Dealing with tilt – like a pro!

Avoid the tilt monster with our guide to keeping your head at the tables

Picture the scene: you’re in mid position and wake up with a pair of Kings. A standard raise sees only the button call and with a K-8-3 rainbow flop you’re laughing. You’ve hit top set and decide to trap with a check-raise. Glory be, your opponent takes the bait and bets it for you. Holding the nuts, you reraise them all-in, hoping they’re holding A-K or a lower set, both of which would make them a huge underdog. They call and turn over Q-8!

Yes, not only did your opponent call your preflop raise with substandard junk, but also hero-called your all-in with middle pair. Thanks to their poor play you now have a 95% chance of taking the pot down, and with it the chip lead. Until, that is, runner-runner hearts gives your opponent a backdoor flush and you a free ticket to Tilt, the land of rage and utter disbelief.

We’ve all been there. You’ve lost a ton of chips and all you can think about is how that last hand should have been yours. You want to scream profanities at the top of your lungs, and if you’re playing online you probably do. What will determine whether you’re a winner though is how you react next. Can you pull back from the brink and keep playing your A-game, or will you start spewing chips like a man possessed?

For a non-player, it’s hard to understand what kind of maniac would completely lose control while playing cards. What could possibly get someone so incensed that they’d lose all composure and make some ridiculous plays? It’s only a game after all.

But as poker players know, there are few things that can infuriate more than a ludicrously jammy outdraw. It’s not just a possibility that you will be pushed into this state of temporary insanity at some point in your poker career, it’s a stone-cold guarantee. Poker players term these lapses in clear-thinking and emotional overload ‘tilt’.

Deal with it

Anyone playing poker can go on tilt, but what separates the professionals from the rest of us is that they don’t deny its power. Instead, they attempt to manage it and limit its effects. It’s almost impossible not to get a little worked up when you lose four hands on the bounce when you were a big favourite to win.

It comes with the territory and there’s not a lot you can do about it, but if you’re going to avoid further unnecessary losses you have to learn not to surrender your soul to the evil poker gods. The main thing to remember when playing poker is that, although it requires skill and knowledge, it’s also a game of luck, with fortunes resting on the turn of a card.

Sometimes your opponents are going to hit that one-outer that will scoop all of your hard-earned chips. You are not supposed to win every time with Aces. You are supposed to lose sometimes. Think about getting all-in with Aces against 7-2 offsuit (the worst starting hand in hold’em). Your bullets are a 90% favourite. But that means one in every ten times you should lose. That’s not bad luck. That’s just the odds.

Even if you play perfect poker and every decision you make is theoretically spot on, bad beats will, from time to time, still rob you like a crack addict with an empty pipe. But if you realise that it’s part of the game, and accept the inevitability of it, it’s less likely to bother you and affect your game.

Show of emotion

You’ll find that your worst losing sessions aren’t simply to do with bad luck or ‘not hitting the cards’, although that might be your excuse, but are in fact due to you becoming emotionally unstuck. You might think your play is perfect, up until a certain point, but it can all fall apart swiftly if you let a so-called ‘bad beat’ get the better of you. Emotional discipline is every bit as important as technical skill in this game.

There’s no worse feeling than looking down and seeing all your chips being pushed across the table and then wondering, ‘Why in the world did I chase that straight when there were three hearts on the board? What was I possibly thinking?’

And if you’re doing this because there’s one person getting under your skin, then stop bantering with them or disable the chat mechanism. The best way to get the fool to shut up is to take their money so they can’t sit at the table any more. If you can’t learn to take successive beats then you’ll never be a consistent tournament or cash game winner.

If you’re that type of character, you need to get up and walk away from the game and take a few minutes to regain your senses. When you let your emotions take over you’ll almost certainly do nothing but lose money. Have a break from playing, so when you sit back down to play you’ve got a clear head. This could take five minutes or five days, but be sure to compose yourself before returning to the fray.

Typically, you’ll start feeling like you’re owed some luck and start chasing gutshot draws and backdoor flushes. This is a bad move. Not only is it very poor poker strategy, but solid players will see you tilting and start targeting you mercilessly. If J-6 suited is looking like a meal ticket to you then you should know that you’re tilting off the back of your chair.

On the other hand tilt can make you paranoid, like a small child peering at the wardrobe door from under their duvet. When you’ve been harshly outdrawn you start worrying that someone else will have a bigger monster in their closet. Big slicks and pocket Queens suddenly become hands that you’re scared to play for fear of another dirty beat. When this happens try to return to your normal play as soon as possible. Don’t dwell on the bad beat. Accept it, embrace it, enjoy it. Admittedly that’s much easier said than done.

Comeback king

Another factor to consider is that you don’t want to rule yourself out of making a comeback. If you’re in a tournament and losing due to being consistently outdrawn, the probability on each hand dictates that it won’t continue forever. You need to hold yourself together long enough for the cards to come your way again to enable you to start grabbing chips back.

Remember that you’re not truly short-stacked until you have less than ten or twelve times the big blind. Better cards will almost certainly turn up, so sit tight and take deep breaths. Listen to some Enya if you need to, chant Buddhist mantras, do whatever you can to soothe the savage beast. It’s vital to look calm, as sharks will smell a tilting player a mile off and expose you as the vulnerable bag of emotions you are.

Tilt can’t be ignored, but it can be controlled and tamed. Understand it, stay strong and don’t let it get the better of you. Because there’s only one thing worse than losing to your opponents, and that is being beaten by yourself.


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