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Heart of Darkness

by David Downing |  Published: Jun 01, 2007

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"And this also," said Marlow suddenly, "has been one of the dark places of the earth."

Following on from last month's column, I want to linger on the emotional aspects of poker playing; in particular, every player's evil twin, dark star, and nemesis - tilt. Now, this is not the U.S. Constitution; not every tilt is created equal. It could be said that anytime you play somewhat worse than your best, you're on tilt. So, this would just be a question of degrees, a missed bet here, a mistimed raise there. At the other end of the spectrum, there is screaming-monkey tilt, when you simply smash your money into the pot on every street, or if it is no-limit, just one street. A better, more evocative description of this kind of tilt is "steaming," because that is just how it feels. A nice head of steam is slowly building behind your eyeballs, and whistling out of your ears, taking most of your brains with it.

Is there a cure for tilt? Most would agree, no. However, through time and experience, it can be diminished to the point of irrelevance. Now, the obvious steps of emotional self-control have been extolled in other places and times, but I don't want to linger on this aspect. Instead, I want to focus on the game itself. This year, I have literally played every popular version of poker available, from middle stakes and up, from no-limit hold'em to limit stud eight-or-better, and even razz, I have given them all a spin. What struck me in this adventure was the very different dark rivers of the soul that tilt took me to in each game.

For example, in no-limit hold'em, I basically did not tilt at all. The most obvious reason for this is that you don't push marginal hands that often, and big bets push out obscure outdraws. So, the factors that cause tilt just didn't arise that often. Limit poker tended to bring out the worst in me, especially high-variance games like shorthanded stud eight-or-better and Omaha. Being outdrawn in these games was very frequent and very cruel. This is made worse by multitabling more and the shear pace of the games. Tilt in these games was of the "cruel fates" kind, in which you feel the world is conspiring against you and all of your far inferior foes are being blessed by the gods. This kind of tilt seemed to last longer, often covering a reasonable sum of hands, but not tending to make you crash your money into one pot. It was death by a thousand cuts.

Pot-limit Omaha is strange. Again, I found tilt harder to find. But when it hit, oh boy. It was a full-on, eye-bleeding, teeth-crushing, tearing-up-money, all-in frenzy. But it was short-lived, an explosion then a calm. Admittedly, it was calm caused by quitting in a lot of cases, as I did not want to continue to tempt fate.

So, what does all of this mean and how can it help a tyro in his battle to win more bucks?

The most obvious thing is to choose a game that suits your temperament. I have no doubt that I am a winning limit eight-or-better player; however, my tilting tendencies continually dissect my win rate. But if you have a heart of stone, and can cope with two-outers and three-outers on a regular basis, limit poker certainly may be a good place to live. For people for whom tilt is more of a problem, the alternatives in big-bet poker are interesting. No-limit hold'em is a game in which tilt will come very infrequently, as outdraws are uncommon; however, there is a massive "but." If you do fly off the handle in a no-limit game and start jamming with lesser and lesser holdings, it will be very easy for people to pick you off, and you can really start to do yourself some bankroll-related harm. Because strong hands hold up so much more often in hold'em, you are going to have to buck some serious odds to survive a protracted period of pure "steaming."

So, if the constitutionally tough can play limit, and the mostly sane can play no-limit, what should the chronic screaming money tilters play? Well, the answer is obvious and expected - pot-limit Omaha. Because hand values run so close, and even on the flop there is always some kind of draw, it is rare for a PLOer to be drawing anywhere as dead as his no-limit counterparts. He can safely crash his money into the pot, mouth frothing and eyes bulging, knowing that he nearly always has some kind of chance. This may seem like small comfort, but in the long run may make a serious difference in the sustainability of the player and even the game itself. The reason that PLO games run so long live is that the game is kinder to the tilt-challenged. If your soul is going to go mad, even for a short time, it helps if there is some safety in the heart of darkness.

David has played poker all over the UK for the better part of a decade. Originally a tournament player, now focused on cash play and almost entirely on the Internet for the last three years, David makes a healthy second income playing a wide range of games.