How not to lose your mind during a downswing

Saulo Costa
04 Apr 2024
Holdem Coaching
04 Apr 2024

Every poker player who has played some distance remembers vividly, what it's like to experience long periods of bad luck - downswings.

In this article, the famous Brazilian Zoom NL500+ top regular, coach and instructor of the Run It Once website, Saulo “sauloCosta10” Costa, will share tips on what he personally does in the difficult task of moving through long downswings. Considering the limits at which he was losing money in downswings and how much mental endurance is trained in such conditions, I thought it would be interesting to add his recommendations to the site.

Persistently moving forward in downswings without compromising the quality of your play is one of the most important skills in professional poker and you should listen to the guidelines and advice given here, because they really work for many.

Next - from Zoom NL500+ top regular Saulo Costa.


Poker is very tough. It messes with your heads. Whenever we think we got everything figured out, variance shows up to humble us down again. It doesn't matter if we have a track record of hundreds of thousands of hands in the positive. Accumulated losses have the power to get under our skin and make us question our capacity. Suddenly we become insecure, afraid, frustrated and paranoid.

  • Am I getting exploited?
  • Could I be getting cheated?
  • What if I cannot beat the games anymore?

It seems we're left with nothing other than lots of uncertainties in our hands.

How can we keep going when it feels like everything is falling apart?

Well, first of all, regardless of how we can do that it's important to realize that we don't have any other choice. Being a professional poker player requires that we navigate downswings. That we keep performing no matter what our short-term results look like. Otherwise we're just sabotaging ourselves. If we're going to spend about a quarter of our careers in a significant downswing, we must learn how to deal with them because the cost of not doing so can be huge.

But I get it - it's not easy at all. Our minds have been programmed by the evolution itself to really care about short-term results. Just think of it this way. There was no "long run" in primitive life. Survival was not guaranteed - not today, nor the next day, so the results of each action in the present had immense weight.

Nature selected the individuals who were more capable of better adjusting their actions based on immediate feedback of short-term consequences.

That's why we freak out when things aren't working. It's our primitive brain telling us that something needs to change - otherwise we may even die.

What is wrong with poker?

The problem of behaving like this in poker is that sometimes we may change things that are not supposed to be changed. Unlike our ancestors, we're not in danger of dying when we don't succeed despite our efforts. In fact, the worst thing that can happen for us is that our bankroll is going to lose a few buy-ins - often due to pure bad luck and what is even worse, differently than our fellow ancestors, we cannot and should not equate poor results to poor effort.

Sometimes we're doing everything right and we still lose. It's normal, it's expected!

This is all good and smart, but can we really rationalize over these feelings? Can we inject enough logic in our brain so that these feelings won't have an effect in our well-being anymore? - My experience says - we can't.

I've seen long-time professionals who had recently been crushing the game getting their confidence completely shattered by just a few
thousands of hands on the red. I've seen amazing players execute the most horrific strategy just because they have been recently getting beat down by randomness. - We can't escape these feelings, we can't prevent them from appearing, but we can learn how to deal with them.

A different perspective

Who hasn't ever gone through the experience of walking on the street without an umbrella when suddenly it starts to rain? Your first instinct may be is to run to try and find shelter or even to get upset with the weather for throwing this unexpected event at you.

However at this point, since you can't control the rain and you still got to get home, there's no other alternative than accepting your circumstance saying "screw it" and just walking through the storm. The funny thing about this is that

The very second after you stop trying to resist the rain you realize that it's actually not all that bad. It can actually feel pretty nice a lot of the time.

You walk now with no rush. You get home, take off your wet clothes, put them in the washing machine, take a hot bath and move on with your life. - This is exactly, how I think, downswings should be experienced.

Everytime you feel like you're resisting variance or fighting with your downswings - embrace the chaos instead. Accept it. Maybe your initial response will be the classic "fight or flight response".

  • Either you're going to want to fight with your downswing: curse your opponents, get mad and get upset,
  • Or you're gonna try to fly, to escape your downswing: not to play at all or to become risk averse.
  • But what if you could do nothing instead?

What if you could just continue to live your life normally? Perhaps doing nothing sounds extreme, perhaps it sounds sloppy or unprofessional. But would it be worse than the alternative? Most people's reactions to downswings actually makes things worse than they would be if they simply did nothing. Yes, there will be the cases of people that will in fact change the things that need to be changed and keep the things that should not be changed and remain intact.

But for the majority it's not possible to do that. Being capable of discerning exactly what we should keep and what we should let go takes a lot of experience and knowledge.  We can't wait until we have 10 years of experience as a professional poker player under our belt to learn how to deal with downswings.

The Solution

How to do nothing then? How to overcome or strong impulses of trying to change everything and overreacting? How to not lose confidence in ourselves? Well, here are a few things that may help.

First of all, make sure that losing money in the short term doesn't affect your financial life in any way. If you want to be able to contain your emotional reactions towards losing money, a very good way to do so is by having enough stability, so that these losses don't represent anything in your life. In practice, this means two things:

  1. Have a lot of money saved up in a high liquidity low risk type of investment.
  2. Have a very solid and excessively large bankroll so that if you lose 30-40-50 buy-ins, it doesn't make a difference to you.

If you can lose all these many buyers and still keep your capacity to pay your bills and to play the stakes you're playing then everything will be all right. You will be able to stay calm and resist your emotional impulses.

Next thing you want to do is make sure you're accumulating good feelings outside work. Downswings, accumulated losses, and bad beats lead to an accumulation of negative feelings, and these negative feelings will have an impact on your mood and your capacity to

To combat that, you need to make sure that you're also releasing good chemicals in your brain when you're not working. You need to counter negative feelings with positive feelings.

If you can design a routine that even during downswings you're able to balance out all that anger, all that frustration, that fear and that anxiety, then you'll have high chances of not losing your mind.

What this means in practice is plan your days to have at least something you enjoy doing every day like a hobby or similar. Be consistent with exercise as well. - It's proven to help improve our mood, relieve tension and stress along with all the other physical health benefits as well. And finally, it should be a good idea to get in touch with the people in your life, your family members, your friends, your fellow-grinders - reach out to them, talk about your feelings and also ask them about theirs. Exchange ideas, tell stories and laugh of jokes - there's no better medicine to stress and sadness than feeling like you belong somewhere and that you have people that care about you.

And last but not least

If you want to stay sane during downswings, make sure that you're having fun. Losing does not feel too bad when we're having a great time. Rediscover your passion for the game, get in touch with that guy that couldn't think about anything other than poker 24/7 - what happened to him?

Poker can be fun even as a profession!

  • Try mixing it up from time to time and play live instead of online,
  • If you're getting bored of No-Limit Holdem, the learn a little bit of PLO,
  • Play some tournaments and your routine dilute cash game with new feelings . . . 

Approach the grind with a scientific mindset, where you go into your sessions with the goal of exploring new things, trying out new strategies and seeing if you can pull off this new bluff that you learned from your studies. Don't just sit and play long hours like a robot clicking buttons every day.

Perhaps, if you can do all these things, then losing will just become a small detail at the end of your day.

This article was written by Vladimir «ABIVPlus» based on the How To Not Lose Your Mind During A Downswing video.

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