It's been a while since I wrote a poker article, so in honor of the start of the 2012 WSOP here is an article on the dynamics and reactions to tilt.
Tilt is generally considered the most destructive force in poker. It can undo days or months of steady profitable play in minutes as we spew buy-in after buy-in in an angered and frustrated state that negates our most optimal playing ability. We lose objectivity and play from an emotional, non-thinking perspective that vents at the seeming injustice of our situation. Tilt trigger points can range from losing hands you were a big favorite, not catching cards for ages, dealing with aggressive or poor players, to other non-poker factors like fatigue, hunger or a host of irritants from your daily life. Although I’ve been fortunate not to suffer from many instances of tilt during my time in poker, I recently experienced some life tilt that gave me some insight into the circumstances behind tilt and anger.
This weekend I finally got around to taking my 13-year-old son to see The Avengers. Of the team of disparate super heroes, the character that would most obviously be associated with the phenomenon of tilt would be the Hulk. The highly intelligent and mild-mannered Bruce Banner, in moments of anger, transforms into the raging behemoth of the Hulk. In the beginning of the movie, Bruce is found in the slums of Calcutta, India where he has successfully avoided turning into the Hulk for a year while helping cure lepers and other unfortunates. Reluctantly coaxed by Black Widow to join the Avengers team, his fellow super heroes seem to ‘marvel’ and fear the wrath of the Hulk.
As the film progresses the Hulk’s fury becomes more appreciated for its effectiveness in defeating their common enemies, but his fellow super heroes wonder how the transformation is controlled. Bruce Banner explains “That’s my secret, Captain...I’m always angry.” I found that comment very telling. Anger is always there. Every moment of every day in our lives provides the opportunity to find frustration, anger and injustice. Everywhere you turn are instances of madness and stupidity. They can be instances of frustration with the bureaucracy and hypocrisy of society, annoyance with drivers on the road, or not getting our way with friends, family or co-workers. How we manage those constant frustrations defines us.
The past couple weeks, I noticed my own threshold of frustration breaching. My son was unexpectedly cut from his classic soccer team he had played on the past year. I had been quite involved with the team as it often met four times a week and I attended every practice and game. The mid-thirties coach was aware of my soccer background, my focus on the team and consulted me on various aspects. Knowing the team as well as I did, it came as a shock when he was cut from this year’s tryouts.
I found that my resulting annoyance and frustration stemmed from two sources. I could accept if he was cut because he was amongst the worst players at the tryouts, but he wasn’t. He was one of the most regular, hard working players with good speed and potential despite his smaller frame. The coach chose to keep a handful of worse players due to a number of political and positional factors that made no sense to me if he really wanted the team to improve upon its mediocre results of the past year. Paired with the apparent injustice of his decision was a resulting insecurity from my son about his ability and future in soccer. He wrongly doubted himself and questioned whether he would continue to play soccer. Although I hustled to have him try out and catch on with another classic team where he’ll start at the bottom and have to prove himself all over again, I’ve been bothered by the situation ever since. I share this personal frustration because I found it gave me insight into the mechanics of anger and tilt and has direct parallels to those who suffer from poker tilt.
Here are some of the destructive elements I experienced:
1. Weakened Resolve - I found myself more easily agitated in other areas of my life. My reservoir of patience and compassion was lessened.
2. Instances of Anger - I noticed I snapped more easily at others. I found myself driving faster and more aggressively. I even cut off some drivers in annoyance at their driving under the speed limit.
3. Entitlement - I found myself rationalizing and justifying unbecoming behavior because I had suffered an injustice and this was my payback.
4. Revenge - A part of me wanted to return the hurt I felt, stepping up the stakes so it hurt him even worse. While I had always been supportive and diplomatic in my team contributions, I felt like telling him all of his weaknesses as a coach and why the team would suffer this season.
5. Internal Distractions - I found myself with this regular internal dialogue that replayed the circumstances and my reactions and comebacks to the original offending situation. I noticed that I became preoccupied with those thoughts losing my usual focus on being in the moment.
I consider myself a calm even-handed person, but the annoyance and vexation around the circumstances of his being cut had clearly affected me. To be honest, I’m still working through them a couple weeks later because I know I’ll run into the coach in the future. My son’s mood hasn’t improved despite making his new team and I resent the coach for being that catalyst.
The flashpoints for your own personal tilt may vary greatly, but the destructive reactions rarely do. In times of tilt, we feel a loss of control. It aggravates us to no end that things aren’t going our way. We want retribution and to up the stakes to make up for the current frustrations. Our emotions start to take over as we steam over the inequity.
The challenge becomes how to escape from our moments of tilt as quickly as possible. All of the most constructive steps to help you combat your poker tilt involve the simple concept of taking a break from the game.:
1. Focus on your breathing. Slow it down, taking deep breaths. Clearing your mind by meditating is also an effective method to combat tilt.
2. Take your mind off of things by watching some TV or a movie.
3. Get some exercise. You can go outside and take a walk or lift some weights. You can even set up a punching bag type scenario to vent your frustrations, but preferably not your mouse, keyboard, or monitor.
4. Play with your children or a pet, which always helps to put things in perspective.
5. Talk to a friend, who might give you some perspective on your situation.
6. Constructive poker-specific steps might be to watch a poker video where some experienced player will share their reasoned thoughts on how to play solid poker. Another might be to go back and evaluate your tilt session in your poker tracker software to identify what moves you made that were tilt-induced and to focus on how you can avoid those in the future.
Once you can calm your body and mind, you can return to the table. Many poker players who aren’t in tune with themselves will return to the tables too soon still harboring issues from their previous frustrations. They will still press the situation, looking to recover quickly from their previous tilt and its damaging effects on their bankroll. In poker, it is often true that we can lose money faster than we can win it back. Only your best reasoned play will return you to profitability and recovery, so don’t ‘sit’ until you are sure your ‘tilty’ feelings are gone.
If we accept, much as the Hulk acknowledged, that anger and frustration are always there, the key becomes our ability to manage our perspective. In poker that involves disassociating from the immediate outcomes. Poker is a game of making correct decisions that statistically play out in your favor over the long term. Sure, you can rage against the machine all you want, but unless you are infused with gamma radiation the likely result is only bringing down the house around you. We need to accept we don’t have ultimate control. The cards will fall as they may. In the short term, we can choose to reduce our variance by playing more conservatively, involving less bluffs and big moves, but the long term probabilities are there for everyone to master. I’ve found that the best option when you feel out of control is to take a break and remove yourself from the situation until you gain a different perspective. Poker will always be there, but will your bankroll?