How to Avoid ‘Winner’s Tilt’ and Other Hidden Perils of Poker Success

Most of us are familiar with the risks of losing: discouragement, depletion of our bankroll, and tilt come to mind. We might be less familiar with the risks of winning.

risk winning strategy

Sometimes in poker it’s all too easy to win a battle while losing the war. (Image: Business Insider)

Yes, winning carries its own set of perils that are perhaps even more dangerous than the risks of losing because they are less visible and, thereby, more pernicious.

Risk of Winning #1: Complacency

Just as losing propels us to carefully examine our play, winning tends to do the opposite, leading us from self-scrutiny. When we’re winning, we’re doing what we want to be doing. We’re happy. Why look a gift horse in the mouth?!

This is especially true of players new to the game – or those who come from a relaxed home game into the more competitive sphere of a public poker room. If they win at first, they are much less likely to worry about whatever mistakes they might have made; they tend to believe that their success is the product of their good play.

It’s natural for people to be less eager to examine their play when they’re winning. When you’re ahead, why worry, right?

Another way of understanding this is to see how winning a couple of large pots may tend to paper over serious leaks. If we’re focused too much on the overall outcome of our individual sessions, and they are positive, we might not look more closely at weak points of our game that are costing us money. We might be settling for some sub-par play because our overall results are positive.

A couple of lucky wins may make us less inclined to focus on errors that are costing us money.

Risk of Winning #2: Learning the Wrong Lessons

Winning can reinforce bad poker play. By winning a hand played incorrectly, players may ignore how lucky they got and conclude that misstep was, in fact, the right thing to do.

Imagine this scenario. Buffy, a casual home game player, decides to play in the nearby public poker room. She gets seated in a $1/$2 No-Limit game, buys in for $100, and folds her first six hands. On her seventh hand, she’s dealt 9♥ 9♦ in the cutoff.

There’s a raise to $10 from Hollis, a tight regular, in early position, and a flat in middle position from Ruby, another tight regular. Buffy doesn’t really know what to do. She came to play, not fold, and after six folded hands, she figures a pair of nines is worth playing. She calls the $10.

The flop is A♥ T♥ 6♠. Hollis bets $25 and Ruby calls. Buffy, once again, doesn’t really know what to do, but she doesn’t want to be bullied out of a pot when she still has some kind of hand, so she calls. The turn is the 3. Hollis checks. Ruby bets $40 and Buffy is torn.

On the one hand, she thinks she should probably fold. But then she thinks she’s already in for $35 and that she might as well call. So she does. Hollis folds.

The river is 9♠. Ruby bets $50. Buffy has improved to trip nines and calls with her remaining $25. Ruby, with A 6 in her hand shows down aces up. Buffy’s trips win her a pot of $235, and she’s elated.

As a skillful player will surely see, Buffy played poorly throughout the hand and then got extremely lucky on the river, hitting a two outer against a range that included hands that would have had her drawing dead much of the time. But what’s Buffy’s likely takeaway?

If anything, it would probably be that calling paid off. Her winning experience taught her a bad lesson that will almost surely result in her losing money in the long run.

Risk of Winning #3: Overconfidence

For some players, winning is an intoxicant. As their chip stacks grow, their inhibitions and good judgment diminish. In short, winning, especially winning a lot quickly, puts some players on winner’s tilt. Imagine the following scenario.

Jerry spent his first three hours of play amassing a stack of $1,400 in a $1/$2 game. The money is figuratively burning a hole in his pocket, and he’s started playing hyper-aggressively. His mania makes him feel invulnerable behind his mountain of $5 chips.

His more experienced opponents adjust, and pick their spots. They methodically take advantage of his overly broad range and over-aggression. His stack begins to diminish. The combination of his chip-induced mania and immediate experience convince him that the answer isn’t to settle down and adopt a more careful and thoughtful style. Instead, he opts to become even more aggressive, burning through his entire stack.

It’s only then in the aftermath that he pauses to think about what happened.

The Mirage of Victory

Players need to adopt the same protocols for dealing with big wins as they do with severe losses. To avoid complacency, learning the wrong lessons, or going on winner’s tilt, they must learn to separate themselves from the results, and apply a careful eye to how they play their hands instead of the results of the hands that they play.

Rather than asking themselves whether they are up or down, they should look at the decisions they made, and consider why they made them.

Toward this end, it helps to have a poker discussion group where players submit hands and hand situations for discussion and analysis. Whether the player ended up winning or losing the hand or the overall session becomes immaterial, as it is their play throughout the hand and session that is reviewed and critiqued.

As a practical matter, three other practices help players avoid the immediate risks of winning: setting win limits and time limits, and going on regular breaks. These practices may not be optimal for seasoned players, but they can be extremely useful for those who are still learning to consistently hold on to their stacks.

How to Walk Away

In advance of a playing session, players can set a goal for winning. When they reach that goal, they take a break and walk away from the table for 15 minutes or so to assess their play, the play of their opponents, and the game in general. They can then either recommit themselves to playing their best game and go back to the table, or they can decide to leave for the day. Their break from the action at a pre-determined high point will tend to eliminate whatever mania or tilt they might be experiencing from their engorged stack, replacing it with more rational thought.

Similarly, they can plan to walk away from the table every hour or two, and engage in a similar bit of self-scrutiny before either returning or leaving for the day. I’ve found that physical separation is needed to really gain the clarity of thought necessary to properly assess my play. The walking itself can be beneficial for clear-headedness.

Finally, they can set a time limit for their play for the day. Once they reach that time limit, they commit to leaving, whether they’re up or down, tired or alert. In that way, they assure themselves of avoiding the risk that weariness and exhaustion will obscure their diminished judgment and self-discipline.

We would all rather be winners than losers. That’s surely our long-term goal, and is usually much more fun even in the short-term. Nevertheless, there are risks associated with winning. It’s vital that we be aware of those risks and adopt strategies for avoiding them, lest we fall victim to them.

Written by
Ashley Adams
Venerable grinder, 7-stud enthusiast, host of "House of Cards Radio" and author of Winning Poker in 30 Minutes a Day (D&B Publishing, 2020).

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