How to Stay Focused in Poker When You are Struggling

How to Stay Focused in Poker When You are Struggling

One of the hardest things a poker player of any skill level will face is a prolonged period of losing — the dreaded “downswing.”

Downswings can sometimes last a lot longer than most of us would like and while stuck in one it can be very easy for even the best players to lose their focus. We see this most clearly in poker tournaments.

Every year there is some “phenom” who comes out of nowhere and takes down multiple big tournaments live or online. The player’s username and (sometimes) real name and face are suddenly everywhere. Everybody wants an interview, and the fanboys are singing their praises far and wide.

But then that player disappears for a few years and we barely hear anything more about the player at all. Was the player still playing poker during this time? Yup, usually more than ever. The problem is the major scores just aren’t happening anymore. For some of these players even min-cashing becomes a major challenge.

What happened? In a word, variance happened.

The truth is that these “phenoms” weren’t actually as good as everybody thought they were during the year that they ran hot. But also, they weren’t as bad as everybody thought they were during their rough years either.

In this article I am going to discuss a number of ways to keep your wits about you during the down times in this game. Anybody can play like a champ when winning every flip and hitting every flop. The real strength of a poker player is shown when nothing is going his or her way.

Don’t Believe Your Own Hype

You might not be an international poker tournament celebrity just yet, but chances are you have had a few good runs in some smaller cash games or maybe some decent tourney scores online or in local live tournaments.

It can be really easy during these periods to believe your own hype. Many people will think to themselves that finally their true potential is showing. Finally, they aren’t getting unlucky anymore.

But the truth is that nobody run lights out in the cash games or wins a poker tournament without getting lucky. You probably played well, but you also undoubtedly ran well, too.

Everybody loves a good heater. They are the reason that we play the game. However, it is important to understand that just like a downswing, they are not normal. They are the result of a lot of short-term luck being on your side.

You can and should be happy about your success during these periods, but don’t expect these kind of results to be the norm. Recognize them for what they are.

Don’t Believe Your Own Futility

The reverse is also true. When things at the poker tables are going unbearably bad it is very unlikely to be a large aberration from your actual results.

All players go through periods when they can’t hit a flop no matter what, they lose every coin flip, and the fish seem to hit their lucky river card every single time.

It is not that you suddenly turned into the world’s worst player. It is that short-term luck is dumping on you in a serious way. Even at the very lowest stakes, the best players in the world can have a losing day if the cards are bad enough for them.

It is important not to get too high during the heaters but also not to get too low during your downswings. The truth regarding how you are playing is usually somewhere in the middle, and in the middle is the best place to be emotionally, too, avoiding extremes.

View Losing Streaks as an Opportunity to Improve

Some of my biggest breakthroughs in this game have happened during my darkest hours. Why? Because these are the times when I put the most effort into trying to find out what is going wrong.

I will spend countless hours running filters in my poker tracking program and analyzing hand histories, especially losing ones. If I played live, then I will discuss the hands with other top players whose opinion that I respect. Instead of feeling sorry for myself (or worse yet, looking for someone or something else to blame for my lack of success), I try to view these times as an opportunity to get better.

It is fine to get upset when you lose. You should get upset when you lose. However, the best players will channel this energy in a positive way. They will view downswings as a cue to redouble their efforts away from the tables to improve and learn from their mistakes.

Final Thoughts

The constant ups and downs of poker are enough to make anyone question his or her sanity at certain times. But this is also part of the beauty of the game.

When times get really tough, most people will throw all common sense and their winnings out the window. The best players will instead try to view these periods as opportunities to improve, distinguishing themselves from most others by not tilting all of their winnings away.

One of the biggest keys to maintaining an even keel during the constant waves of variance is never to get too high on your successes and never to get too low on your losses.

Remember when you play this game you signed up for a long-term roller coaster. The only thing that you actually control are the little decisions that you make in every hand. Just focus on playing every hand to the best of your ability and enjoy the ride.

Nathan “BlackRain79” Williams is the author of the popular micro stakes strategy books, Crushing the Microstakes and Modern Small Stakes. He also blogs regularly about all things related to the micros over at

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