Understanding Tilt in Poker

By Alton Hardin

Tilt Defined

What exactly is tilt? Tilt, tilting, or being tilted is an altered mental state when you are at the poker table, specifically being angry or in a frustrated emotional state of mind when playing poker. This negative altered state can cause you to make bad decisions that you would not normally make. Essentially, when you are tilted, you play poorly and make bad decisions at the table that you normally wouldn’t make due to your emotions and altered state of mind affecting your ability to think clearly.

Tilt is commonly associated with taking a bad beat or losing a massive pot; however, a number of other things can cause a poker player to tilt, such as losing multiple hands in a row, being dealt cold cards over a long period of time, simply getting annoyed by a particular opponent at the table or factors outside of poker in a person’s life.

We All Tilt

Nobody is completely immune to tilting, period. We are all susceptible to psychological downswings and we all get frustrated and upset at the table from time to time—even the best players in the world. However, we can reduce the impact that tilt has on us by understanding its causes and proactively combating tilt when it occurs.

How Long Does It Last?

The answer is it varies from person to person. For one person, it may last only for a single hand or a single session. For others, it may last weeks or months. Imagine if you take a really bad bet one hand and the very next your win an even larger hand – well in that small moment of time you will most likely go from an unpleasant tilted state to a very happy and pleasant state. Now consider being on a 25k hand downswing over a period of three weeks. During these three weeks you may begin to question your ability to win and lose motivation in playing poker until you being winning again. During this downswing, you may begin to question your game and make sub-optimal decisions for an extended period of time. This is an example of an extended period of tilting.

Strategies for Combating Tilt

  1. Emotional Intelligence: First and foremost, you must be emotionally intelligent. What I mean by this is you must understand your own emotions and how they affect your game. Doing so will allow you to make pro-active adjustments when you feel you are becoming tilted.
  2. Take a Break: The best thing you can do after taking a horrendous beat and feeling very tilted is to a break and stop playing, whether it be 5 minutes or 5 days. Doing so will prevent you from making costly tilted mistakes at the table that can lead to spewing off lots of chips.
  3. Understand & Embrace Variance: Variance is inevitably what causes many bad beats and downswings. If we understand and embrace variance, we will have a better understanding of why we took a bad beat and why downswings occur. If we understand variance, we know it is inevitable and there is nothing we can do about it, as it is out of our control. Hence, since it is out of our control, we shouldn’t let it affect us or the way we play.
  4. Don’t Be Results-Oriented: Don’t worry about it if you are winning or losing in a particular session. Rather, focus on your game play strategy and tactics. If they are +EV and you are making the right moves, then the money will eventually come. Being results-oriented will lead you to make overly passive or aggressive moves in certain spots. For example, once some results-oriented players run up their bankroll at a table to 200-300bb’s in a session they will tighten up and play very passively, not wanting to lose their winnings. If you are this type of player, you are better off ending you session rather than continuing to play sub-optimally.
  5. Avoid Caffeine and Alcohol: Caffeine and alcohol can lead to altered states of mind, which can cause you to more easily tilt, so you should avoid or minimize consuming them while you are playing.
  6. Exercise Regularly & Eat Healthy: Exercise decreases stress by release endorphins and improves both your physical and mental state. Many top poker professionals have strict exercise and diet routines, so should you. Not only is it in your best overall interest, but being physically healthy allows you to be mentally more focused at the table for longer periods of time.
  7. Poker (work) Life Balance: Poker shouldn’t consume your life and you should have a balanced life outside of poker, especially if poker is your career. Having a balanced life will allow you to put poker into perspective and also minimize your chances of burning out.