Anger and agitation are responsible for more loses in poker than just about anything else. In fact, tilt is to poker what kryptonite is to Superman: it can rob you of your power; your edge. This is why it is so crucial to learn how to manage your emotions and not let them get the better of you.
I’ve been playing professionally long enough to know that being stressed at the tables is unavoidable; it’s the nature of the beast. However, you can master the beast instead of letting it master you. That’s what we’re going to talk about today: mastering the beast and getting the upper hand on your anger. If you take my lessons to heart, I can teach you what you need to know to never go on tilt again. Yes, I mean never. And I guarantee it.
That’s a pretty lofty claim, right?
Not really. I said that I can teach you what you need to know to never go on tilt again. It's up to you to take my methods and make them work. Got it? Good. Now let’s get going.
If you'd rather watch than read, you can check out the video version below.
The Gripsed Guide to Becoming Tilt-Proof
First, I want you to take a minute and write in the comments section here why you think you go on tilt. If you don’t want to write it in the comments, write it on a notepad, a post-it, whatever; just get it down. I also want you to write how you feel when you’re on tilt. (I promise I’m not going totally Dr. Phil on your ass – there’s a point to this and it will help speed up your progress by at least 100%.) Examine your responses. If you take time to think and feel out these answers, you’ll notice they're slightly different. This discrepancy – however minor – is where we can find the real reason people go on tilt.
'Don't sweat it, just forget it'.
This mantra echoes the real reason that I think people go on tilt; namely, they are dealing with and holding onto a bunch of things that make them unhappy, or make them feel bad. This is not unusual, and is in fact what draws people to gambling in the first place; they see it as an escape. Yes, the indisputable amount of skill involved to play winning poker makes it quite different than traditional gambling, but it still involves an element of chance, an element of hope, and that acts as the proverbial flame to the unhappy moth who craves distraction, escape, excitement, a ‘shot at the dream’. This is especially true for people who are drawn to tournament poker, as opposed to cash game poker. Now this doesn't mean that tournaments can't be played profitably. It also doesn't mean that if you like to play poker tournaments there's something wrong with you. However, the fact is that this lottery element exists, and it attracts people who may not have the skills to compete.
They do have the hope though; the hope that this time things will work out for them. It’s actually the main reason why poker tournaments are so profitable. You see, a lot of people gamble, take chances, and when things are going well (i.e. they're building stacks or winning pots) they get removed from their problems and they think that this is going be the day that everything changes. It’s a good feeling. A great feeling. In fact, it’s addictive. However, as soon as the tides turn and they're down chips, they realize that not only are all the things that bothered them still there, but they're also worse off than they were before because they've lost some of that precious resource: money. Then comes the spiral of frantically trying to 'get back to even', so that even if they still have to sit with their problems, at least they'll be coming at it from the same position they were before they started gambling.
Unfortunately, usually these frantic attempts aren't very well calculated and they just push the person further and further into a pit of despair. Not a happy place to be. Nobody wants to end up here. It’s akin to people who drink or do drugs to escape their problems. Once the drug wears off (and it always does), the problems are still there, and now you have to deal with them with a hangover, a lousy attitude and residual guilt and shame. Understandably, most people don't enjoy being around someone who's in this place, so it can be hard to find sympathy, and it can be hard to find help. If you’ve never been there, it’s a difficult journey to comprehend. But you’ve got me, so rest easy. I’ve witnessed some pretty sick things first hand.
A real-life example: When good players make bad choices...
My last trip to Niagara was a stellar example of struggle for escape at its worst, though it wasn't the first time I've seen people go really nuts trying to get back to even. In this particular instance, I saw someone go on tilt after cashing for $7k in a tournament. Why? Because he had decided that unless he got 1st place, he wasn't going be content. He tried to run up his $7k cash into 200k (the winning amount). Suffice it to say, it didn't work out for him.
And why did this happen?
On the surface, it may look like it was because he had an unrealistic goal, but there's nothing wrong with aiming for first - you should always want to win. You shouldn't, however, expect that winning is going to be the final outcome. If that’s the result you need to be happy, you're going end up miserable most of the time. Miserable, and acting foolishly. So do I think this unfortunate guy’s problem was that he had unrealistic goals? No, though that was an off-shoot of the real issue. I think the real reason this happened was because he wanted to feel like a champion; he wanted his friends and family to see him as a winner, and when he didn't win, he saw himself as a loser and did whatever he could to try to get away from that feeling.
The reality is your results don't determine who you are: the level of effort you put in, and the thought you put into your actions both on and off the table, the quality of your decisions are what determine who you are as a person. Results are not always a consequence of that effort. After all, tournament poker has a high amount of luck associated with it, so where you stand at the end is definitely not an accurate reflection of you or your skill as a player. The difference between winning a million dollars and $50 thousand could be the difference between a coin coming up heads three times in a row, versus tails coming up but ONCE in that sequence.
Finding your new ‘normal’...
So, yes, you need to be realistic in your expectations so that you don't go on a needless, silly spiral, but more importantly - if you want to never go on tilt again - you have to work on improving your 'normal’ – your status quo mentality and outlook. Improving your ‘normal’ is why I teach all this other stuff in addition to poker strategy. The fact is your strategy may be completely fine and your knowledge of the game completely sound, but the reason you don't succeed is because you have issues in other areas that are festering like a gangrenous baby toe, poisoning the whole body your success. If deep down you don't think of yourself as a champion, your brain is going to recognize that and take actions to ensure that you don't become one. Or, even if you get lucky and do become a champ, you will not act like one after the fact. You’ll probably throw your winnings back into the community, and the vicious cycle will repeat, only this time you won’t end up on top. You really need to see yourself as the way you’d like to be. Moreover, you have to remind yourself of that vision as often as possible with the use of affirmations. Hence: "IT’S MY YEAR."
The Language of Tilt
Just before I get further into the techniques you can use to become tilt-proof, I want to unpack the lingo we use in poker and in gambling. We say that when we get 'stuck' we play poorly, but what does ‘stuck’ actually mean? It means attached, and in the case of poker, what we're stuck on, or attached to, is the losses that have happened or the events that led to those losses. We're 'stuck' because we can't simply let them go and move on to a new reality. You can even be stuck on being at a high point. Unfortunately, you can’t stay peaked. You can stay close to it, but you cannot maintain a high all the time. The best way to hover around your high is to learn to accept your reality so that you can make the best decisions for that situation. You're rarely going to be at the literal top, so you can't set yourself up to only be happy when you’re there; it's a recipe for disaster.
The bit of poker-speak I really like is 'chasing losses', because if you actually look the sentence, it's literally running towards or after losses. If you're running towards something, you're probably going to get it and get more of it. The statement itself is a self-fulfilling prophecy. You’re seeking losses; you want losses. It’s not a good strategy and not a good state of mind if you want to be a winner in the game and a champion at life.
The Almighty Dollar: A Blessing and a Curse
I think the reason why people get 'stuck' in poker is because they're only thinking about the money, and they always want to have as much money as possible. If you’re inhabiting this mentality, you’re actually missing the point of the game: to make high quality decisions and hope for the best, but expect nothing but a fair outcome - and fair outcomes do not mean that you will win every time you have the best hand. Winning 66% is 2 times out of 3, and 80% is 4 times out of 5; there are very few 100% situations in poker, yet people act like even a 55% edge should be 100%, and when they lose, it’s because the world is out to get them. Not so, my friend.
Listen up: when you only focus on the money, you're letting the gambling demons in the junkie/addict part of your brain – a part which doesn't understand rationality and reality and odds - control you. When you focus on the real goal of poker, on the other hand, high quality decision making will shine through and you’ll be the one controlling the game. The reason that tilters often run to table games is because the part of the brain that doesn't understand rationality and smart decision making has taken over; all it wants to do is get its fix (i.e. back to a ‘comfortable’ place, which is typically a certain amount of dollars.)
Do yourself a favor: when you feel this coming on, take a few deep breaths, have a conversation with yourself, and don't make any impulsive decisions. You just might save yourself $1,000, or in the case of high-rollers $10,000 or even $100,000.
Reset and Regain Control
The problem is that this stuff is happening in our minds, and it's hard to regain control over it once it's been activated. The more things you are holding onto or dealing with, the more pronounced the effect is whenever the triggering event happens. You're not just dealing with this feeling of loss or discomfort, but you’re dealing with EVERY feeling of loss or discomfort you've ever experienced and not dealt with, and you're dealing with all of it at once while being put under pressure from having to make more decisions. Good luck, right?
You have to regain control and ensure that you call the shots - not your runaway, wounded, hurt, self. The trick is actually pretty simple: write down the thing or idea or event that is bothering you, and just look at it, think about it, maybe write more things about it. The point is that by putting it on paper you give yourself the chance to actually work with it and potentially change it; you empower yourself instead of being in a position of being disempowered. Usually, you'll realize it's not that big of a deal, or not some impossible task to overcome, because it's just one thing; it's not the 50 things or 500 things that are built-up.
The more often you do this, the lower that total number of things is going to be, and thus each time you trigger that tough zone, it won't be as overwhelming or intimidating. You'll be able to handle it, get through it and know it’s nothing you haven’t overcome before.
"Don't fear tomorrow; you will face it with the same strength and determination with which you faced today." Marcus Aurelius.
Every time you do this exercise, you improve or level-up your normal, and your mind will recognize this, and not try to bring you back down to that same, cripplingly low point. The human being craves to be in what's normal, in what’s comfortable. When you change that drastically, it gets uncomfortable and will seek to bring you back to the 'normal' place, no matter how awesome or terrible the new place you went to is. This is why this is a process and a practice that is done over time. We can handle gradual changes; in fact, we almost don’t really notice them. We don’t do well with extremes, however, so your normal - or the new normal you would like to have - is something that you move towards over time. It’s something you walk to, taking breaks along the way. It's not a place you want to sprint toward. Another way to look at it: how well does your body adjust when you go from sub zero temperatures to 30 degrees and sunshine and then back within a week?
Let the healing begin...
If you want to improve your normal - so that your mind won't see you as someone who wants to be sad, someone who would naturally be inclined to go on-tilt - then start cleansing yourself. Give yourself power over the things that have turned your normal into an unhappy place. You don't have to stay there, but you do need to work through it and learn the lessons. These are the lessons that will allow you to stay in a higher level of normal because you understand what it takes to live there.
There are no quick fixes, no magic pills in the game of poker or the game of life. As you cleanse yourself and OWN your issues, you will start acting from a place of strength, rather than a place of fear and as a result you will make much better decisions and not fall prey to the things that will only give you temporary satisfaction and freedom from short term pain; YOU will already have comfort and satisfaction 24 hours a day. This is how you can reach a point where you will never go on tilt again. Whatever money you lose when you play poker - or straight up gamble for that matter - is not money that is essential for your survival. When you know you can still pay the bills and put food on the table whether or not you win this poker hand or this poker tournament, and when you know that you are a champion because of the decisions you make regularly, and when you don't need an outcome which is somewhat dependent on luck to validate you as a champion, you will be able to play much better, from a much purer place of happiness, creativity and curiosity. You will never go on tilt again.
The Zenith: A Life without Tilt
When you reach this place you will be able to see every poker outcome for what it is: a lesson that you are fortunate to have the chance to learn from. Until you get here, you will be focused on how the game is unfair whenever you lose, and the way it should be whenever you win. Remember: this is not reality. You are not supposed to win 100% of the time you play. Poker’s a game that revolves around an element of chance. The key is to win more than you lose, and this is achieved by people who have LEARNED THE LESSONS and make consistently sound decisions. You will have some bumps in the road; not every session will be a walk in the park, but if your intention is in the right place and you face your problems and try to learn from them rather than run away from them, you will become a champion and you will never, ever go on tilt again. Tilting isn't something that champions do, after all. There's no value in it.
Your call to action
So write down the things that have been bugging you! I’d love to read about them in the comments (you’d be surprised how many of us are licking the same wounds), but remember, if you don’t want to air them here, write them down somewhere else - just get them out and make them real. You can’t fight a phantom, but you can fight something tangible. Keep writing as challenges crop up. Bit by bit, you’ll just clear your brain of all your extra cargo and be left with a clean, spacious, smooth running vessel – which you’ll need to hold your influx of triumphs, winnings and good vibes.