Managing Tilt

Fail to cope with luck’s inevitable fluctuations and you career crazily on tilt, making deluded plays that only compound your losses

As a game of both luck and skill, poker can offer limitless moneymaking opportunities, but it can also be a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs that pushes your abilities and nerves to their limits. The aim of this article is to talk you through the swings that poker players should expect to encounter every time they play, and to explain how you can stay away from the dreaded four letter word that has busted many a bankroll – ‘tilt’.

Poker is an alluring mixture of luck and skill that makes for an exciting experience, whether you’re playing or just watching. The really great thing about it compared to, say, chess, snooker or even football, is that for limited periods of time anyone can win. We see newcomers beating pros or triumphing at big tournaments and walking off with huge prizes. Contrast that with other games and sports – the vast majority of us could only ever dream of emulating Ronnie O’Sullivan or David Beckham.

But, if you’ve played poker for any length of time, then you’ll be aware that the downside is that you can get extremely unlucky for seemingly extraordinary periods of time, perhaps weeks or even months, and you will never really reach an even keel, as the swings go back and forth continuously.

Whatever level of involvement in poker you decide upon – from weekly home game to full-time pro – your nerves and abilities are going to be tested, and perhaps pushed beyond their limits at various points in your playing career when things go badly. Of course, if things go better than average then your main problem might be an inflated ego and estimation of your abilities, which can also be a problem as things start to even out!

Working out the angles

Coping with the fluctuations in your luck then is a vital part of the game and, as all poker players know, what happens when you don’t manage this is called ‘tilt’ – ie playing one or more hands incorrectly due to external pressures (often associated with bad beats earlier in a game), and thereby compounding your losses through bad luck with additional ones through bad play.

This is one of the most costly ‘leaks’ a poker player can have, and has sent many a player broke or out of a tournament unnecessarily. In fact it’s so prevalent that almost no player is completely immune to going on tilt, but the best all manage to keep a handle on it, or just stop playing for a while if it’s affecting their game. So how do you keep yourself on the straight and narrow, and off tilt?

Tilt is a four letter word, and like most four letter words it can usually be associated with an occurrence that’s not to our liking, or beyond our normal expectations of what is reasonable. In poker these kind of occurrences come up all the time, whether it’s a donkey (read: bad player) calling you down with a terrible hand in a limit hold’em game and hitting a two outer, or losing a long series of coin-flip hands in no-limit tournament play.

This is partly because the odds of losing are never massive in most poker situations compared to winning the lottery or getting struck by lightning, and partly because the uneven swings always guarantee there will be times when you’re getting far fewer good hands than you would usually and taking far more than your share of beats as well. This makes for a serious shock to the system because somehow our brains are hardwired to believe we’re entitled to win every 3/1 shot, and to glide over the good luck we have (most of which we never even see since players usually fold their cards face down), rather than rationalise it and accept it as being the same for everyone.

Take a wage cut

One important reason for this goes back to the unstable nature of the game, and thereby a player’s results – serious poker students and pros keep records of their wins and losses to know where they are overall, and a bad run can leave a crater in your overall expectation per hour or per game, thereby affecting the overall estimation of projected profits severely, as well as a player’s confidence levels. Just imagine the boss coming into your office every other day to tell you your wage has just doubled or halved!

Having said that though, the main way of rationally combating tilt from such bad runs is to realise that while there’s little you can do about the fluctuations in your luck, the bad beats you experience are actually the cornerstone of the game – after all, if bad players never got lucky they probably wouldn’t play in the first place, and if you’re one of the best players in your game it makes sense that you will be taking more bad beats than others.

If you want to take the idea one step further, imagine that you’re running a business. To run a healthy business you need to keep the bank manager happy, and so a key factor is having enough money behind you to keep from worrying about going broke. It also helps to have the support of those close to you in such endeavours, and so see our boxout on the left to help with this.

Stake and chips

Having looked at the reasons behind tilt and how to rationalise the swings in a poker game, you should now be in a good position to stay off it. But just in case that wasn’t enough, here are a final few practical questions you can ask to stop yourself going on tilt when you’re in a game or thinking about sitting down in one:

How are you feeling? Any sort of emotional cloud could affect your game, whether it’s due to a relationship, work issues or a previous bad run that had affected your confidence. In poker, like anywhere else, pessimism can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, so if you don’t feel able to crush the game (or at least eke out a modest profit) stand up or give it a miss altogether – especially on the internet, there’s always another when you’re up to it. At times like this a calming walk in the park or trip to the cinema would probably be a better idea.

Get a grip on yourself

Are you in good shape to play? Just as emotions are a factor, what about the rest of you? If you’ve played a long session already or are tired from something else, your judgement and emotional control can begin to falter, which can be doubly perilous. Similarly, being ill or drunk are good reasons to not get involved over your head, and if you’re losing focus and starting to resent or pick battles with other players for the sake of it you’re probably not at your best.

Can you afford to play? It’s an obvious but important question. The biggest hidden factor in tilt is the stakes you’re playing at. For example, playing in a bigger game than you’re used to can result in playing fearfully or skidding down the slopes to disaster if you get off to a bad start. Playing in a game that is too small for you might result in you not taking enough care with it.

Usually, but not always, this is related to an overall sense of financial pressure based on the size of your bankroll, as it’s hard to focus effectively when every hand means an immediate threat to your survival. Sure, you can take a shot at a favourable bigger game in an effort to move up limit, but be careful to get out early if things go wrong or you’ll start to feel the pressure!

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