I have survived nearly 10 six figure downswings, up to this point in my poker career. It started in 2014 when I experienced my first 100k+ downswing. My hope is that you can use some of my experience and insights to get through your own downswings now or in the future. Because…make no mistake…the downswings are coming. Let’s briefly discuss what it was like, how I got through it, and what I learned in the process.
My First Poker Downswing
2014 was my first $100,000 downswing. It zapped my will to play. It took away all of my drive and motivation, and all I was left with was depression. I would load up a session, lose one flip and tilt so much that I would sit out of all of my other tables and go outside for a walk. Or I wouldn’t even sit out. I might just punt the tournaments I had on my screen so I could go watch Game of Thrones and zone out. This sounds extreme, but it felt like it didn’t even matter. This was a BIG problem.
For context, my average buy-in (ABI) over my career is around $110. And I have played approximately 100,000 games. So a $100k downswing means that I lost 1,000 buy-ins, $100 dollars at a time. Now, there are some $10k buy-ins in there, some $5ks, and even some $10 buy-ins, but it all averages out to approximately $110 ABI.
This kind of variability is unique to tournament poker and can be BRUTAL. But poker is what I signed up for, so in the deepest depths of a downswing, I can either give up or dig REAL deep and find what it takes to turn the sinking ship around.
How I Addressed My Poker Downswing
Once I decided to turn the ship around, I took two immediate steps. First, I hired a poker coach to make sure I was not messing up the fundamentals. Second, I hired a mental game coach, to get my head straight. When you decide to take these steps, you have to trust the expert and do what they suggest. For some people (me), that is a hard step to take, but it is necessary in order to make the positive adjustments you are looking to make. Whatever it is that you are doing isn’t working, so why not go to a professional and have them help you figure it out?
I spent ten hours with my poker coach and ten hours with my mental game coach. I shelled out a total of $3,500 to course correct. It was easily the best investment I could have made at that time. Surprisingly, the changes I made in my mental approach to the game helped ten times more than the small adjustments I made in my poker (tactical) game. Jared Tendler got into my head, found my mental game leaks, and helped me adjust my perspective to sit down and play my best during each session.
I’ll briefly touch on a few of my main hang-ups, and how I addressed them.
- Confidence (off the table work)
- Are you studying / improving away from the table (poker/mental)
- Accumulated Tilt
- Learn to embrace it
- Remind yourself what you are in for today
- Reconnecting with my WHY
- Remind yourself why you play poker every time you sit down to play
All of these topics overlap, but I placed them in this order because if you solve the first two, #3 will be partially solved by proxy. Number 4 relates to all of the above as well.
I watch a lot of poker players who boast about their game, while consistently making gigantic mistakes. This is overconfidence. Although I suffered a little from this, my problem when it came to confidence was a lack of confidence due to slacking on my work away from the tables. I needed to get back in the “lab” and start fixing leaks, finding new strategies, and getting feedback from a coach about my current strategies. Once I started this process, I immediately reconnected with my love for poker and strategy games.
Clearing out old sessions is the key to solving accumulated tilt. What is accumulated tilt? It’s when you carry every previous loss with you to your current game. For example, when I lost a flip for my starting stack, it didn’t feel like a flip for $25 in equity, it felt like I was reliving every flip I have ever lost in poker, ever.
This can easily apply to real life situations as well. Ever have an argument with someone close to you, and suddenly the fight about how you forgot to take the trash out, becomes about how you forgot her birthday that one year? Bringing past baggage to any situation is never good.
See also: Three Keys to Commitment in Poker
This is one of the quickest paths toward the death spiral of tilt. And it will not resolve itself. Recognizing that accumulated tilt was an issue freed me up to accept it and then solve it.
I did so by religiously running and meditating before my sessions in order to clear my mind and get some endorphins moving through my body. Once I could sit down without the burden of my previous sessions, I could focus on the task at hand and the day was not so “heavy.” Immediately, a less stressful environment was created.
Once I solved the first two issues, it was time to tackle uncertainty. By increasing my confidence and leaving my previous losses behind, I was free to enjoy the competition of poker and the experience of playing. I was more present. Before each session, I would go over what concepts I was going to work on, both mentally and tactically. I would also remind myself that my would be filled with bad beats, lost flips, and bad plays (by me and my opponents). I could live with my results because I knew I was doing what it takes long term, to succeed within the game. As long as I was actively taking part in the process of getting better at poker (and life), it would help resolve my uncertainty about when the downswing would end. Because I knew it would eventually end.
I explained to Jared Tendler that I could handle a $500k downswing as long as I knew it was going to end on “x” date. Knowing the end date of my downswing would alleviate my worry and allow me time to plan and work with my circumstances. I was lying to myself. The truth was, I just needed to work harder and more consistently away from the tables. Simply putting in volume was not enough then, and it is not enough now.
Reconnecting With My WHY
Reconnecting with why I play was an essential part of enjoying the game more. It is actually the foundation of all of my decisions. I enjoy the competition. I like feeling “mentally superior” to my opponents and being monetarily compensated for it. Granted, this reaction stems from insecurity, but it was something that I needed to remind myself of during this time. My overarching goal is to never have to go back to a 9-5 job or wait tables ever again. The only reason I will ever step into a Cheesecake Factory again is for their Avocado Eggrolls.
Recovering From My Poker Downswing
Great! Now I am mentally prepared, but how am I going to make any money when I am $100,000 in the hole.
It was extremely unlikely I would win $100k in one tournament, or in a single session. Making back that kind of money would take time. Accepting that fact was hard, but once I did, it made the process go much smoother. So, I worked out a deal with my investor to allow me to take small profits at certain milestones.
Here is what we did: We set the $100k number aside and started at zero. When I reached $20,000 in profit I could take $2,000 for expenses. The rest would go toward the $100k make-up. This also helped me to let go of the overall number and focus on the task at hand. This situation called for a lot of adjustments and the support of the people around me. I was not afraid to ask for help, nor was I afraid to pay for that help because I had plenty of money saved up.
Granted, not everyone has investor(s), but you can use the method I have laid out and apply it to any downswing. It just requires a shift in perspective and setting a few parameters in place to increase your chances of success.
So how did my first poker downswing end?
I had mentally prepared myself for this downswing to last for two years. I focused on taking part in the productive process every day and believed that the results would come. Almost three months to the day from my first mental game coaching session, I had cleared my downswing and was in the profit for another $30,000! That was one of the best feelings I have ever experienced. It was eye-opening to say the least.
If you set yourself up for success from the start, you can overcome bigger challenges than you ever imagined. I am living proof of that.
You can reach Mike Wasserman at:
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