Treat an upswing as a bonus
Anyone with a certain level of experience in online poker will have played enough hands (thousands) to know how it feels when everything seems to come together perfectly. It’s Lady Luck and the Poker Gods have all got together for your benefit! You hit every flop, come out on top of every coin flip, and when that magical card you need to fill another successful draw appears on the River it seems completely normal – you expect to win whatever happens along the way, like Rafael Nadal at the French Open. We often read about to deal with downswings, but let’s take a change of direction and have a think about its polar opposite – the upswing.
Poker is a game that effectively revolves around probabilities, so the player who consistently makes accurate decisions will enjoy positive expected value (+ EV) over time which, once external factors and variables have levelled out, tends to mean that player emerges a winner in the long run.
It all sounds relatively simple but – surprise, surprise – in practice this theoretical route to success can be problematic and paved with proverbial banana skins, around which you need to negotiate as safe a path as possible. Even if you play virtually perfect poker it doesn’t make you immune to poor fortune – the dreaded Variance is so-called for a reason, and can result in your excellent play being rewarded by being on the losing side of even the most statistically favourable skirmishes. On the flip side, there’s the poker irony that sees someone playing appallingly yet being the recipient of fantastic good luck. We’ve all sat by, incredulous, as the table fish or ‘happy’ gambler rakes in heaps of chips, time and again, with awful hands and awful play – whether they’re unaware of their luck or simply enjoying taking risks, the result is the same: a sort of occasional short-term positive variance. Poker is and will always be a game with a big slice of short-term chance!
Don’t let an upswing lead to a loss of reality
When you’re fortunate enough to experience a too-good-to-be-true run, a more than welcome upswing that you don’t want to end, it is not uncommon for many players to lose touch with reality during such a phase. You tend to overestimate your ability and your game as a whole, and suddenly you start to think of yourself as a poker great, up there with the likes of even Phil Ivey himself… We’ve all been there! It’s like we’ve forgotten our entire journey on our poker quest thus far, conveniently overlooked the fact that we’ve struggled with this or that strategy and concept, endured long losing periods that can absolutely be put down to our own poor play rather than poor fortune. Suddenly our taste of success leads us to make unjustified decisions that can have a seriously negative impact on our situation. We decide to strike while the iron is hot and seek to exploit our new – self-assigned – top player status by playing at too high limits, completely disregarding the important rules of bankroll management.
Even strong and experienced players have managed more than once to destroy their hard-earned bankroll in a very short time. An upswing doesn’t last forever and, when you’re inevitably brought back down to earth, real life has a habit of catching up with you – quicker than you expect, and with potentially serious consequences.
It’s imperative to have a realistic, practical mindset in order to be prepared for this situation. An experienced player will immediately notice when an upswing is over and react accordingly. Under no circumstances, regardless of whatever great run you’re enjoying, should you use that good luck to justify playing at higher limits than your own bankroll allows for – this ‘golden rule’ is an absolute top priority! Unfortunately, too many players fail to adhere to this advice – even of they’re well aware of the cold, prudent logic behind it. Instead they talk themselves into taking the route that promises yet more success but in fact is far more likely to deliver the opposite. Ultimately, such a foolhardy move up the stakes simply won’t be a tenable strategy, and the danger is that, due to the euphoric, self-congratulatory state many players put themselves in on experiencing an upswing, the lesson is often learned the hard way. The longer you keep thinking that you’re a poker hero, the more damage you’ll do to your bankroll, and the less likely you’ll be able to realise your ambitions in the game. It’s by no means unusual for players who deal with an upswing so badly to end up worse off (even broke!) than before the good fortune came.
With both upswings and downswings, if you want to find your way to long-term success you need to be able to accept both as simply parts of the game that, in turn, must not be seen as significant enough for you to make drastic changes to our overall plan. Rather, whichever way your fortunes go, the key is to continue to strive to play a sound game, hand after hand, seeking out positive expected value by making accurate decisions. Success is ultimately determined by understanding this concept and not being distracted by short-term outcomes.
There’s no accounting for when an upswing starts or comes to an end, nor how long such a phase will continue – it just happens. When it does, it’s important to avoid making the mistake of losing control and allowing the change of circumstances to detract you from your general mission, which is to maintain a systematic, consistent decision-making process with a view to long-term positive expectation.
It doesn’t matter whether you play Texas Hold’em, Pot Limit Omaha or even Spin & Go/Jackpot SNGs. The game’s ironically predictable unpredictability and variance have always been a part of online poker, and that’s never going to change for anyone, whether they’re absolute beginners or the world’s best. A very good poker player’s make-up is arguably around 50% tactical/strategic understanding and 50% mindset; in other words, even an advanced level of appreciation of the most complex aspects of the game is rendered practically toothless if you’re unable to come to terms with the crucial psychological side.
There is no determining when things are going to go well for one player and badly for another. You have to deal extensively with the probabilities and variance, and many players have failed – and have seen their poker career end as quickly as it started – precisely due to their approaching (and adapting to) upswings poorly.
The Poker Gods, Lady Luck and even poker rooms themselves can’t be assigned responsibility for either upswings or downswings, but players themselves absolutely need to accept responsibility for how they deal with such occurrences.