Poker is one of the most emotionally demanding games you can think of. So much so that one of the words you’ll hear most often is tilt.
Being on tilt, roughly speaking, is when you allow bad feelings to dictate your behavior.
Everyone’s been there. But not everyone’s aware that there are at least two reasons for this to happen. And knowing the difference between the two may change the way you approach your next poker session.
1 – Waiting for the Sun to Shine
Let’s start by refining our understanding of what it means to be on tilt.
As I’ve suggested, this is when you let your emotions hurt your game. This is often an insidious process, which can manifest itself in different ways.
But, if we pay enough attention, we’ll be able to identify some common behavior patterns.
Not all players on tilt may do this. But all of them become more subject to some kind of speculative play. In short, they disregard most of what they once learned about the fundamentals (hand selection, pot odds, position, etc.).
Sometimes, it’s great. Nothing in poker is bad per se. After all, you have to know how to change gears and how to manipulate your table image.
And speculative plays can help you with that. Against skilled opponents, you won’t go too far if your game is too predictable. But when those plays aren’t done in the proper state of mind, this means that you’re simply relying on luck.
Knowing one’s own state of mind is, in itself, a full-time job, because it requires constant attention. But it’s easy to put into words how a person is feeling when he/she is on tilt.
In fact, we can summarize it with a single word—frustration.
2 – The Pain of Letting Go
Frustration is an interesting word. According to the 3rd edition of the Longman Active Study Dictionary, here’s how it’s defined:
[…] the feeling of being impatient or angry because you cannot do what you want to do[.]
I don’t need to tell you what it means to be impatient or angry, do I? Any human being knows those feelings all too well.
Still, it requires a good deal of self-awareness to identify certain emotions as soon as they show up during a poker session. And it requires an even greater deal of self-regulation to not let them interfere with your game.
Self-awareness and self-regulation are emotional intelligence skills. As such, they deserve an article of their own. For now, let’s continue analyzing our definition of the word frustration.
Once again, according to Longman (and most dictionaries, by the way), it’s a feeling that comes “because you cannot do what you want to do.”
And it’s here that I ask you, do you know what you want to do when you play poker?
3 – The Most Common Reason Why Players Go on Tilt
I suspect that, for most poker players, the question “What do you want to do?” isn’t even the most relevant because they’re way too concerned about what they want to have.
That is, they’re all about the results… I’m not here to say you shouldn’t be results-oriented. After all, this is a common trait among successful people.
But these people have also learned that your results should come in direct proportion to what you do and also, your level of being, if you want to sustain your success.
This sounds obvious, right? But how many players fail to notice this?
Poker is demanding not only because of its individualistic nature but also because of the luck factor. This makes it all too easy to blame the deck when things don’t go your way, especially when playing no-limit. Here, you can lose a lot (or all) of your chips in one hand.
When that happens because of a bad beat, that’s enough for many players to start playing much worse. And that’s how most of them go on tilt.
But we must know that attachment is exactly what makes it difficult to have the necessary emotional stability to play poker.
At the felt, anything can happen in the short run. Unfortunately, it seems that most players only learn this at a cognitive level (if that).
What do those players need to develop, then?
First of all, a desire to play well. Second, the habit of seeing their results from a larger perspective. Bear in mind, though, that none of that will necessarily save you from going on tilt.
There’s another reason why this happens to poker players.
4 – Aiming Higher
When you decide to get serious about improving your game, it’s common to develop a series of habits.
You start reading books, joining forums, and watching tutorials about poker. You keep track of how long you spend at each session (both online and offline). You spend hours analyzing different hands you’ve played searching for what could’ve been done differently.
Then, you pay attention to your nutrition, sleep, exercise routine, and so on. You even experiment with different kinds of meditation, visualizations, and affirmations.
In short, you do everything you can think of to give yourself even the slightest edge at a poker table. And you definitely should. But, as great as those habits are, they may present a certain danger.
The danger is not in any of those practices themselves, but in how you relate to them. Because, if you do “everything right”, you might expect to play as close to perfect as humanly possible.
And when you’re not able to do this, you’re bound to get frustrated.
5 – When It Seems That There’s Nothing More to Polish
Poker player and author Mike Caro calls this second type of tilt the “scratched-car syndrome.”
He named it as such because of something that happened to a neighbor of his a long time ago. His neighbor just bought a new car, of which he seemed to be very proud of. And he polished it frequently. That is, until a scratch appeared on it.
After that incident, the man felt it wasn’t worth it anymore to do anything about his once precious car. As Caro observes, such is the case for those poker players who come into a table expecting to play great all the time.
All it takes is a costly misjudgment—a bad call on the river, for example—for them to feel like their whole session was ruined. Although the circumstances behind this type of tilt are different from the other, the underlying reason is the same.
Both types of players get frustrated because of some kind of attachment. In our first case, as we’ve seen, that attachment is mainly to amassing chips. In this second case, players tend to be attached mainly to their self-image as poker players.
These would do well to ponder on the following advice from Caro:
[…] You are where you are and the past is the past. Are-are, past-past. Try to play perfectly, but expect to fail.
6 – A Third Type of Tilt
I know, I said I’d talk about only two types of tilt, but there’s another one which deserves at least a brief mention here.
Sometimes, you go on tilt not because of a bad run of cards, a hand poorly played, or anything else that’s part of the game.
Maybe your mother is sick. Or you’ve argued with your spouse. Or you’ve had an altercation with another player about something unrelated to poker.
Whatever the case may be, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to focus on that game you happen to be in. I say it’s unlikely because some players are actually able to do it. Somehow, they’re able to detach from anything else that may be bothering them outside the felt.
If that’s you, I salute you. If that’s not your case, maybe it’s better to skip that particular poker session. Or, at the very least, try to make use of some techniques that involve some kind of relaxation.
None of us are immune to going on tilt when playing poker. This can happen even to top pros (as you may have seen on TV).
The secret, if there is one, is to learn how to bounce back quicker each time it happens. And the first step towards this goal is to learn to develop an accepting attitude.
Tilt, as we’ve seen, comes from frustration. And frustration comes from one thing, and one thing only—a lack of acceptance.
So, as long as you can stop wanting things to be different from the way they are, you’ll be a winner. That’s a tricky feat, because you do want to improve and develop. But you don’t want to be attached to neither the cards nor to your performance when playing poker.