How to Deal With Poker Downswings - What the Pros Do [2024]

Dealing with poker downswings and tilt
Downswings and tilt are the most difficult part of the game of poker for most people. But in many ways they are also one of the most beautiful parts of the game. This is because they are the proving ground upon which winners and losers and separated.

A poker downswing is an extended period of time (from 1 week to several months) where you simply cannot win at poker due to bad luck. Downswings can last even longer than this in poker tournaments. Downswings eventually happen to everybody and they can often lead to tilt which can cause disastrous results at the poker table.

We spend so much of our time as poker players trying to keep up with the latest strategy advice and tactics and forget that the ability to keep our wits about us during the tough times is what will really benefit our win rate the most.

Many people think they have their tilt under control for the most part. They point to a guy who is open shoving or going crazy in the chat box. Now that is tilt they will say! True, it is. But what they don't realize is that there are many minor forms of tilt which are just as destructive in the long run.

Here are just a few of them:
  • The bad call on the river when you know you are beat
  • The hopeless feeling which makes you play less aggressively than you should
  • The frustration triple barrel against a reg who you know "has it again"

Added all together these can have a very negative impact on your win rate as well. In fact often the damage can be equal or even more than the guy who has lost his mind tilt shoving because he will usually quit after he loses a few stacks.

Many people will continue to play for hours though with these minor forms of tilt which end up costing them just as much or more in the long run.

A New Way of Looking at Downswings and Tilt

There is a different way of looking at downswings and tilt though which has helped me improve my reaction to them in recent years. But before I begin here let me be clear:

Everybody tilts to some degree.

As long as you are human you are going to get frustrated with this game to some extent at times. So I don't believe in the idea that we can ever "cure" our tilt. You have to accept it as a natural part of this game and as a part of who you are. My goal then has always been about minimizing it's impact on my results.

So what is this new way of looking at downswings and tilt? Well it isn't really a new way of thinking but I would say that it is not well known. All of the credit goes to the poker mental game theorist and coach Tommy Angelo.

Many years ago he created a video series called "The Eightfold Path to Poker Enlightenment" which as the title suggests is a sort of Buddhist take on the mental game. One idea that stuck out to me in particular, and consequently had a deep impact on how I view the entire game of poker (not just the mental game), is something that Tommy called "Reciprocality."

In his own words:
"In the world of reciprocality, it's not what you do that matters most, and it's not what they do. It's both. Reciprocality is any difference between you and your opponents that affects your bottom line. Reciprocality says that when you and your opponents would do the same thing in a given situation, no money moves, and when you do something different, it does."
You see, we all get frustrated with this game in the short run at times but there is a long term pure mathematical nature to poker which is the great equalizer.

That is, everybody will eventually get dealt all of the same hands (both good and bad) in equal frequencies. Therefore, everybody will eventually experience all of the same downswings and short term "bad luck." 

Nobody gets a free pass in this game.

So therefore, the only difference between me, you and the next guy is how each of us reacts to the adversity that we will face. If we all react the same then we will all get the same results.

But as Tommy would say, you are "mining for reciprocal gold" when you seek to make better decisions than your opponents in a particular situation. In the case of downswings and tilt, if you can handle them better than your opponents, then you will profit in the long run.

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I Will Handle Downswings and Tilt Better Than My Opponents Will

So building off of this idea I now take downswings, and the tilt that inevitably comes with them, as a personal challenge. Rather than take the "woe is me" attitude (or worse yet go complain about my bad luck to somebody else) I challenge myself to handle it better than my opponents will.

When I have one of those really bad days where absolutely nothing works and I lose stack after stack I think about how my fellow regs will handle this situation when it happens to them.

I know they won't handle it as well as me and I take pride in that.

Poker tilt and downswings

This "reciprocal gold" that I create eventually shows up in my win rate. Every time I handle one of these bad days for instance better than my opponents, I separate myself from them and profit in the long run. How do I handle downswings and tilt better?

I do everything in my power to make sure that my losses are only those which I deem necessary. That is, they are situations where I think that I made the right play and the short term luck simply was not on my side.

In order to do this:
  • I am constantly on the lookout for minor forms of tilt (such as those highlighted above) 
  • I constantly remind myself that this game does not owe me anything, I have to work for the results that I want 
  • I constantly remind myself that anything can happen in a day, a week or even a month
  • I constantly remind myself that I have seen far, far worse than this before
  • I constantly remind myself that I am a long term winner bringing up graphs if necessary
  • I will practice breathing exercises while playing to keep my mind calm and focused
  • I will take short breaks to regain my composure and think logically about the situation if necessary
  • I will quit altogether for the day if I believe that tilt (major or minor) is affecting my decision making in any significant way

I am confident that most of my opponents at the micros are not doing all of these things.

I know that each time I quit when most regs would have lost another stack or two because of tilt, I win. I know that each time I remain focused and play a hand optimally when another reg would have lost value or failed to get away, I win.

More importantly than anything though, I know that this is a long term game and no matter how hard this day, week or month has been, all of my opponents are eventually going to have to go through the exact same thing.

I know they won't handle it as well as I will. Therefore, I win.

This is something that I discuss in much more detail in the "going pro" chapters of my latest poker book, The Micro Stakes Playbook.

I credit reacting better to adversity in poker as one of the main reasons why I have been able to play poker for a living for over 10 years now.

Poker Downswings are a Blessing in Disguise

So I believe that if you choose to look at downswings and tilt as an opportunity to "one up" your opponents as I do, then you could conceivably even start viewing them as a blessing.

Dealing with the kind of adversity that poker can bring (especially online poker where the beats and coolers can come at super-sonic speed) is something that most people at the micros in particular are terrible at.

And there are no easy answers out there because this is the mental part of the game. There are no mathematical calculations, odds or software tools to help solve this problem. There is no clearly defined +EV line to take.

So therefore, it is during these times when you are facing the most adversity in this game that you can mine the most reciprocal gold. This is when you can truly separate yourself from the masses.

Dealing with tilt and downswings in small stakes poker

Almost everybody at the micros knows how to play their aces these days. Most people know how to value-bet a set.

Many even know how to get away from an over pair when it is obvious that their opponent has them beat. But very few people at these stakes are good at dealing with a really bad day, week or month at the tables.

You need only look at all of the endless complaining in places like poker forums and the like. You have people literally writing novels about their bad luck!

It is as if they think that all of their bitching and moaning (which nobody cares about) will somehow change the mathematical certainty that they will run bad in this game sometimes. This is the kind of truly bizarre behavior which this game can drive some people to.

And this is why I think that you should actually celebrate short term bad luck and downswings when they occur.

Next time your aces get cracked 3 times in a row try jumping for joy instead. Go ahead and pop a bottle of champagne if you want!

The reason why is that many of your opponents will react very poorly when something completely routine like this happens to them. So this is actually your time to shine!

This is your opportunity to distance yourself in a big way from most players at the micros.

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I have often believed that poker is simply a microcosm of life. That is, many of the lessons that we learn (or do not learn) in this game are mirrored in our regular lives.

This is definitely one of the biggest lessons I have learned in this game through my 10+ years as a professional poker player.

We all face setbacks in our day to day lives such as getting laid off from a job, going through a divorce or a major illness. We also face much more minor stuff like a screaming baby on the subway, stubbing your toe or rain on your vacation.

The only difference between us though is how we react to these situations. Some people see these things as merely small obstacles or even opportunities to grow. Many other people though view them as debilitating disasters that end up ruining their day, week, year or even life.

Poker is a highly emotional game filled with ego. We all want to win. And it is this competitive fire that drives the best poker players forward on the technical side of the game. But success on the mental side of the game requires a lot of the opposite reactions.

We need to take a more serene, detached and objective viewpoint. The ability to "let it go and move on" and keep getting up after you have been knocked down are the hallmarks of success in this facet of the game.

The best way that I have ever found to flip this switch is through the simple understanding that everybody else will eventually go through the exact same situations as me in this game. No matter how bad things get I know that all of my opponents will have to deal with this some day too.

I take a deep breath and smile because once again: I know that they will not handle it as well as I will.

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Let me know in the comments below what you think of looking at downswings and tilt in the manner. Do you agree with it? Is there a better way?

poker downswing


  1. Hey Nathan

    Great article once again, You never fail to explain your point across about the topic your talking on.
    Been following you for 5 months now and have enjoyed every article so far + your micro stakes book.

    Thanks for giving out your experience for free to all of us

    Regards a learning micro grinder from New Zealand

    1. Hey obby,

      Thanks for the kind words and being a loyal reader!

  2. Make sense. I've lost big PP in succession and have had endless suckouts but it does seem to even out in the long run. Poker luck and handling variance is key.

    Make the right decisions and not tilt will build winrate. Good info and thanks Blackrain79!

    1. Hey Mi Br,

      Yup, it is easy to get lost in the short term details and forget what really matters, the long term. Thanks for reading!

  3. Nathan, this is brilliant. Very nice.

    1. Thank you Adam!

    2. As soon as you made this post I went on a nasty little downswing too lol. Made it up today though so far.

      One thing for sure about the micros is they can be more tilting than a higher stake because people are calling with lots of colorful hands. Lots of suckouts where people have no business being in the hand. But of course the flip side is more action on your winners when people have no business being in the hand. Definitely takes some patience but I have more good days than bad, but I also use a stop loss if murphy's law starts kicking in:)

    3. Glad to hear that it is turning around :) I definitely agree with you about the madness that is the micros!

  4. Hey Nathan, great article about a very important part of the game! I haven't been writing on last posts but I read them every week. I agree that no matter how hard you study every strategy out there if you can't find a way to handle those bad days, then you can't really grow as much as a player.

    1. Thank you as always Jorge for reading. I agree that this is a very important part of the game!

  5. Thanks for this article. I think its the best time for me to read it because one week ago I realised Im not "tilt resistant" as I thought before. I have 'quiet tilts'. You wrote about it in your article.. For example I like to call river when I know my opponent have straight but you know.. I dont want to be bluffed. I must work with my ego I think.

    1. Thanks Robert! And ya I agree, we all have quiet or minor tilt. It is something that I am always trying to work on.

  6. Hey Nathan, I know it's not article related but there's something I was curious about. Here's the deal:

    How do you play when you are short-stack? Because yesterday I was lost by my opponent's hand better than me. Then I realized my stack was more like less than 20bb.

    And thanks Nathan. Nice article I ever read.

    1. Thanks Claude! I can't really comment on short stack play because I always play with 100 big blinds or more and use the auto top off feature on all sites.

  7. Hello Nathan,

    this is a realy useful article, I had a bad poker day and I already feel a lot better. May I ask you for a complete list of minor forms of tilt? I had the first two and I evolved the last one to "The frustration second barrel..."(lol). It's good to know all of them so we can counteract them we they happen.

    Thank you,

    Michael D.

    1. It's a great idea for a future article! Thanks, Michail, glad to help :)

  8. Hello Nathan ... here is my situation at the moment :
    I am playing professional poker for more than 5 months now at NL6... I establish a minimum of 6 hours a day but sometime I hit even 10 hours per day and every month so far I have a negative winrate ...
    At my platform it only allows me to play at 6 tables max but still I have more than 300k hands because of the many hours I put in.

    I read your book many times and applied everything that I can and I still have a negative bankroll.
    Furthermore my oponnents are extremely weak ... I play daily against villains who have between 30 - 95 VPIP and I do mean daily . A lot of the times I play against maniacs too , like once every two days.

    Still , no matter how good I run in one day it comes back and I loose in other days. You said it's not possible for a microlimit player to run bad in a long time so I must be doing something fundamentally wrong but I have no ideea ... no matter how much I read your book and watch your videos.
    The only thing that I think I can change is stop playing with maniacs ... yet when you see a player like 90 /50 on your right , can you really leave the table ?

    I know you don't do coaching or database review ... but can you at least recommend me someone who do and thinks similar like you for microstakes players ?

    I feel like I can't take it anymore and I will have to get a normal job ... yet when I see that there are so many bad players at this limit , I can't imagine why am I not winning in the long run and it so frustrating.

  9. One last thing : I have a lossrate only and only because of SB/BB positions .... in other positions I always have a winrate .... one month I had 550$ winnings from BTN and all of that was lost because of SB/BB . Is it really normal ?

    And everytime I feel tilted very badly and want to leave the tables I can't because there is a big fish like 70/ 9 on my right so I am thinking : " even if I am tilted , this guy will loose the money for sure only if I stick around and play with him " ... and sure enough : sometimes he looses and I get back on positive winnings or other times he take more money from me . Do you think I should quit in this situations when I have such huge whales on the tables ?

    1. Hi Mircea,

      I am sorry to hear about your troubles and I wish I could help you more! It sounds like you are playing in good games which is step number 1. Yes, I would always want to play on these tables as well. Obviously in a blog comment I cannot identify all of the problems with your game but these players are very beatable with the style of play that I recommend in CTM.

      The only only coach that I recommend these days is Willian Mates. And this is not because there aren't other good coaches out there. I just know him personally and I know that he is an outstanding poker player. If you are interested in getting some coaching from him you can email him at

      Everybody loses in the blinds even at the very lowest stakes. This is completely normal. I wish I could help you more Mircea and I would really like to hear about your winnings! All I can say is study your hand histories. Find out how you are losing the money because this should not happen versus very bad players like this.

      All the best.

  10. Hey Nathan! I quit few mins ago my daily session with a lost 6 stacks... gone btw coolers and bad beat (useless to make a list lol).
    In the past, after a bad day like this I was angry and nearby to cashout.
    I simply looked at my overall "run" since I read your blog and I'm still running at 12bb/100 which is not the hell good but I'm still a longterm winner of this game.
    The sample is 50k hands big only BUT still will not this 3k hands destroying my mind and my new approach to the game.
    I?ve to be also honest with my self, I had the chance to reduce this loss today playing several hands much better, folding at river when required and not calling for this hatefull form of microtilt who brings you to call even if you know he has it. Shoving preflop in silly 4bet allin and being anyway 65-35 or better and loosing anyway. Silly me.
    It was my day, was the lesson I had to do and I'm anyway fine cause I know at end of this monthy I'll have profit anyway.

    OBVIOUSLY hope tomorrow a normal "run" will come back (I dont ask for god run at all). :D

    But it's a lesson

    1. Sorry for the late reply. Sounds like you have the right attitude Simone. Sessions like this are tough but remember that everybody else will go through the same thing at some point. All the best!

  11. Nathan, thank you for sharing your knowledge and thoughts. I've been going up and down from 25nl to 100nl for quite a long time, until i realized that it was not my technical game that needs improvement, but my mental. It is not easy to get technically good, but certainly easier than improving mentally. From the point i got better mentally i am doing much better.

    1. Glad to help Jason. Yes, the mental game is kind of like the final big boss in poker. If you can conquer that (and have even a reasonable technical game) then you can beat nearly any game. All the best :)

  12. This is a great post. I've been running kinda bad lately (you know, when your opponents' draws get there, a lot) and I've been tilting lately. I guess it's because I've benn puting a lot of work into improving my game and i'm not seeing the results yet.That and the fact that I hate losing :) I guess being competitive has its' not so good side :)
    But anyway, thanks for the post. It gave me another perspective on the subject. Even If I do work on my game, Poker doesn't owe it to me to give me everybody's stacks right away.
    I guess I will compete with being better than everybody else at dealing with tilt. Great Post!

  13. Hello Nathan. When we win, poker is easy. The problem during a downswing, is that poker becomes difficult. I have noticed that a third of my losses are mistakes.It's not just the tilt.We often have the second best hand.This increases the probability of committing mistakes.These errors are for the most part, do not explotative folds vs oponents who only bet or raised with the nut. How do you fight these mistakes?

    1. Hi Claudio,

      I think you fight these mistakes by learning from them and changing your play in the future. Experience also helps teach you this.

  14. Hello Nathan. I have to thank you so much for this article, i found it on Google today. I play SNG's micro on regular bases by almost 1 year now, and last weekend was very tough. I got 13 AA's, and lost 7 of them. I've never been so unlucky in so short period of time. And to be honest, i considered quit poker. I'm not a pro, but i want to be. I'm studying more seriously the game. And this weekend was so frustrating. But read you article is giving me another perspective, and will to continue, to not give up. Thank you again.

    1. Glad I could help Renato! Poker can be a tough game sometimes :/

  15. Hey guys, just out of curiosity, whats your worst run under ev? Im currently 38 buy ins under ev (200k hands) and Im starting to doubt that equities always realize over time.

    1. For me personally I remove this stat in PokerTracker because I don't believe it does any good. You feel bad either way (lucky or unlucky). But I have seen crazy graphs of 500k and even 1 million hands where somebody was significantly over or below EV.

    2. 1 million hands... It almost undermines the concept that the better player always wins in the long run.

    3. To be fair, sample sizes that are this large where there is still a large EV difference are exceedingly rare in my experience. But yes, it can happen.