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Head Games: Healing Remedies for Brutal Downswings and Tilt

by Card Player News Team |  Published: Feb 01, 2011


The Pros: Matt Stout, Chris Hunichen, and Christopher Klodnicki
Craig Tapscott: How do you deal with the inevitable downswings that happen as a professional tournament player?
Matt Stout: You picked a good adjective to describe downswings: inevitable. Players need to understand that they’re not going to be able to spend their entire careers on some miracle heater, as nice as that would be. This is especially true for tournament-only players, who tend to experience higher variance than cash-game players who play for equivalent stakes. One very important piece of advice that I have for beginners who are experiencing downswings is to remember to spend time focusing on other aspects of their lives. It may seem like odd and unrelated advice, but I’ve definitely noticed that players who do nothing but grind out their 80-hour week of tournaments are much more emotionally attached to their short-term results than those who spend a lot less time playing poker and more time enjoying other aspects of their lives.
Another thing I’ve found that helps me during downswings is to have dealer’s-choice home games with friends for small stakes. This is a great way to relax and play some poker without worrying so much about the expected value of every decision. I’m certain to be down thousands of dollars in these home games over the years, because I get drunk and intentionally play like an idiot. I also wouldn’t trade these losses for the world, because I have a blast. It takes these games with friends to remind me of why I have such a strong passion for poker.
Chris Hunichen: The variance in poker can be devastating to your emotions, and overcoming these emotions can have a great impact on your overall success in poker. I personally believe that one of the best ways to deal with these downswings is to take small breaks and go out with some friends or do something that is not poker-related. It is important to have friends outside of poker, so that you don’t even have to talk about poker during your breaks. 
However, while breaks are important, I believe that the most important thing when dealing with downswings is to just keep playing the game. The more hands, hours, and effort you put into the game, the more you are going to learn. Poker is a very situational game, and the more different situations you see, the better you will become at handling them. So, it’s important to fight through your downswings and keep playing, because, in the end, if you’re a highly skilled player, you will beat the long-term variance and make money.
Christopher Klodnicki: The best way to deal with downswings is to play within your bankroll and make sure that you keep a significant amount of money set aside for poker. That way, even large downswings shouldn’t affect your personal finances. Knowing that you are still in OK shape financially will greatly reduce the stress associated with downswings. It’s important to remember that when playing tournament poker, you really have to plan for and expect large downswings. It’s easy for a winning player to go broke from a downswing if he’s playing outside of his bankroll.
Of course, there are other stresses, like doubting the fact that you are still playing winning poker. I definitely have fallen into this mindset at times, and it has always helped me to review hands with other players to make sure that I’m just running badly and not making critical mistakes.
Taking some time off from the game is another thing that has helped me cope with losing. After losing week after week, you begin to doubt yourself and dread playing poker. Sometimes, taking a step back for a few days and coming back fresh gives me a more positive outlook on the situation.
Craig Tapscott: What’s the best advice that you can give to avoid going on tilt when you experience a bad beat deep in a tournament?
Matt Stout: I used to go on tilt pretty badly when I’d take a bad beat deep in a tournament, and it’s definitely one of the toughest (and most important) things for a serious poker player to master. It took me years to get used to it, and it can be even more difficult when playing online and trying to play anywhere from two times as many to 30-40 times as many hands per hour as you would during live play, thereby creating the opportunity for more bad beats to occur. I think what really made it click in my head was when I started reminding myself that every time I go on tilt, I’m just giving away money. I’d take a bad beat, and ask myself: “OK, you lost that one; now, do you want to give away more money or move on and take it like a man?” Fortunately, I eventually decided to start taking it like a man.
There are also some herbal remedies available for tilt, but you’d need to consult your doctor and be in a state of requiring such medication.
There was one tournament early in my career that helped drive home the point about never giving up. I was crippled down to 1,300 at 300-600 blinds with an ante of 100 in a Taj Mahal $300 event in 2006. I stayed focused and patient, though, and remember other players making fun of me for folding hands when I had two to four big blinds. But I got the last laugh when I came back to win the tournament, and then did just about the same thing two years later in Atlantic City when I came back from having just three big blinds to win my first WSOP Circuit ring in a $500 event at Caesars.
Chris Hunichen: The most important thing to remember when you take a bad beat is not to chase your losses. Don’t start opening a lot more pots to try to get back what you lost. When people get it in their heads that they once had X amount of chips, they feel like they have to get back to that point as fast as possible. Instead, you need to adjust your game plan according to the amount of big blinds you are left with, and the relative stack sizes at the table. Focus on rebuilding your stack and picking your spots without spewing around trying to get your chips back. 
Another way to avoid going on tilt after a bad beat is to get up and walk around, and stretch a little bit. It’s good to get the blood flowing back to your brain, and to take your mind off the beat that you took and back to getting into crush mode. Your mindset is a huge factor in your overall success as a poker player, and it’s important to try to stay positive as much as possible, in order to fight through the rough times. 
Christopher Klodnicki: If you’re a cash-game player, get up and leave if you’re feeling at all on tilt. 
For tournament players, it’s not quite as easy. I may not be the best person to be giving advice on dealing with tilt, but I do have a few things that help me. I try to play slightly tighter after taking a bad beat or losing an important pot. That way, I’m less apt to make a stupid mistake that’s influenced by my emotions at the time. I actually believe that throwing something or yelling helps to get the tension out of your system. Breaking something expensive is not a good play, though. It may seem like smashing your laptop will make you feel better at the time, but when you are blinded out of the rest of your tourney and are out $2,000 for a new laptop, you will realize that you don’t feel very good after all. ♠

Matt Stout is a professional poker player from New Jersey who now lives in Las Vegas. He’s known as “All In At 420” online, and can be found playing under his real name on the Merge Network as a pro for Lock Poker. He has more than $2.5 million in career online- and live-tournament cashes.

Chris Hunichen has $2.3 million in career tournament cashes. In 2010, he had some big online scores, including wins in the $500 PokerStars no-limit hold’em event, for $90,000, and the $320 PokerStars Wednesday $250K no-limit hold’em event, for $50,281.

Christopher Klodnicki has more than $3.2 million in lifetime tournament cashes. In December of 2009, he won the WSOP Circuit event at Harrah’s Atlantic City. Before that, he came close to winning a World Series of Poker gold bracelet in 2008 with a second-place finish in razz, for $97,000, and a 12th-place finish in the main event, for $592,000.