Why do poker players go on tilt? It’s not an easy question to answer .
Every poker player is different, and will have different reasons why he goes on poker tilt. A situation that puts one player on tilt may not affect another player at all. But, we can make generalizations about why certain types of tilt are common in poker and what situations might trigger them. To do so, we must peel back a number of layers and look at what influences the way people play poker.
Think back to how you played the first time that you sat at a poker table. How did you instinctively think the game should be played? Most players starting out will play too loosely. Their line of thinking goes something like this:
The best poker players are the ones who win the most money.
The way I win money is to win pots.
I can’t win pots when I fold.
Conclusion: I must play a lot of hands to be a good poker player.
New players tend to play too many hands even when given the advice not to do so. These same players often continue too long after the flop, chasing weak draws in hope of winning a hand. It takes a lot of discipline, learning, and experience before a new player understands correct poker strategy and realizes that what is important is not winning pots, but winning money.
New players will also instinctively play too passively. When they play a hand, they tend to check and call rather than bet and raise – unless they have a monster. They try to get to a showdown cheaply to “see if they’ve won,” but are unwilling to take a lot of risks unless they are confident they have the best hand. Once again, it takes a lot of learning and discipline before a new player understands the value of aggression when playing a hand.
New players also tend to make plays without considering all of the variables. They play their own hand without considering their opponent’s possible holdings. They certainly won’t consider complex variables such as position, pot odds, and the betting patterns of their opponent. It is hard work to consider every variable every time you make a decision, and you need to be disciplined to keep this up in every hand.
Instinctively, players like to play loosely, passively, and without due consideration of the game state. It is no coincidence that when players go on tilt, the three most likely ways they do so is to play too loosely, too passively, and too formulaically.
In effect, tilt is often (but not always) a regression of a player’s game to something more primal. He temporarily loses the discipline that controls his game, and instead starts making decisions in accordance with how he would like to play the game.
What causes players to revert to this undisciplined poker? If we can understand why players go on tilt, we will be far better equipped to recognize when we are likely to go on tilt. Traditionally, tilt is thought to be an emotional response to negative stimuli. For example, a player would go on tilt as a result of taking a bad beat, losing a big pot, or losing a lot of money. However, this is just a stereotype, like saying that tilt always involves steaming or excessive calling. Although bad beats and downswings are major causes of tilt, they are by no means the only ones. All of the following can initiate or contribute to tilt:
• Any emotional state (not just the stereotypical anger, depression, and self-pity)
• Fatigue or tiredness
• An unusual game state
• An abnormal series of results
In other words, tilt is not only something you need to watch out for when things are going bad, it’s something you must be constantly wary of.
Think of poker as a war within yourself, the classic heart versus head battle. On one side is your heart telling you to play the game the way you would like to play. It urges you to see the flop with second-rate hands, “peel one off” on the flop with a weak holding, or call down rather than raise with a strong one. On the other side is your head telling you to play the game the way it should be played, urging you to make the moves that will maximize your long-term profits, even if it means concentrating extra hard or making plays that you would rather not make.
For most players under normal circumstances, your head gets the casting vote in poker decisions. However, that other voice is always there, urging you to take a different line.
For some players, that voice is very quiet, so they will be less likely to go on tilt. For other players, the voice is loud. It might not be quite loud enough to overrule the head under normal circumstances, but it will take charge if anything happens to make it louder, or the message from your head quieter or less certain. For example:
• You take a bad beat. Your heart encourages you to gamble more to give yourself the chance to get that money back.
• You are playing at a higher limit than usual. Your heart highlights the additional exposure to your bankroll and encourages you to play more cautiously and passively, in order to avoid a potentially big loss.
• You are bored. Your heart encourages you to watch football after each fold when you should be observing your opponents.
• A maniac is throwing his weight around. Your heart tells you to confront him head-on, to constantly reraise him preflop and show him who is really in charge of the table.
These are only four out of dozens of possible scenarios. You are no longer making the best decisions, because they are now controlled by your heart and not your head. You might not realize that you are playing badly. Sometimes the two voices can get very confusing, and you might not realize until after the event how badly you were playing.
In summary, tilt is simply a state in which players, for whatever reason, lose their ability to think through decisions and make the best play. Tilt can be a short-term thing, even lasting only one decision, while other times, the effect will last many hours or even multiple sessions. No player is safe from it because every player has that voice, however quiet, somewhere within his conscience.