Poker is as much a game of emotion as it is of money. Poker is also more a game of emotional control than anything else. It isn't just the emotions that get stirred up during the course of a hand, a session, a year of play, it's the way in which you grasp those emotions, experience them, react to them.
I maintain that more money is lost at poker because of poor management of emotional highs and lows than any other factor, more than stupidity, more than bad game selection, more than bad luck.
Most emotional reactions are rapid fire things. See tiger, run. Hear wife snarl, apologize. Watch two outer hit river, die another death. It's fast, unrehearsed and unbidden.
No one looks at a tiger on the path in front of them and says, "Hmm, cute but those fangs and claws look a bit on the dangerous side. I do think I'll get my ass out of here." You don't hear someone blast their horn at you while you're zipping into an intersection and think, "That's an interesting horn, I wonder if it's a Japanese-made car."
There are a bunch of obvious reasons why emotions operate this way. If they're not obvious go pick up a copy of Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (yes, he wrote more books after Origin of Species). He worked out many of the key principles well over a hundred years ago and they still hold today.
But evolutionary biology aside, the interest is poker and your emotions and how to handle them at the poker tables and it's going to turn out that this "speed" thing is important.
Back to the claim about poor emotional management. The reason is tilt. Tilt is the enemy of the poker player. Tilt is the main source of losses for most good players. It is the reason why losing sessions turn into financial disasters; it is why winning session often go awry; it is the principle reason why good players never become great ones.
And tilt may be different from what you think it is.
Tilt tends to be treated as occurring in moments with high drama, Matusowian meltdowns, maniacal raises and reraises, cards flying, chairs knocked over, steam coming out of someone's ears. Tilt is these things but it is much more.
I subscribe to Tommy Angelo's characterization: Tilt is any time that you're not playing your A-game. You can go on tilt because you're tired or unsure of yourself in this particular game or because you're distracted by other things in life --- but mostly you go on tilt because you've failed to control your emotions and are no longer making the kinds of decisions you would be making if you weren't on tilt.
Let's look at an example, a hand. It's my hand. I played it recently.
The game was $5/5 NLH. I'm on the button with about $800 in front of me. I'm dealt J♠ T♠. There is one limper in the hijack seat with about a thousand. I raise to $35, the blinds fold, the limper calls. He's a so-so player whom I know reasonably well. His range here, I suspect, is anywhere from a middling Ace to a mid-pair.
Flop: 9♦ 8♣ 6♠. He bets $40 which sets off some bells --- set bells. I'm getting the right price to call, and do.
Turn: Q♥. Bingo. Now he pots (told you he was a so-so player). I repot. He goes all in. Insta call.
Now, here're the tilty questions: What should I do right now -- at this moment -- before the dealer burns and turns? What would you do?
I suspect most of you would do what I did --- for the first several hundred milliseconds. I prayed and chanted "Don't pair the board, don't pair the board."
Then I remembered Angelo's definition of tilt and I realized that if the board pairs I will go off like a fucking Roman candle, I will slam the table, stare malevolently at this bozo who opened himself up to get felted with a move that only a total idiot would make -- and I will not be able to play my A-game for at least, oh, an hour, two, a day, a week ....
In the next several hundred milliseconds I did what Angelo counsels. I steadied myself and thought about what I will do when the river lands. Will I rebuy? Will I nod and say "nice hand" (not "nice catch," that would be far too emotional a reaction)? Will I get up and take a walk, asking the dealer (nicely) to hold my seat? Will I enjoy the deep pleasure of stacking nearly $2,000?
I prepared myself for all possible outcomes and resolved to accept each as just another event in the ongoing saga that is my life. I became a much better poker player that evening.
More Guest Blog Posts from Arthur S. Reber