The Turtle Trading System: Secrets of the Legendary Traders

The Turtle Trading System stands as one of the most intriguing and successful trading methodologies ever conceived.

Born from a simple bet between two commodities traders, this system transformed a handful of novices into millionaire traders, proving that anyone could be taught to trade profitably.

The story begins with Richard Dennis, a highly successful commodities trader, who believed that trading was a skill that could be taught, rather than an innate talent.

To prove his point, he made a bet with his partner, William Eckhardt, and embarked on an experiment.

They placed an ad in the Wall Street Journal, seeking applicants to be trained in their trading methods. From thousands of applicants, they selected a group and taught them their proprietary trading system.

This group, known as the “Turtles,” went on to make hundreds of millions of dollars, demonstrating the efficacy of the Turtle Trading System and solidifying the legacy of Richard Dennis and his famous wager.

Historical Context

The Commodities Market in the 1980s:

The 1980s were marked by significant volatility in the commodities market. As prices for commodities like oil, gold, and grains experienced drastic swings, traders were presented with immense opportunities and challenges.

This decade bore witness to stories of significant financial gains, as well as tales of losses that caught many off guard.

Dennis vs. Eckhardt: The Nature vs. Nurture Debate in Trading:

Amid this tumultuous environment, a debate was brewing between two prominent commodities traders, Richard Dennis and William Eckhardt.

At the heart of their discourse was a fundamental question: Were successful traders a product of innate ability or could they be sculpted through training?

Dennis, confident in the idea that trading was a learned skill, argued that the right system and guidance could mold anyone into a successful trader.

Contrarily, Eckhardt believed that a natural instinct, inherent to only some, was the key to trading success.

This disagreement set the stage for an unprecedented experiment, resulting in the birth of the legendary Turtle Traders.

Fundamentals of the Turtle Trading System

Core Principle: Capitalizing on Trends:

At the heart of the Turtle Trading System lies a straightforward principle: capitalizing on market trends.

Turtles believed that price movement, rather than fundamentals, was the key indicator of future performance. By recognizing and latching onto significant trends, traders could reap substantial profits.

The Two Systems – Short-Term and Long-Term:

The Turtle Trading strategy was bifurcated into two distinct systems. System 1 was designed for short-term trends, typically initiating a trade on a 20-day breakout.

Conversely, System 2 was tailored for longer trends, triggering a trade based on a 55-day breakout. Both systems were designed to complement each other, ensuring that traders could profit from a broad range of market movements.

Entry Rules: Buying/Selling Breakouts:

A significant part of the Turtle strategy revolved around breakouts. A breakout, in this context, refers to when a commodity's price moves above a resistance level or below a support level.

For System 1, a 20-day high or low would signal an entry, while System 2 relied on a 55-day high or low. When these conditions were met, Turtles would take a position, expecting the trend to continue.

Exit Rules: Stops and the “Last Exit” Strategy:

Exiting a trade at the right time is as crucial as entering it. The Turtles utilized stop-loss orders to ensure they could limit potential losses.

These stops were calculated based on the commodity's volatility, ensuring that they weren't prematurely exited from trades during minor price fluctuations.

Furthermore, the “Last Exit” strategy involved exiting a trade if the commodity reached a 10-day low for long positions or a 10-day high for short positions in System 1.

For System 2, this window was extended to 20 days. This ensured that the Turtles captured the maximum profit from sustained trends while minimizing losses.

Money Management and Risk Control

The Concept of “N” (Volatility Measurement):

A central component of the Turtle Trading System's risk management was the use of “N”, a metric representing volatility.

Volatility plays a crucial role in understanding the inherent risk in trading a particular commodity. “N” was calculated using an average of a 20-day exponential moving average of the true range (difference between the high and low of a day).

By identifying and understanding this value, Turtles could ascertain how volatile a commodity was, allowing them to make informed decisions about their trades.

Position Sizing: The 1% Rule:

One of the most distinguishing aspects of the Turtle strategy was its rigorous approach to position sizing, known as the 1% rule. This rule ensured that a single trade would only risk 1% of total trading capital.

By adhering to this rule, Turtles ensured that even a series of losses wouldn't significantly impact their overall capital, granting them the endurance to stay in the game and wait for profitable trends.

Pyramid Strategy: Adding to Winning Trades:

While conventional wisdom might advise against adding to a winning position, the Turtles embraced a pyramid strategy that did precisely that.

As a trade moved in their favor, they would increase their stake, effectively “doubling down” on their initial judgment.

This method allowed them to capitalize more substantially on significant trends. However, it was essential to ensure this strategy was executed with precision, maintaining the overall risk parameters and not getting overexposed in a single position.

Psychology of Turtle Trading

Emphasis on Discipline and Consistency:

At the foundation of the Turtle Trading approach was a strong emphasis on maintaining discipline and consistency.

The financial markets are fraught with emotions, from the euphoria of successful trades to the despair of losses.

Turtles were trained to adhere strictly to the system, ensuring that decisions were based on logical rules rather than emotional reactions.

By staying consistent in their approach, irrespective of short-term outcomes, they increased their chances of long-term success.

Handling Losses and Drawdowns:

Losses are an inevitable part of trading, and how one handles them can be the difference between success and failure.

The Turtles understood that drawdowns, or periods of declining asset value, were a natural part of the process.

Instead of being disheartened by them, Turtles were trained to view them as opportunities.

They believed that after significant drawdowns, a strong trend often emerged, leading to substantial profits. The key was to have the resilience and conviction to remain in the game.

Avoiding Over-Optimization and Sticking to the System:

In the quest for perfecting trading strategies, there's a pitfall known as over-optimization tweaking a system endlessly based on past data to achieve the best results.

While it might seem like a logical approach, it often leads to systems that are tailor-made for past conditions and may perform poorly in the future. Turtles were cautioned against this tendency.

They were trained to trust the system Richard Dennis provided, resisting the urge to make continuous alterations.

By sticking to the core rules and avoiding the siren call of over-optimization, they ensured their strategy remained robust and adaptable to changing market conditions.

Real-Life Application and Case Studies

The Turtle Trading System wasn't just a theoretical approach. It was grounded in real-life application, and its effectiveness can be observed through the successes and failures of those who employed it.

Success Stories: Notable Turtle Traders and Their Achievements:

Several Turtles went on to make significant names for themselves in the world of trading, amassing substantial wealth.

One of the most notable examples is Jerry Parker, the founder, and CEO of Chesapeake Capital, who applied the Turtle principles to manage millions of dollars successfully.

Curtis Faith was another standout student, not only because of his trading success but also for penning a book titled “Way of the Turtle,” where he detailed his experiences and insights from the program.

These stories, among others, stand as a testament to the potency of the Turtle Trading System.

Failures and Lessons Learned:

However, not every Turtle experienced unfettered success. Some faced significant drawdowns, while others struggled to maintain the discipline and consistency required by the system.

These failures, though less celebrated, are equally instructive. They underscore the importance of strict adherence to the system's rules and highlight the challenges of maintaining emotional resilience in the face of market volatility.

Variations and Adaptations of the Turtle System by Different Traders:

While the foundational principles of the Turtle Trading System remained consistent, different traders made tweaks and adaptations based on their perspectives and the evolving market conditions.

Some incorporated additional technical indicators to complement the original breakout strategy, while others adjusted position sizing rules to better align with their risk tolerance.

These variations are evidence of the system's flexibility and its foundational strength, which can be adapted to various market conditions and personal trading philosophies.

Modern Adaptations of the Turtle Trading System

The Turtle Trading System, while rooted in the commodities market of the 1980s, still carries relevance in today's dynamic trading environment.

However, like any time-tested strategy, it has seen its share of modern adaptations.

Changes in Markets and Their Impact on the System:

Markets today are vastly different from those of the 1980s. With the advent of electronic trading, high-frequency trading algorithms, and global connectivity, markets move faster and are more interconnected than ever before.

While the core principle of trend-following remains relevant, the speed and nature of trends have evolved.

This necessitates adjustments in the parameters of the Turtle system, like the duration of breakouts or the methods used to measure volatility.

Digital Tools and Software for Turtle Trading in the 21st Century:

Technology has been a game-changer for modern traders. Today, there are numerous software solutions and trading platforms that incorporate the principles of the Turtle Trading System, allowing traders to automate trade entries, exits, and even position sizing based on real-time data.

These tools not only enhance accuracy but also facilitate quicker decision-making, helping traders to effectively navigate the fast-paced trading landscape.

Integrating the Turtle System with Other Trading Strategies:

Diversification isn't just a principle limited to asset allocation; it's equally pertinent to trading strategies.

Modern traders often integrate the Turtle system's trend-following approach with other methods, like mean-reversion strategies or even fundamental analysis.

By blending the strengths of different systems, traders can harness the benefits of the Turtle system while also mitigating its potential weaknesses.

For instance, while the Turtle system excels in strongly trending markets, it can face challenges in range-bound scenarios. Integrating it with a strategy that performs well in sideways markets can provide a more holistic trading approach.

Criticisms and Limitations

Like any trading system, the Turtle Trading System, despite its notable successes, isn't free from criticisms and limitations. Recognizing these challenges is crucial for any trader considering its application.

The Challenges of Trend Following in Choppy Markets:

The Turtle system, at its heart, is a trend-following strategy. It's designed to capture significant price movements, be it bullish or bearish.

However, in markets that lack a clear direction, also known as choppy or sideways markets, the system can falter.

During these periods, false breakouts are common, leading traders to enter trades that don't materialize into substantial trends.

Consequently, they might face a series of small losses, which can erode capital and challenge their psychological resilience.

The Risk of Significant Drawdowns:

While the Turtle system employs rigorous risk management protocols, it's not immune to drawdowns, or periods when the asset's value declines. In some cases, these drawdowns can be substantial.

The system's commitment to holding onto trades until a clear exit signal is generated can sometimes mean enduring prolonged periods of negative returns.

This is especially challenging for traders who lack the capital to withstand these drawdowns or the mental fortitude to remain committed to the system amidst them.

The Debate on the System's Effectiveness in Today's Market Dynamics:

The Turtle Trading System was birthed in the 1980s commodities market a vastly different landscape from today's global, interconnected, and high-speed trading environment.

With the prevalence of algorithmic trading and other advanced strategies, some critics argue that the Turtle system's rules might be too simplistic for today's market dynamics.

They question whether a system rooted in the past can effectively navigate the complexities of contemporary markets.

While there's no definitive answer, it underscores the importance of traders understanding and possibly adapting the system to current market conditions.

The Legacy of the Turtle Traders

The tale of the Turtle Traders is not merely a compelling narrative of an audacious experiment but an enduring testament to a particular trading methodology that continues to influence the world of finance and trading.

Impact on Modern-Day Trading and Trend-Following Methodologies:

The Turtle Trading System stands as one of the most iconic examples of trend-following strategies.

Its success in the 1980s underscored the idea that markets, despite their complexities, exhibit patterns and trends that can be profitable if appropriately leveraged.

This led to a resurgence of interest in trend-following strategies, with many modern-day traders and hedge funds incorporating or adapting Turtle principles in their methodologies.

The system’s structured approach, emphasizing discipline, strict rules, and robust risk management, has been a foundational lesson for many in the trading community.

The Continuing Influence of Richard Dennis and the Turtles in Trading Education: Beyond the profits and the fame, the experiment conducted by Richard Dennis tackled a profound question of nature versus nurture in the realm of trading success.

By demonstrating that trading skills could be taught, Dennis changed the landscape of trading education.

Today, numerous courses, seminars, and books echo the principles taught to the original Turtle Traders.

The story serves as both inspiration and a case study, highlighting that with the right training, discipline, and mindset, anyone can achieve success in the unpredictable world of trading.

The Turtle Traders' legacy is not just in the wealth they amassed, but in the enduring lessons they imparted to the world of trading.


In the world of trading, where unpredictability reigns and fortunes can change in a heartbeat, the story of the Turtle Traders stands as a beacon, illuminating the power of disciplined and systematic trading.

Their journey underscores that success isn't solely the domain of Wall Street elites but can be attained by anyone armed with the right methodology, training, and mindset.

However, while the past offers invaluable lessons, it's essential for modern traders to recognize that markets evolve.

The conditions that birthed the Turtle Trading System in the 1980s aren't the same as today's intricate trading landscape.

While the core principles of discipline, risk management, and trend-following remain timeless, their application might require adjustments to account for contemporary market dynamics.

In essence, the legacy of the Turtle Traders isn't just about following a set of rules blindly but understanding the underlying principles and adapting them to one's unique context.

As traders navigate the tumultuous waters of today's markets, the Turtle Trading System serves as both a compass and a reminder guiding them towards methodical decisions and reminding them of the rewards that await those who trade with discipline and purpose.