“Your upswing was obviously pure luck (variance) and the downswing was obviously mostly caused by terrible play… at least that’s the opinion I’ve been reading in other threads around here.” – ‘Ben’ on the internettexasholdem.com poker forum.

I read the above when browsing through some old forum posts and it made me think. Further browsing led me to several other discussions about the nature of downswings. To what extent are they caused by bad luck and to what extent are they caused by bad play? Of course both of these terms are relative and subjective, so there is no definite answer to this question, but consider it a topic to ponder.

The problem that most poker players have, at least to start with, is that they will attribute their wins to good play and their losses to bad luck. They will have a winning session and feel like they are the best player in the world, then they will have a bad session and curse their bad luck. This cycle will repeat over and over, until eventually they will conclude that they are simply an unlucky person (or that online poker is rigged).

Of course nobody is inherently lucky or unlucky. The reason that a lot of players experience sharp upswings and downswings (and eventually bust out) is usually because they have bad bankroll management skills or are not as good as they think they are. The reason that they perceive that they are merely unlucky is two-fold. Firstly people like to delude themselves with respect to their own ability (this is not a phenomenon unique to poker), and secondly they tend to misunderstand what luck really is. When a player is winning, they don’t always realise that their good hands holding up and their opponents missing their draws (even long-shot draws) are also ‘lucky’ in a way. It is impossible to win at poker in the short term without at least some degree of good fortune, that’s just the nature of the game.

One of the first steps you must take on your road to poker success is to distance yourself from this mindset. When you have a big winning session, rather than patting yourself on the back, accept that there was a large amount of luck involved and that you can’t possibly sustain that kind of win rate in the long term. Likewise when you have a losing session, rather than just blame bad luck, look hard to see if bad play might also have been a factor in your demise. You are almost sure to be making some mistakes even if you don’t realise it at first.

In other words, don’t get carried away with good results and look hard for leaks when things are going badly. This is the advice that we’re used to hearing. The advice that wise experienced poker players give to new players tormented by variance. I’m sure nearly everyone reading this article has heard it before. The problem, as Ben identifies in the forum quote above, is that in your effort to avoid the deluding yourself, it is possible to go too far the other way. While it is foolish to attribute a big upswing entirely to your stellar play, it is also wrong to attribute it entirely to good luck. Likewise if you are on a downswing, bad luck is almost certainly playing its part as well as mistakes. You should avoid piously following the line that good results are caused by variance and poor results are caused by bad play, because it is just as short sighted as the other way around.

Another subject that often gets brought up when discussing downswings (and rightly so) is tilt. If a player is on tilt, he might start playing so badly that he no longer has any edge at all. In other words he has transformed himself into a losing player. Obviously at this point it is entirely possible to experience a downswing that has nothing to do with bad luck. However, to blame a downswing entirely on tilt is also somewhat of a copout. Serious tilt is generally something that lasts for a session or less. If someone has been running badly for many thousands of hands, then it is a bit of a stretch to say that the downswing was caused entirely by tilt. It is possible for some subtle forms of tilt to creep into your game and last many sessions, but that’s what they are subtle forms of tilt. Not the kind that will turn a 2BB/100 player into a –5BB/100 player.

Just like bad play, you must be careful not to scapegoat tilt when discussing a downswing. Tilt certainly contributes to downswings and makes them last longer, but you can’t simply say that a downswing was caused by tilt and leave it at that. Almost certainly it is a product of tilt and bad luck and the bad play that was inherent in your game in the first place. In other words, tilt may increase the proportion of a downswing we can attribute to bad play, but bad luck is still likely to be a large factor.

Evaluating Skill and Luck

We need to acknowledge the part played by both skill and luck in downswings, but unfortunately they are very hard to isolate empirically in all but the simplest of cases. Both of these factors will contribute towards your observed results, but the amount contributed by each is almost impossible to measure. For example, let’s consider just one hand I played earlier today:

I was playing in a 6-handed game and was dealt Ac Jc in the small blind. The cut-off (a semi-loose/aggressive player) open raised, I re-raised and the big blind (a loose/passive player) and the cut-off both called.

The flop was Jh 9h 8s I bet and both players called.

The turn was 8h. I bet, the big blind raised, the cut-off cold-called and I thought for a while and folded. At showdown, the big blind had 7d 8d and the cut-off had Ah Tc and made his flush on the river.

Obviously against some opponents I wouldn’t have folded the turn, but I don’t want to go too far into the strategy of the hand. Overall I think I played it well given what I knew about my opponents. What is indisputable is that I lost three big bets on the hand and that luck and skill both played a part in the hand and its eventual result.

I received a good starting hand (good luck). I was up against two hands that I had good pot equity against (good luck) and made a good re-raise pre-flop (good play). On the flop I had the best hand (good luck) and bet it, charging the two other players to draw (good play). The turn gave the big blind a better hand (bad luck) and the cut-off an improved draw (bad luck). I bet (good play) and folded to a raise from a passive player on a scary board (good play).

So what can I attribute to good/bad play and good/bad luck on this hand? If I had called the turn raise then I would have lost at least one more big bet. On the other hand, if I had cold-called or folded pre-flop I would have saved some bets, getting rewarded for what was almost certainly a bad play. Even the luck element is tough to quantify. The luck of the pre-flop hand distribution and the flop seemed to be good luck for me, but actually ended up costing me money. In fact, the luck and skill in this one hand are so hopelessly intertwined, it is difficult to put any real value on them.

I lost three big bets on a hand where a weaker player may have lost anywhere between zero and five. A luckier (in the context of this hand) player might have had his hand hold up, winning a nice pot. An unluckier player might have got a blank on the turn but then been overtaken on the river, costing him more money as a result. And this is just one hand of the two thousand I played today, of the two hundred thousand I have played this year. Each contained it’s own pieces of good luck and bad luck, of good play and yes, I’ll admit it, plenty of bad play too.

It is impossible to argue whether a downswing (or upswing) is down to bad luck or bad play, because the answer is always that it is both. There will be times when you experience better than average luck and times when you experience worse than average luck for sustained periods. In those same periods you will also have made many good decisions and many bad decisions. Overall the sum of your luck and the effect of your own decisions will determine how much money you win or lose. The two are inseparable and both must be considered in any sensible discussion of variance.

Understanding your Swings

When dealing with a downswing, it is important to see it for what it is. A period of bad luck made worse by the leaks in your own game. Your luck will turn around if you wait long enough. If you don’t want to wait that long then you can take practical steps by studying hard to improve your game during this time (in truth there is never a bad time to do this). It is also important that you keep your upswings in perspective. These too are caused by a combination of good luck and your play skill. It is important to be mindful of the luck element and not allow yourself to get carried away with short-term results. As Pilchard once wrote in response to a downswing post:

The problem is not really the downswing but a misunderstanding of the upswings…. If at the time you started playing you could have been offered an average of 1.85 BB/100 after x months you probably would have took it. You cannot let if get to you that it was at 2.4 and dropped to 1.85. What if you had started the month at 1.3 and it had come up to 1.85, would you be concerned then? Of course not. You are too good a player to have anything to worry about.

It’s easy to admit you are having good fortune when you are experiencing huge, obviously unsustainable win rates, but what when your win rate is just a little higher than usual? What if you have just had your first month over 2BB/100? Or 1BB/100? Or your first winning month full stop? You might fall into the trap of thinking that you have finally ‘cracked’ the game, that you are reaping the rewards of your improved play. And maybe you are, but you also must consider the possibility that you are just getting lucky a little more than usual. Maybe your big pocket pairs have been holding up just a little more than average. Or your opponent’s flush draws have been coming in a little less often than average. Almost unnoticeable things while you are playing, but it doesn’t take much to skew your results in one direction or other.

Which brings us neatly back to where we started the article. Although they are worlds apart in how you experience them, upswings and downswings are two sides of the same coin. To understand downswings, you must also understand upswings and vice versa. So from this perspective, Ben was correct in his gripe. Experienced players can go too far in blaming downswings on bad play, just as inexperienced players go too far in attributing their upswings on good play. When looking at our own downswings and giving advice to others experiencing them, we must first stress the importance of both luck and skill in results. The longer the period of results, the more skill takes over at the expense of luck, but the long term is very long indeed.

However, I will say one thing in defence of the wise owls that inhabit the ITH forums. When somebody is on a downswing, by telling them to focussing on their own shortcomings you are at least forcing them to focus on something they actually have control over. You can’t change your luck when you are running badly, but you can work hard to improve your play. Maybe by studying a book, an article or some hand examples you can figure out how to make that extra one big bet per five hundred hands in the long run. Not only will this have a real impact on your results over time, but it will also allow you to sit at the table with more confidence. Sure you may be running badly, but you are a better player than you were last time you sat down. This helps prevent the defeatist mentality that can cause you to be on tilt before you even start.

You can’t remove the gambling element from poker, but one thing you certainly can do is skew the odds in your favour.

Ian Taylor, AKA “Piemaster is the Co-Author of the highly regarded Poker Psychology Book “The Poker Mindset”.

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Poker Luck and Skill : Variance or Bad Play?
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