Every poker player is familiar with it. But almost no poker player can avoid it.
We know it as "Tilt." And it's one of the most destructive - and mysterious - phenomenons in the poker world.
Here we'll explore the reasons for it, forms of it and the consequences of one of the most common leaks in poker.
Importantly, we'll also tell you just what you can do to fix it.
A Tilt Story You've Heard Before
Our hero is a regular No-Limit Hold'em player. He plays cash games and is currently going through a difficult phase.
For several weeks now things have not been going so well. He's lost more coin flips than he should have, he can’t hit his draws, and if he has a strong hand his opponent often has an even better one.
So, our hero takes a break from poker. After a couple of days he feels better. He sits down at the monitor in a good mood and begins to play.
Four hours later: Our hero has lost four stacks and got unlucky several times. Eventually he gets all his money in with pocket aces and gets sucked out on by pocket kings.
In the very next hand he 5-bet shoves his money in in a blind battle with A-9 and loses to pocket queens. He slams shut his laptop and smashes his mouse against the wall.
He's on tilt.
Blame Poker Tilt on Variance
The phenomenon of tilt is as old as poker. The origin of tilt is variance.
Variance makes sure that there will always be random winning and losing streaks along with certifiably outrageous set-ups.
Extreme situations can cause players to lose focus and distract from their regular playing level. In cases like this, we're talking about tilt.
A player's "absolute" skill level is not the only decisive factor for long-term success at poker. You also need a lot of mental strength -- and this strength is often underrated.
Luck and Bad Luck in Poker
One of the very few players famous for being "immune" to tilt was the legendary Chip Reese.
Deemed “The True King of Poker” by Daniel Negreanu and called “arguably the best player who ever lived” by his long-time friend Doyle Brunson, Reese is an icon in the poker world.
He died prematurely of a heart attack in 2007 when he was only 56.
Reese was known as the player who never showed any reaction, any change in his level of play, no matter how bad things would get. Many Las Vegas pros still remember and admire him for his skills.
Jesse May, TV commentator for numerous poker shows, once said that the most important thing in poker is to be able to deal both with luck and with bad luck.
If you're a poker player, you know this is much tougher than it sounds. Frequently emotions suddenly well up and cloud your senses.
More Forms of Poker Tilt Than You Might Think
Most players associate, and suffer from, the following with tilt:
After a bad beat or an extended (real or imagined) downswing, you lose control over your game. You play too loosely because you are fuming.
These are all things that happen to all of us. But tilt is a much more general problem and it means first and foremost that you're simply not playing your A game - for any reason.
Playing Emotionally Instead of Rationally
There are a lot of different factors that can trigger tilt – luck, bad luck, fatigue, despondency, depression, euphoria. All of these things can be responsible for players playing more “emotionally” instead of “rationally."
There are individual reasons for going on tilt and there are also varying degrees of it. But there's one thing that all players have in common: we are all susceptible.
Some of us more than others, but it concerns everyone. Just a few ways an emotional poker meter can be tilted:
1. Player A dislikes Player B. The reasons are really secondary. Player A decides it's time to show Player B who the better player is. He starts confronting Player B with weak hands and plays too aggressively.
2. Player C takes a shot at a higher level. This puts him under a lot of stress and he plays with scared money. He becomes more careful and plays too passively.
3. Player D has had a fun night out. He comes home late at night and feels great. He opens his poker client and starts to play. Because of his “good mood” he plays too many hands and becomes careless.
These are but a few examples of how emotions influence your game. Bad beats and lost pots are or course right there, too. The important thing is you have to find out for yourself why and when you're losing your A game. Understanding is the first step to improving.
Poker Tilt Comes From All Angles
This applies to many things in life and tilt is no exception. No matter which level you play on, if you are an ambitious player you have to make rational, reason-based decisions.
The more you let emotions take over your game, the more your decisions are going to deviate from rational ones.
Playing emotionally over any period, large or small, will have terrible consequences for your bankroll. Remember to realize tilt comes at you from all angles and there are myriad ways it shows itself.
A player who is emotionally out of balance loses his game and as a consequence will make sub-optimal decisions.
There are a lot of different kinds of emotional disturbances for a poker player but we can put them all into two general categories consisting of opposite veins.
Tilt Syndrome 1 – Loose-Aggressive vs Tight-Passive
Loose-Aggressive Tilt is by far the most common. Every poker player is familiar with it. You play too many hands and fall back into making beginners mistakes which you thought you had long overcome.
It applies to all forms of tilt that the damage it does depends on how long you are on it and how far you deviate from your regular game. These are typical factors that trigger tilt:
- Frustration after bad beats
- a bad run of cards/play
- chasing losses to get back even during a long session
- feeling unbeatable because of constantly good results
- giving up on oneself, feeling “whatever," getting upset
- being impatient and trying to make up mistakes quickly
- feeling vengeful against a specific player
This form of tilt is usually rather short-termed. Players tend to calm down after lashing out, even if they lose a stack.
The opposite of loose-aggressive tilt is Tight-Passive Tilt. This is a much more placid form but still just as disastrous. You stop playing your regular tight-aggressive game and become too careful and defensive. Typical triggers for this form of tilt:
- loss/lack of self-confidence
- a bad run of cards/play
- feeling insecure (because of an unusual environment, playing a new game)
- playing limits too high for your bankroll
- "securing" your winnings (not being willing to risk money won during that session)
- irrational fear (for example of specific hands we lost money with; superstition)
Contrary to Loose-Aggressive Tilt, which is fairly obvious and easy to spot, Tight-Passive Tilt is much more elusive.
Whereas loose-aggressive tilt is like a quick outburst of anger, tight-passive tilt can really creep into your game without attracting much attention and become a permanent problem.
This is why Tight-Passive Tilt is so dangerous – and so expensive. Quite often, these forms of tilt correspond to a player’s personality, which makes it a little easier to detect them.
But there are cases where tilt brings out a hidden part of someone’s character, something that changes them completely and makes them almost unrecognizable even to their friends.
Tilt Syndrome 2 – Fancy Play vs ABC Poker
The phenomenons described above are the most common ones at the poker table. But there are several other forms of tilt that have completely different causes.
One of them is Fancy-Play Syndrome. It's not a very frequent form but there are players who get affected by it all the time. Typical triggers of it are:
- Exaggerated self-confidence (having a good run, getting several risky bluffs through)
- Narcissistic streaks (especially at live tables, when players try to impress others at the table)
- Pushing for success (usually when being card dead for a long spell and then trying to bluff anyway)
Another – very frequent – form of tilt is the ABC Poker trap. It’s particularly dangerous because a lot of players fall into it all the time and don’t even notice it.
With players getting stronger and stronger today, nobody can afford that tilt anymore as it leads to permanent money loss. Typical triggers of this tilt are:
- Underestimating opponents (thinking “ABC poker” is enough to beat them)
- Lack of focus (simultaneously surfing the internet, checking the mailbox, making calls, watching TV, reading, etc)
- Tiredness, Boredom
- Being distraught
- Lack of self-confidence
If you're an online player, you have to give ABC Poker Tilt a lot of respect. Very busy players in particular, who play a lot daily, often go on autopilot and lose their inspiration.
This is also the most difficult form of tilt to identify as players are not really doing anything “wrong." This also makes it one of the most dangerous. Where Fancy-Play Syndrome is usually a short affair, ABC Poker can become a chronic disease.
Defining and Fighting Poker Tilt
You’ll only be able to recognize tilt if you understand your emotions. Successful poker pro Liv Boeree says you need to check on your emotions before you even sit down at a poker table to be able to respond accordingly.
According to her it's crucial to accept that your emotions are a natural reaction to positive or negative incidents. However, this is by far not enough to conquer tilt when tilt threatens to conquer you.
Simpler and easier to get a handle on are the financial consequences of tilt. In short, how much it costs you.
The Price of Poker Tilt
Example: Player A is a successful No-Limit Hold'em player at NL100. He usually plays online and as long as he's in control of his game/emotions he posts a solid win rate of 3BB/100 hands.
Unfortunately he's very vulnerable to tilt and he also knows that sometimes he loses control. If he has a really bad session he has found himself getting furious and blowing off his whole stack with bad bluffs.
Sometimes the bad bluff works, but let’s assume for our calculation that our hero loses 100 big blinds every time he "loses it." If he normally wins 3 big blinds per 100 hands that means he needs to play 3,333 hands to make up that single episode of tilt
As a full-ring multi-tabling player he plays around 300 hands per hour so he needs to play 11 hours to win that back.
- Think about this: 11 hours of perfect poker to get back the money you lose in one, stupid hand.
There's Still Time to Right the Ship
Every reasonable poker player understands this point. But that doesn't stop most of us from going berserk. IT IS CRUCIAL to realize one’s own emotions and respond accordingly. If you want to be a serious player, you just have to be able to do it.
If you notice you’re losing your control follow the advice below to readjust:
• For all forms of tilt: Stop playing and take a break immediately. It’s simple but efficient. You will cool down and be able to refocus.
• For all forms of tilt: Read as many books and articles as you can. They will inspire you, broaden your knowledge and give you a better grip on basic techniques.
• For loose-aggressive tilt: step down to the micro-limits and blow a couple of stacks away. Release your aggression for little cost.
• For tight-passive tilt: Step down one or two limits to one you know you can beat. This will give you back your self-confidence and assurance.
• For fancy play syndrome: Get back to basics, stop bluffing and showing-off. Play standard, “good," tight-aggressive poker.
• For ABC poker tilt: Increase your bluffing frequency, try check-raising some more, play some more over bets. You need to get away from your standard, easy to exploit game. Develop some new ideas, and you will develop more self-confidence.
Checking Your Poker Tilt is Essential
There is no poker player on the planet who can afford to go on tilt. Everyone who takes the game seriously has to get to know him/herself and his/her tilt tendencies.
You need to identify, deal and overcome it. Always be introspective. Check your emotional state constantly so you’ll recognize dangerous developments.
If you can detect tilt before it does severe damage you will be A LOT more successful in the long run. And that, of course, needs to be your goal and your motivation.
One More Take on Tilt
Poker is a difficult game. Anyone who has tried to play professionally for any length of time can certainly attest to this truth.
But the real obstacle to long-term success isn't the difficulty of the game - although when played at the highest levels, poker is certainly a nuanced, complex game.
The truly difficult aspect of poker is the mental part. More specifically, it's the ability of a player to control their emotions both in the heat of battle and, perhaps more importantly, over the long term.
The Downward Spiral of a Poker Downswing
Whether you're playing it professionally or just as a frequent hobby, poker can be a grind. And it can absolutely take a toll on you if you let it.
If you want to win at poker long term you'll need to find a way to manage the stress and emotional swings inherent to the game.
Anyone who plays poker long enough will eventually encounter a downswing. Sometimes, these downswings seem to have a way of lasting much longer than you might think they should.
One reason downswings can seem to last an eternity is that often your mental state starts to affect your decision-making.
To wit: When you're in a rut and going through a prolonged losing streak, the fact you're experiencing a losing streak impacts your play and causes the downswing to continue.
Highs and lows and rushes and downswings are unfortunately more the rule than the exception in poker. That's why managing stress separates the wheat from the chaff.
Doyle Brunson may have said it best. When asked which of the current group of young stars he thought was going to be the next great player, Doyle said something to the effect of "I don't know. Ask me in 30 years."
You Have to Actually Be IN the Game, First
To be successful over a long period you first need to actually be in the game. This requires being able to manage your emotions (and your bankroll) over the long term.
Anyone can remain positive when things are going well; it becomes considerably more difficult when things are going poorly.
The vast majority of players are unable to accurately assess how well (or badly) they're running. Specifically, when things are going poorly, the typical player tends to focus on bad beats.
They may even start to anticipate the beats they're about to take. This sort of defeatist attitude can't help but affect your play. If you think the poker gods are out to get you, you'd be amazed at how often they do just that.
Similarly, when a player goes on a good run and books a large win for the day, their first reaction is usually to say something like "I played well today" or "I only suffered a couple of bad beats today."
This thought process illustrates exactly the type of bias that can lead to great frustration.
The Bad Beat Story
Simply put, people tend to only remember the bad things that happen to them (at least at the poker table). The good breaks (cards) are often brushed off as "running normally."
The same type of bias (or inability to accurately interpret events) has another irritating, yet frustratingly common manifestation - the bad beat story. Nearly everyone hates to listen to bad beat stories.
Paradoxically, almost every poker player continues to insist on telling bad beat stories.
This wouldn't matter if the disconnect between reality and a poker player's perception of reality wasn't one of the most damaging aspects of the game. It causes a great deal of unnecessary stress.
No one likes to lose a big pot. Least of all to a bad beat. But if you intend to win at poker you simply must learn how to become emotionally detached from the results of a session.
You can't get upset about the things you can't control. In fact, the more you do, the less you're going to focus on the things you do control - namely, your play.
The Closer to Zen, The Better
The closer you can come to adopting a Zen-like attitude, the better off you'll be. If you can suffer a horrific bad beat, one that costs you a huge pot, and simply smile and say "nice hand" and actually mean it, you're well on the way.
Remember, the guy who hit the three two-outers against you last session is (probably) not the devil; he's your customer. Treat him as such. If you do you'll find you have a lot more energy to devote to playing better poker and you'll probably be a lot less stressed as well.
For those of you who intend on playing poker for a long time this will also make your poker 'office, wherever it may be, a much more enjoyable place.
The Better You Feel, the More You Win at Poker
The better the mood you're in - the more rested, energetic and jovial you are - the more money you're going to make at the poker table.
Obviously, no matter how you feel or play, you're going to go down in flames when you get rocked by a cooler or a bad beat. But as long as you're making the best decisions you can make, you're earning the most money possible.
Choices you make at the table are directly influenced by the mood you're in at that moment.
If you want an example of this, just take a look at a player on vicious tilt compared to how they played when they first sat down.
Watch the play of a sober player change with each drink they consume, the feeling of invulnerability overtaking their decisions to the point of excessive donation.
As a player you should only play cards when you're in a state of mind suited for making money. Online Poker is not a game to be played passively.
Like any competition or sport, you need to enter the game focused and ready for battle. If life events have your mind in a knot, chances are you won't have the focus necessary to make the right decision when a difficult situation approaches.
The More You Win at Poker, the Better You Feel
What came first, the feeling or the profit? Think back to all the winning sessions you've had in your life, especially the big wins.
You will remember that a strong, warm feeling of elation was firmly situated in your chest during all of them. Did you have this feeling as a result of winning or did you win as a result of this feeling?
The answer to this question is both. Although there are sessions where the feeling is exclusively the byproduct of a heater or sexy luck, for the most part the feeling is self-perpetuating.
If you come into a session with this feeling, barring any cold decks, you're going to start churning a profit. The profit you make enforces the feeling starting the cycle.
Until this cycle is broken, you're a very dangerous player on that table.
Breaking the Emotional Cycle
To defeat a player running on this psychological high you have to break their cycle. In turn you have to refuse to let another player break yours.
Most poker players are fragile beings; they ride their results as if they were on a life raft lost at sea.
But take note - you never want to play against other players at the top of their cycle if you don't have to. Players at the top will be making strong choices and strong plays and playing a much trickier game than the average player.
You want to pick battles only with opponents who are anywhere from the bottom to the middle of the psychological scale. Make them yearn for the high and the stack that comes with it.
5 Unconventional Ways to Keep Yourself Off Tilt
Poker writer Lee Davy has some advice on how to keep yourself of tilt at the poker table. Here are some of his tips for how to chill out and take the edge off those unwanted negative emotions.
Have you ever watched the movie Inside Out? No? Man, you are missing something special. Rent it tonight.
I used to be the red dude called Anger. Things would get to me easily. My roof would explode. Flames would shoot out of my head. I would lose control. I would burn everyone around me.
Then I learned Transcendental Meditation (TM). I practice for 20 minutes per day, twice per day. Unless you wire up your brain it's difficult to measure success but my wife reliably informs me that I am a changed man since I started meditating: calmer, wiser and holding more space.
I don't do as much yoga as I used to. I need to fix that. However, it's one of the most meditative practices that I have in my arsenal. It might be difficult to meditate during a poker session but it’s not that hard to break out into a few downward-facing dogs.
All you need is a little room away from the table and the confidence to not care two monkeys about what people think. Yoga, even if you do it once a week, will chill you out.
3. Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT)
When I first read The Tapping Solution by Nick Ortner, I thought it was hocus-pocus. But it works.
‘Tapping' is the term used to describe Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), a form of self-help based on tapping various meridian points on the body.
I used to ‘tap’ in the aftermath of an argument or disagreement. My wife used to advise me to tap when I was stuck on a problem, feeling stressed, or frustrated.
Today, I tap every day. I focus on the one problem that’s blocking my energy from flowing naturally and I tap away. Is it hodgepodge? Who the hell cares? It works, and it’s free.
Once again, I don't suggest you tap at the table, as it shows your opponents that you are frustrated and maybe going slightly mad. But you can break away from the table and tap away until you calm down enough to get back into the game.
I am so grateful I get to see my son once a fortnight. He is grateful he gets to see me. I am 41. He is 15. How much time do we have left with this father/son bond before he grows up and things change?
I am always grateful when I play poker; billions can't. I am grateful for my financial situation, the ability to buy food, and to argue with my son.
I am also grateful for that reconciliatory kiss, for the feel of my hand as it moves through his hairspray matted hair, and the drubbing I give him on FIFA16 after we make up.
When you start feeling anxious, look around. What are you grateful for?
One of the biggest influences in my life has been Dr. Michael Beckwith. He is the guy in The Secret with hair like The Predator.
When I was in Los Angeles during the summer my wife took me to his spiritual church called Agape. I was hesitant at first. I abhor religion. But she promised me that I wouldn't experience anything of the sort.
She was right. I felt love, peace and a sense of community. I now watch his sermons every Monday and Thursday (Sunday and Wednesday for US residents). They are free and available online.
I like to listen to the songs from the special guests but most of all I listen to Beckwith's sermon. His wisdom is second to none.
What I have learned is spiritual practice is just that - practice. You can’t read The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle and suddenly be in the now. It takes time and daily practice.
Meditate. Tap. Do yoga. Be grateful. Regulate these things and your emotions will settle. You will be less angry, more relaxed and have greater reserves of empathy.
Before you know it, you'll be refusing to play that bad hand.