Friday, February 12, 2010

Emotional Control/Tilt

Emotional control might be the single most important trait for a poker player to have. It’s what separates great players from good ones and good players from below average players.

By emotional control, I mean the ability to prevent emotions from influencing poker decisions. Also the ability to recognize when emotions are playing a part in decisions and the discipline to stop playing until you’ve regained control over them.

I’ve had several players tell me that they don’t tilt, some even insist on it. Everyone tilts to some degree including myself. We’re human, not robots. The key is to recognize the instant that you begin to tilt and stop playing.

So, what causes tilt and how do you identify it?

I think the answers to these questions vary from person to person but I can share my experience. Something that used to tilt me was when I was running extremely bad during a session. I kept expecting the cards to change and with each hand that didn’t I’d get more upset. I started to feel like people were taking shots at me, bluffing me off hands, 3-betting me, and I felt the need to fight back. That caused me to start raising hands I wouldn’t normally raise and to make lighter call-downs thinking my opponents were bluffing which would only further exacerbate the situation. I felt a sense of entitlement to better hands and luck. And when the cards didn’t cooperate with my unrealistic expectations, I’d only play worse. I’d make more and more decisions based on emotion and eventually I’d be way off my game and playing very erratically. If this wasn’t bad enough, I’d then quit the games I was in and play higher limits usually on full-blown tilt. My warped logic was that the cards had to change, I was due and I’d win it all back by playing higher limits. Of course this never worked and I’d end up losing more money in a day than I’d lose during one of my worst weeks.

So where did I go wrong? Well initially I should have been able to recognize that I was starting to make decisions based on emotion and not well thought out reasoning which should have led me to quit the games I was in. Perhaps the bigger problem was my feeling that I had a sense of entitlement to better cards. I didn’t. The cards have no idea who I am, they have no memory, and they have no predictive powers. It’s unlikely the people in my games were taking shots at me, that was likely a function of them consistently being dealt better hands.

I have gotten better and better over the years with this problem and it now takes an extremely bad run of cards to throw me off my game. More importantly I’ve learned to recognize that instant where I make a decision that is based on emotion. It doesn’t even have to be a decision solely based on emotion, it could be a decision where two options are close but the factor that ultimately pushes me to favor one option over another is emotion. For example if I mentally say to myself, I’m tired of this guy 3-betting me, I’m going to cap this hand when capping and calling are two close options.

Something else that has tilted me over the years is the chat-box. It has always bothered me when people would berate my play after a hand or launch a verbal attack on me. My response was always to fight back and engage them and try to humiliate them. This ended up completely taking my focus off the game which would cause me to make mistakes. I’d then get caught up in a verbal war and get upset which would cause me to start making emotion-based decisions particularly against the person that was attacking me.

I rarely have a problem with this one these days because I normally turn my chat off when playing. I think the cons of having chat on far outweigh the pros, at least for me, but I’d guess it’s that way for most. If I do happen to have my chat on and am attacked, I’ll normally block the person’s chat or turn my chat off altogether. I have also matured over the years and come to the realization that the reason the person is attacking me is to throw me off game. The best possible defense I have against this is to ignore them.

There are other things that can potentially tilt me but I won’t go into them all. The important thing is that there have been less and less of them as time has gone on. And I’m nearly always able to quit my games as soon as I make a single emotion based decision. My advice to anyone trying to reduce tilt is to work on recognizing that moment that your decisions are influenced by emotions. If you’re able to recognize it, quit playing immediately. Spend your time trying to figure out exactly what caused you to tilt. Once you’ve identified the cause, work on developing a solution. It might be as easy as turning your chat off or it might be something more complex that requires a change in your thinking. If you’re not able to find a solution, there are several good poker psychology coaches out there that can help.

Good luck at the tables.


  1. I agree with you. If you can't play objectively, then quit immediately. Of course, that's not that simple.

  2. how long do you play before you see yourself going on tilt? Since you multi-table, is it after a few hundred hands?

  3. It varies a lot, sometimes I'll go a week without making any emotion based decisions and other times it'll be multiple times in a day. I often do cardio on the days I don't have good control of my emotions. I also play a lot of short sessions. I rarely play longer than 3 hours at a time and I'd guess my average session is about an hour and a half. This gives me some time to relax and get my mind off of playing before I start another session

  4. Thanks for the info, you look to be running very well this month so far. Congrats!! Are you planning on playing more no limit or sticking to limit for now?

  5. Yeah I've been on a tear this month, thanks. As much as I want to spend the time learning no-limit, it's such an opportunity cost that I can't bring myself to invest the hour or two a day I need to play at a high level. I'm still reading and watching videos but haven't put the time in at the tables, at least the past couple weeks. I really enjoy playing limit but no-limit feels more like work to me.