Tilt gets a bad rap.

Hear me out—there’s no doubt that tilt is problematic. However, because of the stigma surrounding it, it’s hard to have open, high-level discussions about it in the professional community and beyond. It’s viewed as the hallmark of a mentally-weak player, a bad player, someone who doesn’t take the game seriously.

When I started playing poker, tilt was something to be embarrassed about. Tilt was a weakness. A good player never tilts. But, after weathering the trials and tribulations of poker for over a decade, I’ve learned that every single player tilts—but most aren’t honest with themselves about it.

So why the stigma surrounding a challenge every player in the game will face at one point or another? Why is tilt so hard to talk about? And why is it so incredibly difficult to overcome?

It boils down to a series of misconceptions—lies that we tell ourselves, often without knowing it, that hold us back from improving our mental games.

Lie #1: We’re Good At Being Honest With Ourselves

As a poker player, it’s my job to exploit weaknesses in others. As a coach, it’s my job to fix these issues. Tilt is a big part of the mental game, and, therefore, one of the subjects I address the most. But to combat tilt, we have to know what leads to it in the first place. So, one of the first things I ask my students is:

Where do you feel your strengths and weaknesses lie?

Often, getting to the truth of this is a feat itself. It turns out that people think they are good at being self-critical when they aren’t. Even if they can be somewhat objective about their weaknesses, they still tend to “dress them up” or gloss over crucial spots.

It can take quite a bit of psychological manoeuvring to get my students to a place where they can feel comfortable being honest and self-critical to the point that they need to be. Even then, the work often has to be re-opened from lesson to lesson because the mind reverts to its old habits.

Being honest with ourselves in critical matters is difficult because inertia is very hard to overcome. Staying at the mental status quo is comfortable—you don’t have to face distressing truths. It’s convenient because you don’t have to put any work into change.

And, it feels good, leaving our self-esteem intact. So, understand that it IS a difficult thing to do. It shouldn’t be easy, and it shouldn’t be comfortable. If you find yourself discussing your weaknesses with a coach or a peer, and you breeze right through it, it’s time to take a second look.

Lie #2: The World Is Against Us

Poker player lying under a globe

You’ve probably heard that there is no “deserve” in poker, but that doesn’t make us feel any better. We still CAN’T BELIEVE when mathematically unlikely things happen to us, even though we “know” they’re supposed to. And, it doesn’t matter which situation it is—whether it’s a one-outer on the river or our opponent calling us with “that,” - us human beings have a tough time emotionally weathering these storms. Knowing the maths from a distance doesn’t make it feel good when things don’t go our way.

A simple example of the difficulty internalising probabilities is in starting hand distribution. “I never get dealt any good hands” is a common frustration from my students. Everyone around them seems to be getting hands, but not them.

Here’s the maths: 88+ ATs+ KJs+ AQo+ is only 6.8% of hands. This percentage means that 93.2% of the time, you are not going to be getting great hands. JJ+ & AK is only 3% of hands. 97% of the time, you will not be getting those hands, and you aren’t supposed to be. If we want to see what this means for us playing, let’s consider a live ring game.

You can see around 30 hands per hour in live poker, assuming no crazy tanking. So, in a five- hour session, you’ll expect to see JJ+AK only four to five times, with AK appearing roughly 2.5x more than the others. Therefore, you’re looking at a couple of AKs and one or two high pairs in your entire session. You’re an underdog to be dealt AA even once in your session. And again, this is the average. This fact means you will and should expect to have periods where you don’t get these hands whatsoever.

Knowing the probabilities are one thing but understanding what those probabilities mean—that they can, will, and are supposed to happen to you—can be an excellent tilt mitigator.

My favourite website, Wait But Why, depicts this exact scenario via a well- known unlucky event in a cartoon: getting a flat tire.

  1. Reaction #1: JUST MY LUCK, OF COURSE, THIS HAPPENS TO ME.
  2. Reaction #2: 10-15 annoying things like this happen a year, apparently getting one out of the way today.

Becoming a person capable of Reaction #2 is not easy but will have a paramount effect on your mental game.

Lie #3: We Aren’t Tilting Because We Aren’t Playing Recklessly

As Tommy Angelo says in the excellent, Elements of Poker: “Tilt is any deviation from your A-game and your A-mindset, however slight or fleeting. It makes us do things we wouldn’t normally do if we were playing our best.”

The most commonly seen tilt is what he terms hard tilt, which is where someone starts flying off the handle, donating money, raising or calling every hand in desperation to make back what he lost. Whether or not we’ve done it ourselves, we’ve all seen this type of tilt at the table. A tight player gets his aces cracked and inexplicably goes all in the next hand with five-three suited for 100 big blinds, and the whole table is wide-eyed.

Many people see this and think, “When something bad happens at the table, I usually handle it pretty well. I don’t start playing every hand or running big bluffs or anything like that.” And because they believe they are still reasonably disciplined in light of unfortunate events, or that their tilt isn’t on blatant display at the table, they are okay with it. They believe they naturally handle it better; they merely aren’t tilting.

You may not be playing recklessly, that’s true. But you might be tilting in small ways you haven’t thoughtfully analysed. There may be differences in your decision processes— acting quicker, for example, then you usually would. Perhaps you gravitate towards a type of tilt that makes you play tighter after a significant loss.

The rationale is simple: you’ll do the opposite of what’s expected and play even tighter, so you won’t get yourself into trouble. You might lean towards giving your opponents more credit than not since you subconsciously don’t want to make another bad call.

Remember—anything that is a deviation from your optimal strategy is tilting.

Some people handle emotional stressors better than others. But failing to create a strategy to combat tilt simply because you aren’t unconscionably reckless as a result is a lie. We tell ourselves this to protect us from doing the hard work of examining our game and finding a way to make it better.

Lie #4: Quitting Is a Weakness

Jen Harman said something once that resonated with me. It was so apparent that I was embarrassed for not having realised it before. She said, “It’s difficult to play when you’re losing. So, you want to make sure you don’t put yourself in a position where you get so buried you won’t be able to win it back easily the next day. Keep your losses small. When you’re losing, other people are winning. When they’re winning, they’re feeling better, and playing better.”

Those sessions aren’t the ones you want to be extending. I’ve seen people at the tail end of 24-hour sessions, slumped on the table with a trail of coffee cups next to them, desperate to get unstuck. However, you rarely see someone have an extraordinary session and force themselves to keep playing until they can’t see straight. Usually, those players will run great for a few hours and then think “well, that feels great, I’m off to celebrate.” But those are the sessions you want to extend—when you’re feeling good, running good, and playing well—because then your opponents are the ones who are feeling bad, running bad, and consequentially playing worse.

Poker player with pile of chips in a rack

The addictive properties of gambling are proven to be stronger when losing than winning. The need to get unstuck is an immensely powerful draw. It’s essential to be aware of this draw and recognise that the mind might start telling lies to feel justified to continue playing.

Take a common one—“The game is too good.” A good game isn’t a satisfactory enough reason to play in a compromised state. Chances are unless you’re experiencing a blue-moon event where someone is dumping money like crazy or going all-in blind, you’re not in a situation that won’t happen again.

Your regular casino game with weaker players will be there the next night. There’s always another good tournament series or another weaker opponent. Being nitty with your mental state first and foremost will ensure that any time you’re playing, it will be with your full arsenal at your disposal.

Stop-losses are effective counters since they remove you from a situation, no self-negotiation necessary. Combating tilt with a strategy that involves quitting doesn’t mean you’re too weak to weather the storm. Instead, it is a significant measure of strength that most people have great difficulty employing.

Lie #5: We’ll Be Good at Handling It When It Happens

The difference between good and great players’ mental games is that a good player thinks that even when tilted, it just doesn’t matter that much. They can play well enough. They make excuses to keep playing (“the game is too good”). They play their B and C game because they think that it is still superior to their opponents, or they believe that years in the game have hardened them. They are simply impenetrable and unaffected by tilt, no matter what.

But, that’s a scary way to think, because a couple of hours playing in a compromised state can wipe out days of solid work. A great player not only knows they are susceptible to tilt, but they also refuse to put themselves in a position where they will be playing sub-optimally. They study what their triggers are, how they manifest and create a strategy to protect themselves.

The example I like to use is someone who wants to go on a diet but still buys junk food at the grocery store. They think: “I’ll be fine. I’ll have it on occasion, and I won’t give in to my previous bad habits.” At that moment in the grocery store, what they are saying may very well be true. But in a weaker mindset, some point in the future, it may not be.

A better decision would be to choose not to buy it in the first place, understanding that the weaker version of themselves is not the same as the stronger version. That way, the stronger version protects the more vulnerable version by having a strategy in place— making the junk food unavailable in a potential time of weakness.

Similarly, the time to deal with the tilt is not when the tilt is happening. You must create it while in a stable mental state, to protect yourself when you lose stability.

Armed with the Truth

Refusing to lie to ourselves is only half the work. To improve, we also have to work on our strategy continually. A lot of people ask me how I manage tilt. I have multiple procedures in place My favourite in situations such as poker tournaments, where I can’t break from the game, is a personal resource—a friend who knows exactly what to say to me to take the stress out of the situation and make me laugh.

Poker is a solitary, zero-sum game, and because of this, it can often feel lonely. Feeling someone on your side can be very powerful.

The critical part of creating a strategy is that it needs to work for you. Something productive for one person may not be equally effective for another.

The key is to hack yourself! Ask yourself the questions:

  • How do I behave once I’m compromised?
  • How do I truly feel?
  • Am I likely to chase losses?
  • Get over-aggressive?
  • Become scared money?
  • Something totally different?
  • How often does it happen, how long does it last, and how bad does it get?

(Remember---this honesty won’t be easy. See Lie #1.)

Once you’ve spent time breaking the impact down, you can then come up with ideas of what you think might be an effective counter. You can try things from a list of established tilt-counters, such as breaks, meditation, stop-losses, or you can come up with more personal ideas.

Bounce these off a peer or coach, and don’t be afraid to try new things if something that used to work is falling flat. Sometimes, multiple counters can be useful to have in place for different situations—a bad beat might require different management than a bad play.

Make sure to periodically check-in, have an honest conversation about what’s working and not, and—just like at the poker table —be willing to adapt and change.

About the Author
By
Professional poker player. Corporate training & event speaking: poker strategy applied to the business world.
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