Poker is a game of long-term averages; therefore, there are undoubtedly going to be some big upswings and downswings throughout any person’s journey.In fact, it’s quite normal to downswing in poker, and go on seeming roller-coaster rides with your bankroll.

How big can a poker downswing be? Pretty big and considerably devastating – not only to one’s bankroll but also psychologically to their mental state. Recovering from huge poker downswings can be quite tricky, and it can be challenging to continue playing one’s A-game through it all, continuously making good decisions.

In this article, we’re going to look at the following: 

Understanding Poker Win Rates

Before diving in, it’s essential to understand win rates in poker – what they are, how they’re calculated and expressed, and what normal deviations are for what to expect from them.

Most typically, for online poker, a win rate will be calculated in big blinds per 100 hands, which can be shortened down to “bb/100”. A reasonable win rate will usually be anywhere between 2bb/100 and 8bb/100, depending on what stakes you’re playing.

Taking this one step further is the “all-in adj bb/100” column, which stands for all-in adjusted big blinds per 100 hands. This number is the stat that you should be more concerned about being positive than your simple “bb/100” state. It computes how much money you *should* be ahead based on equities of hands when players went all-in (if applicable), or if the “luck” factor was taken out of the game. 

pie chart

For example, you’re playing 100NL, go all-in before the flop with AA, and get called by KK, being ahead about 81% in terms of equity. Your “all-in adj bb/100” stat is going to show +81bb, whereas your bb/100 stat will show either +100bb, 0bb, or -100bb depending on the results of whether you win, tie, or lose the hand.

For live poker, win rates are generally calculated in bb/hour or $/hour. These figures are simply arrived upon by taking an average value of total win/loss divided by the total number of hours played, without the need for complex computer calculations.

However, these won’t allow you to see how much better or worse you *should* be running compared to how you’re running *in reality*.

Standard Deviation in Poker Win Rates 

Another useful stat that goes along with the win rate stat is “standard deviation” (SD). This calculation will show you how often you veer off your win rate for every 100 hands you play. The looser you play, the higher the standard deviation will be, and your variance will increase; the tighter you play, the lower the standard deviation will be, and your variance will decrease.

A typical standard deviation for poker players is between 70bb/100 and 100bb/100. With an average win rate of 5bb/100, over any given 100 hands, you’re more than likely to have results that fall within -95bb/100 and 105bb/100, assuming a 100bb/100 standard deviation.

This result alone goes to show just how volatile poker playing can be. In studying the bell curve of any SD graph, you’ll notice that the prolonged significant upswings or downswings are unlikelier the further away they are from the average win rate. However, they’re still undoubtedly possible!

So, if you’ve ever wondered, “How is this poker downswing even possible?” just think back to this point on standard deviation, which leads us into the main article topic of poker downswings.

How to End a Poker Downswing?

Whether it’s an online poker downswing or a live poker downswing, there’s one solution to any poker downswing: volume. (Put in more hands and data samples!)

Volume is going to trump everything! Volume will give greater statistical accuracy to the averages that are found in your win rates and everything else. The more hands and sessions you put in, the more data there will be to make your averages more reliable and accurate. 

For online play, you may find that your actual win rate is significantly higher or lower than your “all-in adjusted bb/100” stat, You’ll know that you’ve either gotten super lucky or unlucky up until this point.

The longer you continue to keep playing and the more hands you put in, the closer the actual win/loss figure will likely get to eventually resembling the all-in adjusted bb/100 stat.

How Long Does Downswing Last in Poker?

There’s no clear-cut answer to this question, but as mentioned, the more volume you put in, the more accurate your results will be relative to where they should be. 

Additionally, even through the worst standard deviations and scenarios, the higher volume you put in, the more you’ll guarantee profit (assuming you’re a winning player). This scenario will be the case, even if your actual profit quite substantially lower than where it should be.

To illustrate this, we’re going to use the Poker Variance Calculator found here

There are three main input variables:

  1. Winrate in BB/100 
  2. Standard deviation in BB/100
  3. Number of hands to simulate

Once we input the variables, we can see a graph showing all the different possibilities of results that may fall within the SD and the sample size.

To show you how volume does trump everything, let’s suppose the following variables:

  1. 2.5bb/100 winrate (modest)
  2. 100bb/100 SD (aggressive)
  3. 100,000 hands (low to medium sample size)

Graph - 1

There are a few things to note here:

  • The black line on a slight diagonal represents where we should be for a 2.5bb/100 win rate.
  • The light lime green bold markers above and below the solid black line show where our results will fall 70% of the time, within the 100,000- hand sample.
  • The dark green bold markers above and below the solid black line show where the results should be 95% of the time, within the 100,000-hand sample.
  • Beyond that, though, you can still see a blue line representing the absolute best possible outcome (approx. +13,191bb) and a solid red line representing the absolute worst possible outcome (approx. -6,836bb)
  • In the chart below the graph on the website, it will also show you further details, including that 78.54% of the time you’ll finish at a win rate of 2.5bb/100 or better, and that 21.46% of the time, you’ll run worse than expected.
  • The chart also shows the “Minimum bankroll” stat l for less than 5% risk of ruin”, which in this case is 5991bb, or about 60 x 100bb buy-ins! The higher your win rate and the lower your SD, the lower this bankroll requirement will be for the games you play in.

Now compare the above graph to the following one. The only variable that has changed now is the number of hands: 2,000,000 now, instead of the 100,000 before.


What’s incredible to note here is that the worst possible result is STILL above +$0, in terms of profit! While it’s “only”about +10,505bb won (vs the best possible +91,472bb (approx.) won and the average +50,000 won), profit is profit. 
You can see from simply adding more volume and data that profit will be guaranteed, assuming you’re a winning player.

The Common Poker Player’s Fallacy

There is one massive pitfall of thinking that many players fall into in terms of analysing their personal game data and information:

They think that they are winning players and are simply on a bad downswing for a prolonged period(if they’re losing). Instead of realising that they are long-term losing players and that they should be taking steps to correct this,they simply put in more volume and play more.

Players give themselves too much credit in thinking that they *should* be winners. Sometimes they don’t have data to back this up though, and simply assume that it’s bad variance.

Poker Downswing in Different Game Types

For live players,when all they do is calculate is profit/loss and hours played, it can be difficult to see how good or bad they are or might be running. 

For an online poker downswing, though, it’s somewhat easier to track. Online poker players can easily use HUD’s (like Poker Tracker 4 or Holdem Manager 3) to gather data and see the averages of where they should be vs where their results are in reality. This factor is especially true cash game poker downswings, where a simple comparison of the “all-in adj EV” and “total profit/loss” figures is all that needs to be done.

For an MTT poker downswing, the deviation can be harder to track.Naturally, the variance is going to be higher in poker tournaments than in cash games. This fact is especially true for the large-field tournament sizes, especially when most of the prize money is in the top three spots.

NOTE: If you want your tournament variance and standard deviation to  decrease, play tournaments with smaller player fields, and you’ll see more consistent results.

Whether it’s cash games, tournaments, live, or online, though, more volume will always help show you a more accurate representation of what your win rate should be. 

However, with that said, in those cases where you’re down-swinging below EV, it’s crucial to stay tilt-free, remain psychologically unaffected, and continue playing your best game to ensure your win rate stays (on average) true to what it should be.

Next, we get into the meat of this article, including strategies for combating a downswing in poker.

5 Tips to Combat Downswing and Tilt

  • Move Down Stakes: When some poker players lose, they move up stakes to chase their losses and try to mitigate the damage in a short period. This move is detrimental, though, because when you go up stakes, the level of players gets better. (Likely causing you to lose more money long-term if you weren’t already beating the stakes you were previously playing.) It’s essential to think of poker as a long-term run instead of a short-term sprint. If you’re on a downswing and your bankroll is diminishing, drop down stakes to accommodate the size of your current bankroll, and also to regain your poker confidence. Booking some wins (even if it’s at smaller stakes again) will help you get back on the right track for playing profitably and having a winner’s mindset.

  • Study: Studying does wonders for your game during a downswing or tilt-induced session for two reasons: (1) it improves your poker skills and poker know-how; and (2) it helps you become realigned into making logic-based decisions instead of emotionally charged decisions, such as when you’re down-swinging or on tilt.

  • Take a Break: If you take a boiling pot of water of the stovetop, before long, it the water won’t be boiling anymore. By the same accord, if the heat represents your emotions and tilt, taking yourself away from the game of poker for a bit (“off the stovetop”) will help you cool down and help prompt an ultimate return with poise and confidence. Time is sometimes all that’s needed to repair a broken or negative poker mindset.

  • Take Your Time Making Poker Gameplay Decisions: When you feel like you’re steaming or tilting, challenge yourself to take at least 5-10 seconds for each decision. Give yourself *some* time to allow sound logic to penetrate your gameplay decisions once again. All too often, players who tilt will act all too fast, and doing this doesn’t allow them to *fully* think things through and make sound, logic-based decisions. Take your time analyse each situation.

    There was once a poker podcast with a hostage negotiator on the line, and he was explaining how his day job helped him when he played poker. Whenever he received new information, it would significantly affect how he should be proceeding with the situation and negotiation, and what tactics he should subsequently be using. The same is true in poker. Whenever there you get new information (like if someone raises after you make a river value bet), that’s new information! You can’t just insta-call because you were value betting (meaning it was one of the “good hands” in your range. In a game of incomplete information (such as poker), always base decisions on as much information available. Carefully consider your actions whenever there’s new info or a change of a course of action during gameplay.

  • Become Less Results-Oriented: Coming back to the common thread of these tips, poker players need too distance their emotional attachment to poker results and focus strictly on making logic-based decisions that promote long-term profits. Failing to do so only causes actions to be made based on feelings in the moment, and this tactic is never a sure-fire strategy to winning. Detaching yourself from the results of the hand will allow you to be happy with making the correct long-term decisions, even if it ends up not delivering the right results in that one particular instance.

Poker Downswing Summary

Poker downswings can be rough to experience, but it’s an inevitable part of playing the game of poker. What matters more than anything is how you take it mentally and how you let it affect your play moving forward. 

If you’re going through a rough patch, move down stakes, regain your confidence, and aim to continue making sound/logic-based decisions.

Doing so will help you recuperate your losses in no time and help get you back on track.

Matthew Cluff is a poker player who specialises in 6-Max No Limit Hold’em games. He also periodically provides online poker content for various sites.