Tilt in Poker vs. Staying Positive

On Tilt - Tilting - Tilted

by Scott Buono


Tilt Poker Definition
Tilt - To make bad decisions out of frustration.

"Don’t you hate it when…?" Now there’s a question poker players can really sink their teeth into! I wonder how many ways we could finish that sentence trying to describe all the mind-numbing beats we take. Given that there are millions of us playing a few billion hands each year, I'd say the number of unique answers would be high over any given period of time! Heard any good ones lately? How about this ending: you push your short stack all in with KK, get called by 33 and lose to a flush. Those hands are enough to put Mother Teresa on tilt, but get over it. You did the right thing!

How about "…you and your opponent both flop sets, but you have the higher one; all the money goes into the middle (his first), and he hits quads on the river?" This situation happened to me not long ago. Before the river card was dealt, I was already spending his chips to bluff at the next hand! Should I have played the hand any differently with an unconnected rainbow flop? My amateur mind can't imagine how. I did the right thing!

"…you flop middle pair with a flush draw, but face an all in bet that has you covered. You lay it down because you don't want to risk it all, and your opponent shows you bottom pair with a straight draw." Unless you play poker via hindsight, and rabbit hunt every hand, you probably did the right thing. (Note: In this case, I'm only adding the word "probably" to appease the super-aggressive players who thrive on going all in on a draw.) Were you comfortable with your decision when you made it? Good. Move on.

See a pattern here? Wishing that hands could have played out differently is one thing, but allowing simple "bad luck" or dubious moves by others to influence your future play adversely is another matter. We have to shake off the "should’ve won" losses and savor our good decision making instead of creating self-doubt. Rather than stumbling from the pain, we should try to concentrate on the long term. The "long term" might be a profit at the end of the day in a cash game; maybe a final table in a large tournament. By definition, you can’t reach a long-term goal by living in the past or even staying in the present. You have to keep a forward motion, and dwelling irately on the bumps in the road won't make it any smoother. (However, it could make it a lot shorter!).

I suppose in addition to getting stuck on the bad beats, there could also be an argument made for not getting overly stuck on every won hand as well. Of course we want to bask in our glory and use them to build our confidence, but all too often we overlook a bad risk vs. reward ratio and start tossing around our hard-earned chips needlessly because our euphoria hasn't lifted. Success is good. Assuming we are going to be successful all the time can be dangerous. The only way we can ever hope to influence luck is by playing smart and consistently over the long term. We can’t let the ghostly reach of luck (good or bad) grab hold too tightly, as it will undoubtedly unravel our game. Look beyond luck when things are running bad. Get past all the "Don’t you hate it when's?"

Stay as positive as you can. If I had a nickel for every "steam all-in" I've ever witnessed online in No Limit Hold’em games, I'd have… well, a LOT of nickels. It's easy to look at your short stack after taking a bad beat, and say "what the hell" while you sacrifice the last of your chips with a garbage hand. It's much harder, and takes more discipline, to look at the same short stack and say to yourself, "Okay, well, the only place to go is back up." But you have to give yourself a chance! Pick your spot! Don't let it pick you. You PAID to enter this tournament, didn’t you? Get your money's worth! Not long ago, I was down to $210 in an online tournament when the first break arrived. The thought of even enduring a 5-minute break with so few chips was hard to take. But, I decided that I would stick it out, play with "dignity" and at least go out with the best hand I could catch before the blinds consumed me. Fifteen minutes after play resumed I had over $4500 (when the leader had about $5500). I was so stunned at the sudden turn of events, I had to request a hand-history to recall how it happened so fast. I think that’s the first time I uttered the phrase "quadrupled up" to myself! Anything can happen (especially in No Limit Holdem), but we have to allow it to happen.

If we can maintain the same positive disposition we start with at the beginning of a tournament (or day's play) throughout the event, we can eliminate at least one important "Don’t you hate it when": The all too common one that ends, "… you lose a big hand and go all in with J6 on the next hand out of frustration; because you didn’t bother to notice that the button would be yours the following hand?" Take a deep breath, extend your entry fee a few more hands, and take a better shot! You are only biting off your nose to spite your face by dwelling on that last devastating "Don't you hate it when…" No one else at your table will feel sorry for you or care you are making an obvious, dramatic exit -- so don’t feel sorry for yourself. You might actually be admired for holding onto your short stack with hopeful determination.

Granted, staying positive is not easy when the leaders are pulling away or the large stacks keep pounding your blinds with raises. Clawing your way back into contention is a struggle that many players just don't have the patience to endure. But there are ways the novice or intermediate player can help himself ignore the recent (unlucky) past. One is to have fun "pretending". That's right! Just fantasize your butt off. Pretend you’ve given the other players at your table the handicap they need to make things interesting after you are the first to take a big hit. Make a lighthearted comment to the other players, such as "Okay folks, I’ve got you all just where I want you!" You may find that the "lol" and ":-)" responses will brighten your mood considerably. But then believe it and follow through with that idea; that you know your game is good enough to make a comeback.

Another positive tactic is setting very short-term goals for your short stack. "Okay, I’m just going to try to 'chip up' a little in the next round before the blinds come around again." Nothing heroic or too ambitious. Take that "chip and a chair" saying to heart. I once saw John Juanda suffer a couple of terrible river beats, leaving him with exactly one chip (of the lowest denomination in play) with about 12 players left in a major Stud tournament in Atlantic City. Only the final table of 8 got paid. The sly grin on his face when he pulled back the first small pot containing his lone anteed chip said it all! "I ain’t dead yet!" He turned that one chip into 3rd place. I don’t think he even used the chair!

The point is simply that we should take everything in stride at the poker table (and in life!) and keep things in perspective. Face the fact that you will get horribly unlucky at times. Recognize that inevitability before it even happens, so you can just let it go when it rears its ugly head, and move on. Don't let the bad beats ruin your day, your game, or your mood. Find a way to laugh them off. Don't let them alter your play negatively. Use what you’ve got left as smart as you know how. If you strive to concentrate on what you CAN do, you won't waste time steaming over what you couldn’t control. You might even find yourself saying a lot more often: "Don’t you just LOVE it when…"

Also see more on Tilt and Discipline

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