Beating Tilt in Poker

Battle tilt

All poker players have been there: on the wrong end of a flip - or multiple flips - which sends them over the edge, or annoyed so much by an opponent that their judgment goes out the window along with their bankroll.

Tilt can manifest itself in many ways and there's no "one cure fits all" solution to battling it. But recognizing you're on tilt is the first way to fighting it.

With a few simple guidelines and tips to hand you can battle tilt like the pros. Do that and your bankroll will start to look a lot healthier.

What Is Tilt Anyway?

What is tilt?

Tilt is the psychological effect on poker players when things don't go their way. You might hit a big downswing, suffer an outrageous bad beat on the tournament bubble, or get needled by an opponent at your local casino.

By allowing yourself to get angry and upset about these occurrences, you can start making poor decisions, gambling when you shouldn't do, and actively seeking to throw good money after bad. If any of that happens, you're probably on tilt.

Different Causes of Tilt

Causes of tilt

Tilt can come in many forms, but the bad beat is perhaps the most common cause.

You've been there: you've played your suited A-K perfectly, and the douchebag across the table can't help calling every street with 10-3 off. Naturally, he hits runner-runner threes to make trips and send you to the rail.

It's doubly frustrating: you've played well, but your opponent hasn't. It's not like an equally solid player has just out-thought you.

Suddenly, the poker gods are against you. You take solace in a beer or drowing $20 in the nearest slot machine. It doesn't do any good, of course - that $20 has disappeared as quickly as it took you to gather up your iPod.

Bad beats are common causes of tilt, but longer-term psychological afflictions can make tilt worse.

A serious downswing can make matters worse. You might have made the best decisions in your SNG sessions but you just can't seem to get a hand through.

Slowly your bankroll and your dreams of getting a bankroll for a shot at the big tourney are heading down the pan.

Table talk from other players - especially in a live setting - can derail any sensible player. You might want to knock out a guy who just won't shut up or be put off your game by the opponent who keeps handing out free poker "lessons" at the table.

Many players who trash talk, and some pros like Tony G are the masters, are sweethearts away from the table. It's often the case that their personality totally changes when you meet them at the bar. At the table, they test out opponents to see who can be got at.

Poker has a huge element of psychological warfare, and trash talk is one of the best weapons. Just ignore it or stick the headphones on if it's distracting you. Alternatively, just walk away from the table and reset your brain.

When experiencing a downswing I recommend a few things. 1) Take an honest look at what is going on. Have you been running bad in big spots or do you feel like you have been getting your money in behind and being unsure? 2) Drop tables; I think playing too many tables is something most of us are guilty of and that could be a big adjustment right away - to cut down to 2 to 4 tables. 3) Have a friend analyze your game 4) Drop stakes 5) Increase your study to play ratio 6) take a break to detox!

Jeff Gross

Professional Poker Player with over $4.5 million in online and live winnings

We all deal with bad beats and it's a part of poker. So while it's always gonna suck to a point, a big part of how you enjoy poker will come from handling bad beats better. They are just a reality in the game, so if you choose to play this game where these things happen, you need to also accept that you're choosing bad beats.

Matt Vaughan (Scourrge)

CardsChat forum member since 2008, has over $200k in live tournament winnings

Combating Tilt

  • Don't Get Emotional

    Don't get emotional

    Getting emotional about tilt is a serious problem. Poker should never be played when you're compromised emotionally. You need to be clear-headed to get back on track. If you find yourself shouting at opponents (or yourself), getting physically aggressive, or rushing to chase your losses, take a break.

  • Expect the Downswings

    Expect downswings

    It's what mind coach Jared Tendler calls 'Entitlement Tilt' - that feeling that you are owed something when the laws of poker actually mean no-one is owed anything.

    Even successful pros accept that the percentage differences between hands aren't really that great. UK pro, Roland de Wolfe, has commented before that something like A-10 against a marginal hand like 10-8 isn't huge. Basically, stop getting starry-eyed by pocket queens and accept that poker is a game where most two-card hands can win.

    Downswings are part of the game - just ask Gus Hansen or Phil Ivey. Gus Hansen is recognized as one of the biggest players in the game, but he suffered an online dip that amounted to $11 million before he was able to sort things out.

    Gus is a naturally aggressive player (he wouldn't be the superstar millionaire without some aggression) but something has gone horribly wrong with his game that has led to a downward spiral that seemingly has no end.

  • Understand When You're On Tilt

    Understand when you're on tilt

    Catching tilt before it becomes a problem is essential. Dealing with the issues early is a real positive. Consider making a 'tilt record' of all the times you were upset and how you responded (both positively AND negatively).

  • Keep On Doing the Right Things

    Keep doing the right things

    Tilt can be battled if you know you know you were doing the right thing when you were affected. Playing solid, ABC poker can be a good way to deal with the bad times. You know it's a safe way to guarantee a steady long-term ROI. And because of that, hitting bad beats can be easier to deal with.

    "Doing the right thing" is also about handling your financial situation. If you go busto once, and don't have the bankroll management to make it back, it will just worsen your tilt. Having a good handle on your bankroll will help with the downswings.

    Work out how much you have to play with (even keep a spreadsheet on your computer with buy-ins and profit/loss records) and stick to a safe portion of your roll every time you play. Tilt can make players buy-in to levels far above their comfortable stakes. Bankroll management will keep you on the steady path away from shooting too high.

  • Take a Break

    Take a break

    While tilt can make you lose your bankroll, it can also make you lose something else: your love of the game.

    Walking away from poker, even if it's just for a few days, is great for recharging the tilt batteries. You get a better perspective of your play.

    Perhaps you have a load of hand histories that you haven't got round to assessing. Sit down and go through some big situations when things didn't go your way. Did you do the right thing? Were you steaming from a bad beat? Or was a player needling you?

    If you're playing online take notes as you're playing on the psychological skills your opponents have over you, AS WELL AS their pre-flop raise percentage. It can give you an added dimension.

Handling Variance

Handling variance

The idea of 'variance' is one that seems to have been around for a long time, but it's only really been talked about during the online era.

Variance is the natural swing - both up and down - that comes in poker when you play. In a typical tournament you might find yourself fighting a dozen 60/40 or 50/50 flips. Some you'll win, some you'll lose. Other times, that well-timed all-in will run into pocket aces. It happens to everyone, and the best thing is to brush yourself off and start again.

By handling a big enough volume of games online you can ride the variance and come out a winner the other side. Keep detailed stats on your performance, and keep an eye on your overall ROI (Return on Investment).

If you're a beginner Sit n Go player, a 15 percent ROI is a decent target to aim for. Of course, this won't mean you're always down, and it won't mean you're always up. The key is to accept the downswings and be positive about the upswings that will come with solid play.

You can learn even more about tilt and how to handle it by reading our Ultimate Guide to Poker Tilt article. It goes further in-depth about the signs and symptoms of tilt, the psychology of it, and some ideas for how to avoid it completely.

Improve your game further by checking out even more poker strategies and guides or bring it back to basics with the poker rules for other poker variants.