Emotions can take you on a rollercoaster ride during a poker session, but maintaining control of them is absolutely vital to having a sound poker strategy. Professional players devote a great deal of time and energy to maintaining a level head and a stable state of mind.
However, sometimes that rollercoaster ride gets out of control and your emotions take over. When this happens you are said to be “on tilt”.
Tilt in poker occurs when you are unable to make rational decisions at the poker table because your emotional state has gotten the better of you. Perhaps you are angry at a bad beat, terrified because you just bought in with this month’s rent money, or got a promotion at work and feel like taking it easy on the table.
Whatever the cause, you are going to lose money.
Tilting is by far the most expensive leak in poker, even more expensive than thinking 7-2 offsuit is actually a good hand. Why? Because even when you play poor cards in poker, you do so in a rational and calculating way. Poker tilt removes your rationality so you play far worse, no matter what cards you are holding.
And before you begin to think that this will never happen to you, if you have ever played poker, then it is extremely likely that you have experienced “poker tilt” in some form or other. If you think you have never tilted, you are simply in denial.
So how do you weather poker’s version of the “perfect storm”?
The best way to control tilt is to recognize its onset. In this way you will also be able to identify what triggered your reaction, enabling you to recognize and avoid future occurrences.
Tilt can occur for a variety of reasons. The most common are:
Sometimes it might be a combination of the above, or it could be something unrelated to the poker game such as a domestic argument that has left you feeling angry or upset.
Tilt will prevent you from playing your A-game, so before you take a seat at the table – or log-in to your favorite poker site if you are playing online – you need to ask yourself honestly if you are ready to play. If the answer is “no”, then congratulate yourself, because you just saved your bankroll from taking a hit.
If you are already at the table, it is even more important to recognize the signs. Every time one of the events mentioned above occurs, reassess your situation and your mental state. Ask yourself if you are angry or upset by what occurred. Be honest with yourself – after all, you are the only one who is going to lose out.
Once you have recognized the tilt trigger it is time to slow down your play and deal with the tilt. Begin internally verbalizing your decisions, as if you are explaining the action and your plays to a friend who was watching the game.
“He often raises preflop, so it’s OK to call a raise on the button with AJ suited,” you say to yourself before you push your chips across the felt. Remember, you are not going to speak out loud, but hearing them in your head will enable you to catch mistakes before you make them. If you find yourself saying “I can call his all-in with K9 offsuit because…because…,” then tilt has taken hold.
Going on tilt in poker will also affect you physically. Tension will cause your muscles to bunch up and your breathing and pulse rate to quicken. You may begin sweating or get a surge of adrenalin. These physical indicators can provide you with another clue that tilt is taking hold. Relax your body, take a deep breath and smile – there is nothing like a bit of laughter to dispel negative emotions. Relax your body and your mind will relax too.
Get up from the poker game and walk around a little bit, dissipating your nervous energy with a bit of physical activity. Don’t sit tight and let the emotions discharge through your poker playing.
Now it’s time to analyze the situation that set you on tilt. If it was a bad play on your part, or a bad beat, understand that poker is a long-term game and that such events are part and parcel of your poker career. If you play for a long time, you are eventually going to see a pair of aces cracked by just about every starting hand in the deck. Such things are inevitable, so accept and move on. Tell yourself that it’s OK and give a mental shrug and go back to concentrating on the next hand.
If you find yourself going on tilt regularly, you may be reaching burn out. Take a break and allow your poker brain to relax. Just as an athlete needs to spend time away from the gym in order to let his muscles grow, you need to do the same to your mind to give it time to digest and process your new knowledge. If you spend all day thinking about poker and playing it, then you are going to get tired, stressed, and tilt will become your constant companion.
Remember, there is always time to play later. Getting away from the game will give you perspective. Bad luck – as well as good luck – will come in streaks. Don’t keep playing thinking your luck will change and you will break even – it just doesn’t work that way.
Instead, when you have gone on tilt, recognized it and walked away from the game – reward yourself. This will reinforce your behaviour, making it easier and easier to overcome the negative emotion each time it occurs. In this way you will train your mind to associate dealing with tilt / overcoming tilt with a happy feeling which will in turn push you away from the destructive cycle that will see your bankroll go bust.
No matter how Zen-like you become in your mastery of tilt, it will always lurk in the background waiting to pounce on you. We can fight it off, but we can never destroy it completely. If you doubt this take a look at Phil Hellmuth. He has played poker for over 20 years and is one of its biggest all-time winners, yet he was famous for his tilt meltdowns. Despite years of experience, whenever he gets a bad beat, tilt still leaps upon his back and he has to fight for control. The difference is that he has become an expert in recognizing his triggers and calming his emotions.
You need to do the same. Keep a tilt diary and review it to identify what set you off and how it affected your play. Over time, you too can become a master tilt-slayer like Phil.
Until you do conquer tilt, it will be the biggest drain on your bankroll, costing you even more than thinking that 72 offsuit is a good hand.
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