Internal Tells or Just Plain Tilt?

Andy Black
Not everyone has Buddhism to fall back on.

Bob Silverstein is a psychotherapist who also plays poker (or is that a poker player who also does therapy?) He's written, interestingly, on what he calls "internal tells" --- emotional states that compromise or interfere with decision making at the table.

It's a funny term and he lists a wide range of circumstances as marking an "internal tell".

These include high levels of tension when under pressure (tough hand, lot of money at stake), feelings of unease because of other events in one's life (family matters, business problems), individual differences in the ability to control and regulate emotions and, of course, Hellmuthian tantrums and Matusowian meltdowns.

Silverstein's onto something here and it's worth looking into.

First, I think he's mislabeled it. It isn't an internal tell. In fact, it isn't a tell in anything like the classic sense of that term.

Tells are mannerisms or changes in demeanor or action that reveal information about the strength of your hand.

Tells are, hence the name, "telling" your opponents something that they can use to make more informed decisions. If you're in bankruptcy court it might make you feel less confident at the table but it won't necessarily have any outward effect on how you play K-8 off from the BB.

Silverstein notes that when he talked with professional players about this topic, in his words, they "initially had trouble relating to the idea."

And well they should.

Silverstein is really talking about tilt. If there's an 'internal tell' here it is one that is 'telling' the player that they are, indeed, tilting.

Phil Hellmuth
Next to tilt Hellmuth knows no foe.

Tilt is the poker player's most formidable foe. It's been talked about and written about endlessly but still eludes a full unpacking of its nature. Of all those who have broached the topic, Tommy Angelo has made the most progress.

I've recommended his book Elements of Poker before so let me do so again. Angelo would likely resonate to Silverstein's approach, though I suspect he too would rename it.

Why are "internal tells" simply tilt? Because they are internal states that screw with decision making. Sometimes they are cognitive in nature, like when you're depressed or tired and have trouble thinking through the complexities of a hand. Sometimes they are emotional in that business troubles (or a shrinking playing bankroll) are creating gut-churning levels of anxiety, which is known to undermine confidence.

Sometimes they are motivational like those days where you've lost the calm, determined approach to the game, feel twitchy and unsure.

Each of these unhappy states causes tilt because when you're angry or depressed, anxious or unsure, confused or overwhelmed, you cannot make optimal decisions. Non-optimal decision making is the functional equivalent of tilt.

I'm going through this in detail because there is an important point. Tilt isn't just flinging cards or going on some nutty raise-reraise rampage. Tilt isn't normally as obvious and compelling as cussing out an opponent.

Tilt is any time, any, when circumstances conspire so that you are no longer playing at your best.

That's it.

So, if it's that simple, why all the fuss? Well, just because it is that simple --- and just because simple truths oft carry complex lessons with them.

The lesson here? Let's go back to Silverstein, because he's actually got the issue right, even if he mislabeled it.

He counsels listening to your inner voice, learning to take note of your emotional state, searching for calm spaces, ones where you feel at one with yourself and are in the moment.

Jerry Yang

He relates a conversation he had with Jerry Yang (yeah, I know, none of you think much of him as a player but, hell, he did win the big enchilada). Jerry tells him that he learned that he cannot play good poker when he has other serious matters on his mind.

He says that when "I am calm, not agitated, nothing outside the table distracts me ... I feel almost invincible."

Humberto Brenes (I think we can all agree that his game is pretty good) tells Silverstein that when he is in the zone "I don't even see my cards, I just become my cards." And when he gets smacked hard he puts a favorite song on his iPod and sings to himself until he calms down again.

The keys here are two-fold. First, you have to learn to detect these tilt-generating states. This isn't always easy.

I often find that I'm feeling tense or annoyed or lacking patience and, once I notice this, I ask myself, "When did this start? How long have I been like this? How many non-optimal decisions have I already made?"

I've been playing this game for decades and I'm still working on spotting these internal states. It ain't easy.

Second, you need to learn how to make the mental adjustments to bring you back from tiltiness.

Brenes sings (sometimes out loud!). Yang shuts out uncomfortable thoughts. Angelo meditates and uses controlled breathing (go read the book). Reber, well, Reber still hasn't figured it out but, hell, it ain't easy.

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