Being emotionally compromised while playing a precision game like poker is the same thing as taking your buy-in and dropping the chips by the handful into a wood chipper. In summary, it’s a bad idea. (Unless burning through money is a hobby of yours. In which case, I’d be happy to invite you to my home game.)
Tilt happens. When it does, it can hit the fan harder and faster than you’re prepared to deal with. It should be the goal of every poker player who aspires to profit to know how to control tilt.
I am not the world’s foremost expert on controlling tilt, but I have learned to control it in myself, and have coached players to control it in themselves. It’s not rocket science, but it is absolutely crucial to winning poker.
Here’s the crash course:
- Understand tilt, deeply
- Identify what triggers YOUR tilt
- Outsmart yourself
- Know yourself
- Take action
1. Understand tilt, deeply
When you are not on tilt, tilt sounds like a silly concept, not worth much of your time. It is so painfully obvious looking from the outside in, that you probably don’t think about it very much. After all, who needs to? If you’re experiencing some strong emotion which has been caused by poker, you’re on tilt. Ta-da!
It’s not that simple.
When you are experiencing an emotion, you are almost always unaware of it. That’s not good for your poker game.
Good poker is reacting to observations, insights, and facts. Bad poker is reacting to how we feel at that moment. When we are playing good poker, we are playing with our brain and our insights. When we are playing bad poker, we are reacting to our emotions.
Here are a few common psychological reactions to a hostile environment:
- Something goes terribly wrong and hurts you. You become angry, and you react against the creator of this situation. The last thing you want to do is admit to yourself (or anybody else!) that you’re angry or that you’ve been harmed.
- Despite your best efforts for hours on ends, things just aren’t going your way. You become down, feeling blue. You don’t want to interact with much, become bored, and dodge questions. The last thing which will feel “natural” is picking yourself up and moving on emotionally.
- You just made some great moves, and you have been playing what feels like your A-game, for a solid 2 hours. But there is just this one guy, and he is playing back at you, and doing his best to make your evening terrible. You become frustrated with this player, that you cannot beat him, that despite your efforts, you are left unrewarded. You’ve played a winning game, and your stack has lost? How fair is that! You become hell-bent on fixing the problem and ignore all outside observations.
If you want to control your tilt, you have to be smarter and stronger than these emotions and all the other emotions you will feel during the game. As you know, emotions can be both incredibly strong and surprisingly sneaky.
If you want to turn a profit, take tilt seriously. Because whether you want it this way or not, your emotions are already a huge part of your game.
2. Identity what triggers YOUR tilt:
What puts you on tilt is different from everybody else. This is big. Your tilt is different from Phil Hellmuth’s tilt (thank goodness!) and from Phil Ivey’s (yes, even he goes on tilt). While there will be common themes to your tilt triggers (such as your opponent spiking the only card in the deck to make their full house on the river), what puts you over the edge is what puts YOU over the edge.
The next time you play, keep a notepad nearby. As you play, write down commentary on the hands you’re playing and when you hit that stretch of bad cards, or you play that terrible hand, or you face a donkey suck-out, write about it. Write about everything. Analyze yourself and discover what made you mad, what made you frustrated, what made you want to target that other player. Was it the snarky attitude? The 2% suck-out? That you played badly and you’re beating yourself up about it?
There’s not a lot of pressure here. Just keep a running commentary and when the inevitable frustrating run of cards comes by, comment to yourself about it. Easy, and very powerful, insights are created this way, in a natural environment.
You can’t skip this step.
3. Outsmart yourself
After a few sessions of analysis (and I suggest you are always keeping a commentary log, for the rest of your poker days, but that is a different matter), formulate a plan. Keep your plan extremely simple, so simple that if this was your second time playing cards, you’d know how to follow it. For example:
- These are my top three tilt triggers: 1, 2, 3
- The first time any one of these happen, I will take a stroll away from the table/computer
- I’ll put my mind on other things, and come back in 10 minutes (but no sooner)
(You can take a stroll, you can smoke a cigarette, you can call a friend, you can eat a granola bar, you can play tetris. But whatever you ever do, do these two things: get up and away from the game, and do something that is not poker for a time. This is essential.)
The goal is  to know your triggers,  to have an action pre-meditated which you will take to alleviate the stress (simple things like walking for 5 minutes or reading 10 pages in a book), and  a time limit for when you are allowed to return to the game. (It’s a simple system, and it has worked for me for many years now.)
Making a plan is easy. Just keep it simple, and write it down. But what’s not easy are the next two steps to controlling tilt.
4. Know yourself
Know when you’re on tilt.
Admit it. Admit to yourself that you are flawed, that you are emotionally compromised. Admit that you are being beaten by your own emotions, and that they are controlling your game.
Ouch! That is your pride being hurt. It’s okay. It is better to play winning poker with humility, than terrible poker with pride.
The only way to control tilt, is to grab it by the horns and wrestle it to the ground. Know yourself, know when it is happening, and have the guts, the cojones, the wherewithal, the pizzazz, and the steel nerve to say to yourself, in a clear and firm voice, “I am on tilt.”
This is huge and you should be proud of yourself for your honesty.
5. Take action
Admitting to yourself that you are on tilt is hard. Very hard. Once you’ve done it, do something about it.
Before you got on tilt, and because you are a wise, profitable, and ambitious poker player, you already formulated a plan to outsmart yourself (remember step 3?). Here, put it into action.
If you do aspire to control your tilt, you need to understand tilt deeply (step 1!), you need to be able to quantify what is putting you on tilt (step 2!), you need a plan (step 3!), and you need the guts to say you are on tilt (step 4!). But none of that will bear any fruit until, like all things, you put your plan into action (step 5!).
It is worth its own step, taking action, because you must deliberately and willfully pre-meditate and choose to take an action which, in all likelihood, will be contradicting all of your emotions at the moment. You are mad! You want to get even! You want to win it all back! However. If you have made a plan which includes an accurate analysis of yourself, then you can confidently make the right decision to temporarily ignore your emotions, and take constructive action (e.g. taking a stroll, doing something non-poker for a few minutes).
As a sidenote, you shouldn’t expect to pull this off perfectly the first time you try to implement it. It takes practice. But what you should expect, is that the more conscious and intentional you become about controlling your tilt, the more you analyze yourself, and the more willpower you develop, the more profit you will create every time you play this fascinating game.
And there you have it, in highly condensed form, a sensible approach to controlling your tilt!
Here is Phil Hellmuth, becoming totally and completely emotionally compromised by his opponent:
One of Hellmuth’s tilt triggers is revealed at the very end of the clip, where Hellmuth says, “To you it’s just poker. To me, it’s my life.”