Of all the players I’ve coached so far, almost all of them have admitted to having problems with tilt. Many times, these were players with sound technical games who could without a doubt beat the stakes they’re playing in if they didn’t have a tilt problem. That’s the nature of no limit unfortunately: It’s not enough to play well 90% of the time. You can play like an absolute boss for 12 hours but then destroy all your hard work in 30 minutes.
I didn’t have to start coaching players to know this by the way. Tilt was holding me back from accomplishing my goals in poker for a long time. I used to be the best at tilting: chasing losses, jumping stakes, open-shoving any two in a white rage and just praying for the rest of my roll to finally wander over to someone else so I can stop playing and stew in guilt and self-loathing. That’s what tilt does to you, it doesn’t just destroy your bankroll, it can make your life miserable as well. That’s why I advise any student that admits to having tilt problems to work on this part of their game the hardest, before it gets out of hand. It might start out as getting angry over a few bad beats, but if you don’t take action, that anger accumulates and your problems will get bigger and bigger.
So tilt is bad for your game and bad for your life. At the micros, if you play a decent TAG game, minimizing your tilt is often all it takes to turn you from a losing or break-even player to a solid winner. The $1,000 question then is: how do you get rid of tilt?
Understanding Variance (Bad Beat Tilt)
Honestly, this is the one that helped me the most. Short-term measures to control tilt during a session are important, but in the long run, they are like a bandage. They might help your problem this time, but if left untreated, it will just keep coming back.
In order to really eliminate tilt due to coolers or bad beats, you have to understand the nature of variance. After all, if you know that it’s a mathematical certainty that you will face bad beats on a regular basis, there is nothing to get angry about. Do you get angry every time it rains outside or somebody cuts you off while driving? If so, then here is your chance to improve your life-tilt as well. There will be rainy days and you will encounter aggressive people for the rest of your life, so deal with it. If you know it will happen, then why get angry?
In poker, you will lose pots due to luck for the rest of your life. It’s as simple as that, so better make peace with variance now or you might as well quit the game.
Of course, the real test to your patience comes when you hit an extended stretch of bad luck. When you can’t seem to win a hand for weeks on end and no matter what you do, your opponents wind up with your money.
That is the true nature of variance: it is very hard to understand for the human mind. Anyone that has done a bit of research knows that you can run really good or really bad for over 50k hands or even more. That is a huge number, and unless you play very high volume, it can take a long time too. Our mind just can’t deal with the fact that we get unlucky so many times in a row. Indeed, it has driven plenty of players to suspect that the game is rigged and that poker sites or rooms are shuffling the deck in this way just to make more money. To an inexperienced player, this is simply the only explanation for their bad luck: variance alone can’t produce such a string of soul-crushing beats, there has to be foul-play involved.
The fact is that variance is widely underestimated. You can and will get unlucky for long periods of your poker career, so prepare your mind for it now. Just like with other things that happen in your life, try to be as realistic about them as you can: if something is inevitable, then there is no reason to get angry about it.
Understanding the Learning Process (Mistake Tilt)
Bad luck isn’t the only source of tilt for most players. There are also the mistakes they make themselves: those stupid, god-awful plays that only a donkey would make. How can you really call yourself a good player if you keep playing like a fucking fish? There’s no way you’ll ever make it if you keep donking off your chips like that.
Mistake tilt is a very serious issue and can have an disastrous impact on your game. If you beat yourself up over every mistake you made, it will lead to frustration, self-loathing and low confidence in your game.
I have news for you: everyone makes mistakes. When you watch pros on TV and you admire how few mistakes they make and how solid they are, you are looking at the results of years of hard work. These players started out the same way everyone else does: by playing awful poker and making tons of mistakes in almost every single hand. One big thing that separates the successful players from the mediocre ones is that they have realized how important mistakes are for improving.
I’ve said this before: you can play NL2 for the rest of your life and hardly make any mistakes because you know what to do in almost any spot. If you really want to become a great player though, you have to step out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself. This means that many times you will feel like you misplayed a hand. Yes, it will cost you money. But it’s the only way to improve, period.
The way to deal with mistakes is to do your best to learn from them. If you play online, then the best thing you can do is save every hand you feel bad about for review later on, and then analyze it away from the table. If you’re playing live, you could take notes or just try to remember as much about the hand as you can. The important thing is that you think about what went wrong and how you can do better next time. If you’re not sure what the correct play is, you can post it in forums or hire a coach. Just make sure that you appreciate the opportunity to improve and don’t punish yourself for being human.
Just like with the previous example, this one extents to almost every area in life. Mistakes and temporary failures are necessary to achieve greatness. Every successful person out there has realized this, and so should you.
Exercise Good Bankroll Management
One of the best ways to avoid tilting is heaving a healthy bankroll. Yet I see time and time again how players completely ignore any advice and play with bankrolls of under 20 buy-ins. Actually even following the advice of a 20 buy-in minimum is completely wrong in my mind.
Just think about that number for a second: you are guaranteed to go on 20 buy-in downswings at multiple points in your career. 10 buy-in downswings are actually fairly common and you can expect to have one at least 2 times a year if you play regularly. So starting with 20 buy-ins is just way too risky as you could easily go broke unless you move down in stakes a number of times. And in terms of tilt, 20 buy-ins is so low that you will constantly feel frustrated and anxious about losing a large percentage of your entire balance. Any standard swing within a day could see 25% of your roll decimated. There aren’t many players who would play their A-game after that. I know I wouldn’t.
We clearly need a bigger number then. Legendary grinder Dusty “Leatherass” Schmidt recommends 100 buy-ins in his excellent book Treat Your Poker Like a Business. Some people will call that excessive, but I completely agree with Dusty. In my mind, you almost can’t go too high in terms of buy-ins in your bankroll. OK, maybe you don’t wanna play NL2 with a bankroll of $5k, but having 100 buy-ins will just give you an immense deal of peace of mind. I would say 30 is the absolute minimum but already too low, especially if your expected winrates are below 5bb/100. That’s why I recommend all of my students to have at least 50 buy-ins for the stakes they are playing, and to never ever jump stakes. If you’re playing on Pokerstars, just use the restriction feature so you can’t play higher should you find yourself tilting. Trust me on this, having a healthy bankroll will go great lengths in avoiding tilt, so there really is no reason why you shouldn’t do it.
As much as you should prepare for long downswings, they will still affect your play. It doesn’t matter who you are, even the most experienced pros suffer from extended streaks of bad variance. I’ve heard Phil Galfond talk about how he loses confidence in his game during those times and questions his ability to win money in poker. That really should tell you everything about the impact variance can have on your game: if one of the best players in the world loses confidence in his game during long downswings, then how do the rest of us stand a chance?
Luckily, Phil also shared his solution to this problem: if he feels like variance is affecting his play, he takes a break. Not a 1- or 2-day break, but a full 2 or 3 weeks where he doesn’t even think about poker (or at least tries to). My approach is exactly the same and I can’t even begin to estimate how much money this has saved me over the years. When you’re stuck in a downswing, not only are you prone to tilt, but your play is definitely worse than it normally is. You might not even be a favourite in your games anymore if you question your ability that much. It will stop you from making profitable aggressive plays and usually also lead you to call down too much to try and win more hands.
If you feel like things are just too intense and that you’re not capable of playing good poker anymore, take a break! You will come back after a few weeks with your mind reset and often your luck will turn around as well. Poker is weird like that, momentum plays a very big role in your results. So just try to make it work in your favour and play as much as you can when you’re winning, and as little as you can when you don’t.
Get Your Life in Order
Tilt can have many causes, and lots of them lie outside of poker. If you’re unhappy with the way you live your life, then guess what? Your chances of tilting are much higher than if you feel happy and balanced.
For reasons of time and space I can’t tell you how to achieve happiness in this post. But the obvious things that you will read everywhere else really do make a huge difference in your game: live healthy, exercise, have an active social life and just try to be as balanced as you can and not make poker the only thing in your life that’s important to you. Trust me, I speak from experience here too. If poker is the central force in your life, then all your self-worth will be bound to poker as well. That means that any downswing will hit you twice as hard and mess with your confidence, happiness and overall well-being.
Realize that there’s more to life than poker and that having other interests will improve your game. Go outside and meet friends or just read a book or take a walk in nature. Exercise on a regular basis and try to eat as healthy as you can. You can also start meditating, it has worked wonders for me. Just know that the happier you are in your normal life, the bigger your chances of controlling tilt.