When speaking with poker players who are trying to improve their mindset at the poker table, the conversation generally revolves around two primary questions:
- Why do I tilt?
- How do I stop tilting?
However, before we can begin exploring these questions, it’s important to define exactly what the term “tilt” means to us, since players can often have a wide spectrum of definitions for it.
For the purposes of this article, tilt is defined as:
An emotion or pattern of thought that causes sub-optimal play, in comparison to the baseline.
Or, more simply put, something that causes you to play like crap compared to your non-tilted performance.
But why do we tilt? Why does it keep occurring time and time again, regardless of our efforts to combat it? And, most importantly, what can we do about it?
Why Do I Tilt?
Although poker-mindset optimization is still in its infancy, two of the leaders in the field, mental coaches Jared Tendler and Elliot Roe, have both spent a good deal of time working with some of the best players in the game. And although they share a great passion for their work, their respective approach appears to highlight two very distinct philosophies in regards to the big WHY question.
An undesirable event or perceived threat causes an emotional surge that triggers negative though-patterns which, in turn, trigger more negative emotions; which, in turn, trigger more negative thoughts…and so on and so forth. A powerful self-sustaining loop of misery that decreases – or even completely shuts down – higher brain functions such as logic, self-control, and rational decision-making.
- Approach & Performance-based
- According to Tendler, negative emotions at the poker table highlight flaws in how a player is mentally approaching the game. Whether it is due to illogical thought-patterns such as feeling that you “deserve” to win or needing to leave a session a winner to feel accomplished, or a lack of understanding of how a skill is built and competency developed, Tendler uses his Counseling Psychology background to help players improve the aspects of their game that are most directly tied to performance.
- Experience & Emotion-based
- In contrast to Tendler’s more “direct” (for lack of a better word) approach, Elliot Roe utilizes his background as a hypnotherapist to help players explore their emotions through a wider lens, taking into consideration past experiences and similar emotional responses found in areas outside of poker to create a shift in perception. While both Roe & Tendler agree that tilt is never just about the situation that triggered it, Roe’s specialty is in looking beyond poker performance and helping players find a common link between the negative emotions they experience at the table and those they experience far outside of the game.
But regardless of whether you believe that tilt should be examined from a wide scope or a more pinpointed one, the important thing is to recognize that there are many more more forces at play when we tilt than simply taking a bad beat or getting coolered in a big pot. For this reason, the question of why do I tilt? often has a very complicated answer that requires a significant time investment to adequately answer.
Therefore, after completing my Diploma of Professional Counselling program, I decided to combine the knowledge I gained from both Roe & Tendler with my own experiences in Mindfulness and mindful-meditation and began applying them to my own poker game as a way to combat severe tilt issues I was struggling with at the time. Inspired by those experiences, I wanted to take some time now to share with you some of the “aha moments” I came across during my journey to discover how to overcome tilt.
The Myth Of Tilting
Although having the ability to play without emotion might be the highest EV play from a strictly financial perspective, most poker players play the game because of how passionate they feel about it. So while it’s important to act responsibly and professionally at the tables, trying to do so by becoming a robot-like creature, immune to the emotional swings of a living being, can often do more harm than good. Because without that same emotion we’ve all, at one time or another, desperately tried to suppress, poker can quickly turn into just another 9-5 with better hours. And while that might be an ideal scenario for some, if you’re a recreational player or a non-professional player who simply wants to learn how to stop tilt while remaining open to the natural highs and lows of the game, the answer may in fact be to embrace tilt, rather than to attempt to eliminate it altogether.
When I began working on improving my poker mindset, the very first change I made was to commit to one specific goal:
Extract as much value from tilt as possible, so as to offset its inherently destructive nature.
The way I saw it, eliminating tilt from my game was likely going to be a long and arduous process that may or may not succeed; however, one thing I could control was using tilt to learn about myself, learn about my game, and learn about the way in which my mind & body reacted to stress and perceived threat. The process by which I tried to accomplish this was as follows:
Step 1: Tilt as a Compass
The very same tilt that is responsible for so many of our proverbial aches and pains is also an incredible tool for locating our biggest weaknesses, both in our poker game and in our poker mindset as well. And the best part is that all we have to do to take advantage of it is to wait for it to strike and then to simply note everything that led to its appearance.
- What specific situation within the game triggered this response?
- What emotions do I feel and where in my body specifically can I feel them most strongly?
- What is happening inside my mind?
- Am I blaming my opponents? Myself? Luck?
- In what way is tilt presenting itself?
- Do I feel the urge to 4-bet more?
- To move up in limits?
- To quit?
Whatever it is you’re experiencing, shining the spotlight of your attention on every aspect of the experience will often lead you to some pretty significant insight with very little additional effort at all.
Now that we likely have a long list of things to work on to overcome tilt, the next step is to correct the things that are most immediately fixable. Fortunately, the issues caused by the game of poker itself are often the easiest to fix. If we notice, for example, that we constantly become frustrated when a very active 3-bettor has position on us, one potential “quick fix” is to evaluate our 4betting v flatting ranges to ensure that we feel confident with our strategy in this situation. More often than not, building confidence through study will quickly alleviate much of the emotional charge attached to such a scenario.
Step 3: Separation & Acceptance
While some causes of tilt can be eliminated relatively quickly, like the one above, others, such as a lack of self-confidence or impulse control issues are buried much deeper down, often below a mountain of baggage that extend far beyond the game. Therefore, it’s important to learn to manage and minimize their effects on our bottom line, first by learning how to create emotional space between our impulses and reactions, and then by accepting them as part of the poker experience and learning to Ride the Bull.
Step 4: Riding The Bull
Although taking a break can often be a good strategy for stopping tilt from getting out of hand, if you are a tournament player, mass multi-player, or a professional on a strict schedule, stepping away from the table is not always an option. In such a situation, one strategy I like to use is what I call Riding the Bull.
Since science has now shown that it takes less than 90 seconds for an emotion to get triggered, surge chemically through the blood stream, and get flushed out, all we have to do when our tilt is activated is to ride the proverbial bull by doing everything in our power to make it through that first minute-and-a-half unscathed. If that means folding every “close” or marginal spot to minimize the number of tough decisions we face during this time period, that’s fine; if it means not watching any all-ins until the danger zone has passed so as to not agitate the beast, great; if it means emitting a long pig-sooie sound at the top of our lungs like these Razorback football-fans, well…that’s fine too I suppose.
Regardless of how you choose to do, the key is to buy your mind and body the necessary time to disengage from its automatic responses until you can return to a more aware and in-control state of being. And once you have triumphed over your Bull, simply recognize that any further suffering you experience from that point on is no longer the fault of your opponents, the cards, or even the poker gods. That’s right, if you’ve survived the first 90 seconds of tilt relatively unharmed, its fate rests entirely in your hands!
So what do you say, are you up for the challenge?
(By the way, if you’re serious about improving your poker game you have to consider the Upswing Lab. It covers everything from mental game to river bet sizing and the great reviews keep rolling in!)
Yaniv Son, known online by the poker moniker Sentin7, is a professional player and author with over a decade of poker experience who owns and operates the poker strategy site spinandgostrategy.com