on dealing with downswings in our book, The Poker Mindset. Should we not spend some time discussing the psychology of being on an upswing?
Some players would say there is no need. When you think about it, no player needs to be told how to deal with an upswing. You just carry on playing and raking in the money, right? Well, in a way, yes. Dealing with an upswing is certainly far easier than dealing with a downswing. Generally, there is less to say regarding upswings because:
There is no vicious circle – As discussed in our book, the main problem with downswings is that they feed upon themselves. In other words, the worse you play, the worse your results, which can put you even further on tilt and so on. Winning can build confidence, which can sometimes lead to even better results when one is playing well, but the effects of a downswing on one’s emotions can be quite devastating.
Tilt is less likely – Players are considerably less likely to go on tilt when running well than when running badly. They will not be playing scared nor be desperate to get back even. Feelings of happiness and confidence are less conducive to tilt than those of depression and self-doubt.
No desire to make changes – While a player on a downswing will want to make changes to his game, a player on an upswing will have no such wish. This eliminates (or at least severely reduces) the chance that the player will make a rash, ill-advised change.
Despite the above, there are still dangers associated with being on an upswing; they are just less severe than those you face when on a downswing. The most common pitfalls when you are running well can be summarized as follows:
Sometimes when you are running well you can get overconfident. When results are going your way, you may start to assume you are a better player than you actually are. Confidence is good in poker, but delusions of invincibility are not. You might try to play hands that you shouldn’t because you believe you can “outplay your opponents after the flop.” Alternatively, you might start paying less attention to the game assuming that the money will roll in regardless. An online player might start surfing the net, or a live player might start watching the football game that’s on TV in the background.
Also, the temptation to underestimate your bankroll requirements may arise. You start to think that recommended bankroll requirements don’t apply to you because you are clearly such a good player. You might move up limits too early, not appreciating the pitfalls associated with such a decision.
Another problem a player on an upswing might face is assuming the good times will go on forever. We have already discussed that when you are on a downswing, you can often forget about the times when you were running well; the reverse is also true. You might start calculating how much you can make long-term based on unrealistic short-term figures. Even if you do remember to take into account the fact that you are running particularly well, you may still underestimate how badly things will eventually run. For example, a limit Hold’em player might have a train of thought that runs:
“In my last 3,000 hands, I have won six big bets per 100 hands. Even if I could just make four big bets per 100 hands over the long term, I could quit work and just play poker.”
Of course, the above does not take into account that even four big bets per 100 hands is an unrealistic expectation for all but the very best players. In the worst-case scenario, a player thinking like this will quit his job and then find that he is unable to pay the bills when the inevitable downswing arrives.
A player winning at a good rate will often lose the incentive to improve. He is happy with his win rate as it is, and doesn’t see the need to spend time reading books, articles, and forums, or reviewing hands. Alternatively, he might be disciplined enough to go through the motions of study, but lacks real motivation, and as a result, his mind is elsewhere. He would rather think, for example, about what he is doing on Saturday night than about how to improve his flop play against loose-aggressive players.
One of the attitudes we discussed in The Poker Mindset was to “dedicate yourself to a continuous cycle of analysis and improvement.” As soon as you stop trying to improve your game, it will decline. This may leave you in an uncomfortable position where you don’t make enough money in your upswings to compensate for your downswings, turning you into a losing player.
Individually, overconfidence, unrealistic expectations, and laziness are infrequent problems, and fortunately are usually minor ones when you experience them. Despite this, it is still worth considering the potential psychological impact of upswings. Believe it or not, there are some players who play correctly when on a downswing, but their game goes to pieces when they are running well. Different stimuli affect different players in different ways.
When on an upswing, you should take reasonable precautions to ensure that you don’t tilt and that you don’t make any bad decisions. Continue to play good poker and don’t get overconfident. Treat the upswing as what it is; merely a lucky run of cards. If you make any decisions based on your win rate, make sure it is your win rate measured across a large enough number of hands so that you can be confident the results are a reasonable representation of your long-term win rate and not just a short-term blip. Finally, don’t get lazy and remember to continually work on improving your game.