By Ben Roberts -- About two years ago, I wrote On Cavemen and Poker Players, in which I talked about the importance of learning to control your emotions at the poker table. Since then, I've had time to further refine my views on this topic, especially when it comes to the concept of tilt.
To begin, let me state the obvious: tilt happens to everyone. In fact, it's safe to say that tilt is one of the most feared words - and concepts - in poker.
So, what causes tilt? Well, that's different for everyone. For some, it's a bad run of cards or continually getting unlucky when your opponents hit their miracle two- and three-outers on the river. For others, it's just playing poorly for an extended period of time.
No matter the cause, however, the fact remains that once most players do finally go on tilt, all bets are off and their games suffer. They end up playing the wrong cards in the wrong situations or at the wrong times and losing a lot of chips. For some players, this can be the beginning of a vicious cycle that feeds upon itself and, eventually, destroys their confidence along with their bankrolls.
Knowing what causes tilt is one thing, but the bigger question is, what is tilt? Personally, I believe it's a chemical reaction that takes place in your brain. It's similar to the primal emotion of being in danger, coded into our DNA just as if we're in the forest being hunted so many thousands of years ago. Instead of being chased by some wild animal, we're being hunted by other players looking to gun us down with another bad beat.
Play Smart, Thoughtful Poker
The effect of this primal emotion is enormous - your whole chemistry changes and you go into a different frame of mind that will completely change the way you play the game.
The key to stopping this from happening and going on tilt is the ability to separate yourself from that emotion. Rather than playing based on that primal instinct, you should continue to play smart, thoughtful poker without worrying about your short-term results.
In order to achieve this, you must train yourself to believe that winning and losing at the poker table, at least over a short period of time, both have the same meaning. This might seem counterintuitive at first, because the object of the game is always to win. But you have to accept the fact that you can't win every hand and that losing is a part of the game.
Look at how you approach a coin-flip situation. If you're winning at the time you're faced with a coin flip, you're going to be more hesitant to take that chance because you don't want to risk losing what you've already won (and possibly more).
If, on the other hand, you're presented with the same situation when you're losing, then you're probably going to be more willing to take the risk and go for the coin flip because you want to win your money back.
Either way, I think both cases are detrimental to your game because in either situation, you're more worried about the short-term outcome rather than about playing solid poker over the long term, which is what being a winning player is really all about.
When you become indifferent to winning or losing over the short term, you won't have to worry about going on tilt because you're focusing simply on playing good poker. That's all that matters at the end of the day - playing well.
As poker players, we can do nothing more than to play our best game and let the cards fall as they may. When you adopt this attitude, your long-term results will take a turn for the better, no matter what kind of variance you face over the short term.
-- Ben Roberts