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The Psychology of Tilt

Never underestimate the power of tilt

by Todd Arnold |  Published: Jan 31, 2007


How much does tilt really affect the outcome of a hand or even a whole tournament? I think it has a much greater effect than many believe, and therefore I believe it is important to discuss it. Many players ignore it and just say, "I never tilt," and go on believing that they don't, when all the while they are completely on tilt. There are many different degrees of tilt; some are obvious and others are not as recognizable to both the player on tilt and observers. Being honest with yourself as to whether or not you tilt is a key to becoming a better player. Knowing what factors can put a player on tilt will help you recognize when you are going on tilt. Remember, poker is a game that has a huge psychological element. Your own psychology is the most important. Without the correct mindset, you have zero chance of being a consistent winning player.

First, let me say that there is a difference between tilt and "steam." Steam is simply blowing off some hot air because you are upset at a result. This can actually be healthy and good for your mind. A good player with a strong psychological makeup can actually use steam to keep himself from going on tilt. Phil Hellmuth, as an example, is the king of steam. He has no problem letting everyone know how bad a play was or how amazing a result was, based on the math of the situation. This is his way of venting and getting it off his chest. However, he does not let it affect his decision-making in future situations. That is the big difference. Tilt is disastrous because, by definition, it is letting results affect how you play in upcoming situations. I don't steam, but I sometimes wonder if I just let it all out with a bloodcurdling scream for the thousands of bad beats, bad situations, and unfavorable results I have endured, maybe I'd be better off. As it is now, I just laugh it off, and that stupid phrase comes to mind: "Well, that's poker." This works for me, so I guess there is no reason to start screaming and kicking over chairs. Just remember that knowing your own psychological makeup and knowing what calms you and what enrages you is important to keeping yourself on your A-game.

So, what puts a player on tilt? Yikes, there are literally thousands of reasons a player can get upset and then completely "donk" off his chips, including outside forces like phone calls, bad news, and home issues. Make sure that you have a clear head before you sit down to play. At the tables, however, the most common catalyst for tilt is the bad beat. I have nothing to say about that other than, "Get over it!" In my mind, there is no such thing as a bad beat. If the card that beats you is left in the deck, it has as good a shot of being the next card up as any other. If bad beats couldn't happen, you wouldn't even play the game. The fact that poker is not all skill is what makes it so great. If you wanted to play a game based on skill alone, you'd play chess – or checkers (about the only two games in the world that are 100 percent skill). OK, moving on – what else tilts a player? I'll just list some things and maybe dig into them a bit, but you will see that one common denominator is the true reason for all tilt at the tables. Making a bad play that you regret often will put you on tilt. You ran a bad bluff that was unnecessary or you didn't have enough information and just donked off half of your stack. Somebody bluffs you and shows you. Sometimes you don't even lose a single chip and go on tilt. Maybe you are in a situation in which it's 50-50 as to whether or not you should play your hand, and you choose not to. You flop the nuts and there is tons of action and chips flying everywhere, and you missed out on a huge pot that you really needed. Or maybe you play a hand in which you are a huge favorite and the miracle card comes that splits the pot with your opponent. You didn't lose any money, but you are beside yourself with anger. Or, how about table talk? Maybe you just don't like some of the people at your table or what they are saying, and now you unnecessarily go after them with marginal holdings.

Regardless of the cause of your tilt, it boils down to your own ego. Whether you make a bad play, get outplayed, or make a great play that doesn't work out right, it's your ego that puts you on tilt. Get over yourself. It's ironic that the better player you think you are, the more often you go on tilt. I won't name any names, but I'm sure you can think of a few who are victims of this. Obviously, most pros keep their egos in check, but I am sure that you know of that guy in your home game, local casino, or online who just thinks he's the best thing since the miniskirt (a better analogy than sliced bread, in my opinion). He gets bluffed out of his chair or a worse player catches the miracle card, and before you know it, his fragile little ego causes him to tilt off his remaining stack. "I'm better than you; there's no way you should have beat me in that hand." "There's no justice in poker." "I made a great play and you got so lucky." "That's the last time you will bluff me, I promise you that!" I, I, I, me, me, me – blah, blah, blah. Once you realize that this game is not about you, and that the results do not matter, you will be less likely to tilt. You have to take all of the emotion out of the game. The game is all about making good situational decisions, and what happens after that is meaningless. Once you have made your decision, the flop, turn, and river are just blank pieces of paper. With any luck, the chips will come your way after you have made the best possible decision most consistently (and they will, by the way). The key is to be confident in your decision-making. I mean, really love your own choices. Once you reach a level where you know all of the factors that go into decision-making and you use them all to make the best decision every time, your game will be hugely profitable over the long term, regardless of any bad results that happen along the way.

Scott Fischman, a good friend and great poker player, and I were having a drink in Australia at the Aussie Millions last year, and he asked me a question that illustrates this point. He asked, "Do you get more upset when you take a bad beat or when you shove all in from the small blind with 6-2 and the big blind wakes up with aces, illustrating an example of a perceived bad play?"

I thought about it for a minute and replied, "Well, I'd hate myself if I shoved with 6-2 and didn't really need to do so, then walked into aces and crippled myself. And I try not to get upset over bad beats." Hmm. So, I was starting to lean toward pushing with 6-2 if given those choices.

As I was mumbling along, trying to give my answer and act like I don't let bad beats upset me, he interrupted and said, "The bad beat upsets me way more." I asked why, and he said, "Because I have faith in my decisions. I believe in myself with whatever choices I make regardless of the result. If I felt like pushing with 6-2 and had my reasons for doing so, and walked into aces, I would just laugh it off. Oops, that didn't work."

So, the point here is that if you make good decisions and believe in them 100 percent, the results are irrelevant. And just because he may get upset over the bad beat, it doesn't mean it will tilt him. There is a difference between not liking a result and letting it affect you.

So, what is the purpose of tilt? I mean, what are we trying to do by overplaying our hands and failing to recognize situations? Well, we are trying to get our chips back, to regain our flexibility so that we can settle down again later and still have a chance to win. Inasmuch as that is a good reason and quite necessary, why is tilt so bad? Again, it goes back to decisions. The one making the best decision has a better chance of winning a pot, or not losing one. When you fail to recognize a situation or overplay a hand, you are relying too much on luck. The object of poker is to take as much luck out of the game as possible. It is already so riddled with luck, why add more of a luck factor by overplaying something and praying for the result to be favorable? Whenever you put your chips in while just hoping for something to happen, you probably are making a mistake. This is when playing against a player who's on tilt can be dangerous, because in the short run that guy on tilt might just catch what he needs, and put you on tilt. Sometimes, however, the fact that your opponent is on tilt may be just enough of a reason to make your decision to call him easier. Just pay close attention to chip stacks and think strategically in relation to what point of the tournament you are at when factoring an opponent's tilt into your decision-making. Always weigh the risk versus reward, asking yourself what will happen if you fold, call and win, or call and lose.

Never underestimate the power of tilt. Tilt can even carry over into a whole new tournament, especially for those who play online. Don't let that happen to you. Find something that relaxes you – a thing, a word, a statement, or a laugh – and keep reminding yourself that as long as you made a good decision, the result doesn't matter. If you made a bad decision, forgive yourself and don't do it again, providing you still have chips left (laughing). Just remember to keep ego and emotion out of it, and always be honest with yourself and know when you are on tilt, even if it's just a "little" tilt. spade

Todd Arnold is the trainer and co-creator of and a private coach for online and live players. Visit his site or contact him at