Lessons from The Turtle Traders

turtle traders

For those of you who haven’t heard about the so-called turtle traders before, I’ll give you a brief recap here: “The turtles” were a group of laymen traders who were chosen more or less randomly to be coached by two of the pioneers in trend-following trading; Richard Dennis and William Eckhardt.

While Dennis, who had already made more than $100 million in the markets, were convinced that anyone could learn to trade, Eckhardt argued that Dennis was a gifted trader and that it would be extremely difficult for someone else to replicate his success. Unable to come to an agreement, the two men figured that the only way to settle the dispute would be to conduct an experiment where they would teach ordinary people their own trading system, and then measure the results.

As the story goes, the turtles became hugely successful, and Dennis was proven right.

Their story became known to world mainly through Michael Covel’s books Trend Following and The Complete Turtle Trader, where he shared some previously unknown details about the very simple trading strategies and methods used by “the turtles.”

Although the turtle experiment took place back in the early 1980s, the lessons learned from the experiment are as valid in today’s crypto market as they were in the commodities market Eckhardt and Dennis were trading in back then. In this post, I therefore wanted to share some of methods used by the turtles that can hopefully help you improve your own trading performance as well.

If you are interested in learning more about the methods the turtles used, I recommend reading Covel’s book to get the full story.

ATR as stop-loss

Using the Average True Range (ATR) indicator as a trailing stop-loss is something I learned from Covel’s book about trend following and that I’ve used successfully over the years, as I wrote about in another post about a trend following trading strategy.

Generally, the idea of using trailing stops in trading is that it allows you to ride the trend for longer, without taking on unnecessary risk. It is also in the very essence of trend following trading that traders should not try to predict where a trend will start or stop, but instead simply react to what the price is telling them. In this context, if the price breaks through the ATR line you have drawn up on the chart, it is telling you that the trend has ended and it is time to get out of the trade.

The ATR is calculated based on the volatility of the asset, which means that perfectly normal market movements will be classified as noise, and only extraordinary movements to either side will lead to price breaking through the ATR line.

TradingView has a very useful built-in indicator for using the ATR as a trailing stop called “ATR Stops.”

Maximum 2% risk on each trade

Since the turtles used the ATR as their stop-loss, the risk in terms of pips on each trade would naturally vary depending on the asset they traded. However, by adjusting their position size, they still managed to keep their risk at no more than 2% of their trading account on any one trade.


Pyramiding is the concept of adding to a winning trade as time passes. This is pretty much the opposite of conventional value-based investing wisdom, where it is usually preached to buy low and sell high. The turtle traders, on the other hand, were not afraid to buy high and sell when things were moving against them (buy high, sell low).

The turtle traders usually didn’t move in with the full position size that their risk management allowed on the first order, but would instead spread out their orders and buy more as the trade moved in their favor. For example, they would enter an order with a position size that kept their risk at 0.5% of their capital as a trend started to form, and then enter new orders as the trend continued until they reached the 2% risk that their system allowed for.

This protected their downside if the trade moved against them from the start while at the same time enabled them to ride the trends until the end.

Reduce risk during losing streaks

The turtles were very aware of the emotional drawdown that follows a loss in the market, and they understood that because of this, losses tend to follow each other and create losing streaks from which traders sometimes never recover.

Because of this, Dennis and Eckhardt introduced a rule saying that if an account is down by 10%, the trader must adjust his risk as if he has lost 20%. With a smaller trading account left, the trader would then be forced to reduce his risk on each trade in order to stay within the maximum 2% risk allowed on each trade.

Not only did this save the turtle traders’ trading capital, but it saved their emotional capital as well.

Keep it simple

Lastly, it is important to remember that the exact trading system the turtles used was relatively simple and straightforward. Trend following trading is often like this, and it has been proven over and over again that simple and robust systems beats complicated strategies. As Richard Dennis was quoted as saying in the Market Wizards book:

“I always say that you could publish my trading rules in the newspaper and no one will follow them. The key is consistency and discipline. Almost anybody can make up a list of rules that are 80% as good as what we taught our people. What they couldn’t do is give them the confidence to stick with those rules even when things are going bad.”

Featured image from Pixabay.

Fredrik Vold is an entrepreneur, financial writer, and technical analysis enthusiast. He has been working and traveling in Asia for several years, and is currently based out of Beijing, China. He closely follows stocks, forex and cryptocurrencies, and is always looking for the next great alternative investment opportunity.