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Mastering Tilt: Some Tips to Overcome Poker’s Mental Breakdowns

You know the feeling: you’re in the zone, playing your “A” game, and for the most part, getting the cards you need. There’s no one at the table you can’t compete with, and you’re feeling downright smug because your game is strong and your profitability shows it. Then suddenly, inexplicably, it all shifts.

It could be a set-over-set beat that takes all your chips and moves them elsewhere. Or maybe it’s a new player who sits down at your table – sometimes not even a good one! – who you just can’t beat no matter how much you try to trap them. It might even be something as simple as exhaustion setting in, or having one drink too many, or getting a text message from a love interest that unnerves you for some reason. But whatever the impetus, you are suddenly, unabashedly, on tilt, and your previously spot-on game starts to spiral downward faster than a drainpipe clog cleared with Draino.


What to do when these inevitable downturns in poker play hit you out of nowhere like a tornado in Kansas? Well, you can, of course, simply pick up and go home; and sometimes, that really is your best option. But poker players as a group are not quitters, and few of us, feeling that we are losing our grip on the side of a craggly mountain with a dastardly cliff below, will voluntarily loose our grip and let go.

We’re stubborn, and we’re determined to turn our luck back around to its formerly glorious self. How does one do that, you ask? Well, surprisingly, there really are ways to overcome tilt and get back on track before you lose next month’s mortgage payment, or worse.

Following are a few practical guidelines that have worked for me over the years; while they are simple in theory to institute, they can require a fair amount of discipline in practice. Hopefully, with a little practice, they can work for you as well.

Rule#1: Take a long, hard look at your ego and emotions, and try to detach from them as much as possible

Yes, the toughest thing to do when you’ve been the butt of bad beats and worse players is to take a deep breath, back off, and find your inner zen; but that’s exactly what’s required if you want to get back on track. Just like in a real war zone, victory will ultimately go to whoever most keeps their wits about them while rockets and grenades come flying past! Yes, we know you’re smarter, and a better technical player than that opponent who’s beating you silly right now, and there’s nothing you want to do more than put them in their place and stack them off. Trust me, this is your worst move at this moment. Poker, like everything in life, has its own cyclical nature, and you need to get off the beach until the tides turn in your favor. Till then, play tight or better yet, take a dinner break and have a little relaxing cocktail to help you chill out. Then jump back in the fray relaxed and at ease, ready to take on whoever, but without a personal vendetta to prove or an opposition ego you want to crush. Just play your best poker, and ultimately, you should be alright.

Rule #2: Don’t second-guess your game

It’s easy to start reinventing yourself after going haywire on your usual tactics, but this off-road diversion is not likely to work. There’s a reason why you play the way you do, because 85% of the time, it gets you the results you want! Don’t let a little snowstorm send you into a mental blizzard in which you are not playing the way you feel most assured and are most likely to add substantially to your chip count. Stay focused and get back on track, and whatever you do, do not play scared poker! Be as aggressive as you usually are, and always make other players “pay to play.”

Rule #3: Fund yourself sufficiently

When you’re running badly and feeling literally poor, it can be tempting to play short; my advice is, if you’re in that dire straights, just pick up what’s left of your chips and head home for the night. If you decide to stick around – have enough cash, in your wallet and on your body, so that you feel psychologically armed for battle with enough “bullets” in your clip to take on all comers. Although it’s really more a mental edge than anything else, having enough bankroll in your pocket will allow you to play with more confidence and less timidity, which should, in turn, result in getting you back to top gun status sooner rather than later.

Rule #4: Be extra pleasant to everyone at the table

Nothing says “amateur” and “tilted player” more than someone who’s still muttering about the “unbelievability” of their bad beat an hour or two after the hand has come and gone. Glaring angrily at your opponents is also a sure sign that you don’t really understand the game and just have the fantasy illusion that the best hand going in is always going to hold up after the flop, turn and river. Reminder: It is not a) the dealer’s fault (and please don’t act like a two-year-old cursing them out and throwing cards at them, which may get you 86’d in some casinos, by the way!) or b) the poker gods raining down upon you; it’s just the way ebbs and flows of the game happen sometimes. Being a gracious loser and maintaining your composure will not only signify to the table that you are an experienced and unflappable player, it will also feed your own sense of calm, which will in turn put you in a better mindset to make the right decisions from here on out.

Rule#5: Don’t fall in love with your hand, no matter how good it is pre-flop

Poker is always a game of “where are you at now,” not “where were you at a minute ago”! You must constantly reassess whether you have the best hand with each new card that falls. Simply holding wired Aces or Kings pre-flop means nothing if the board comes 7-8-9 all of one suit that you don’t hold, to give but one example of many ways that high pairs can be crushed on the flop, turn and river, especially if you have multi-way action. Again, detach, detach, detach! You will get pretty pairs again, and they will hold up again, but if this is not the hand where they will do so, don’t throw your money away just so you can angrily turn your cards up at the end of the hand and show the J-10 what they crushed. Nobody really cares. Just accept the minimum loss, and move on.

These five simple rules should help you return to your “A” game when you hit those inevitable tiltifying moments, but let’s be honest, there are days when no matter what you do, you just can’t win. I remember a session during WSOP 2009, a cash game, where I literally played for nine hours straight, never once going on tilt, and could not win a pot to save my life. I finally just shrugged, got up, and went home. Fortunately, sessions like those are few and far between, but they happen to even the very best players. When they do, bear in mind that tomorrow is another day, and there will always be a game happening somewhere. It’s just a glitch in the road, not the end of it!

Here’s to as few tilts as possible, and getting back on your feet (and back to a winning mentality!) on those occasions when you do succumb. To err is human; to beat your opponents is divine

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