Avoiding and Dealing with Tilt

By Barbara Connors

Where poker tilt is concerned, prevention is always better than cure. You’ll save yourself a lot of wasted time, squandered money, and unnecessary grief if you can spot the warning signs ahead of time. To do this, you must learn to recognize your triggers – those things in the game that, for whatever reason, are so upsetting and offensive to you that they have the power to put you on tilt.

Tilt triggers generally fall into one of two categories: things that happen within the game itself, and external factors that are technically not part of a poker game, but which make you more vulnerable to tilt.

External Factors (Pre-Triggers)

Let’s look at the latter category first. Think of them as pre-triggers. Any number of outside influences – stress at home, financial worries, lack of adequate sleep, alcohol, drugs, etc – can leave you much more susceptible to tilt than you would be otherwise. While these outside factors won’t be the final catalyst that actually kicks off your tilt, pre-triggers still share a large part of the blame. If you come to the poker table already feeling out of sorts over problems at work or a fight with your spouse, and then you decide to unwind by having a few drinks while you play, you are setting yourself up to go on tilt the moment something goes wrong in the game.

Think of pre-triggers as creating a kind of “perfect storm” for tilt to occur. When you combine stress and alcohol in a poker game, it’s like you’ve got a cold high-pressure system moving in from the north, colliding with a tropical low-pressure system from the south. Now all it takes one nasty gust of wind – one bad beat – and you’ll have a full-blown nor’easter on your hands. Without those pre-triggers, the bad beat might have blown over harmlessly.

Now for the Actual Triggers

You’re in the game, playing well, perhaps having to work a bit at managing your emotions when the cards go against you, but you’re doing it. You’re in control. Then something goes wrong. Tilt triggers are different for everybody but the common denominator for all triggers is that they run deeply contrary to your notions of how the game is supposed to be. The end result is that the rational, thinking part of your brain takes a powder, leaving your pride and emotions in charge of the decision-making.

Bad Beats

The usual culprit for this ugly transformation is a bad beat. From the lowliest fish to the loftiest pros, from the mundane “that’s poker” beats to the soul-crushing, two-outer suckouts, bad beats are an inescapable part of the game. Which is precisely why they are such a common tilt trigger and why you must be able to deal with them emotionally.

Bad Cards

The second-most common tilt trigger is being card-dead for a long time. After an endless procession of lousy starting hands, missed flops, and draws that never come in, even the most patient of poker players would be tempted to snap. This is a straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back type of trigger, as the frustration just keeps piling on higher and higher with each successive fold, until it’s finally too much to bear.

Online, where games moves at the speed of light and multi-tabling is commonplace, tilt-by-cold-cards is rare. But that’s more than compensated for by the excessive number of bad beats you’ll encounter in the online games. Between the sheer volume of hands and the fact that online opponents tend to play looser, it’s not a question of if you will take bad beats, but when and how many. Add in the fact that your entire online bankroll is only a few mouse-clicks away and the ability to cope with suckouts becomes more crucial than ever.

Anything that gets your emotions flowing in as poker game has the potential to cause tilt. Excessive winning can do it. If you’re playing poker online and you lose a big pot because of a poor connection or an accidental mis-click, that can do it too. Offensive opponents also deserve an honorable mention as potential tilt triggers. But as a rule, obnoxious trash-talking opponents won’t really get under your skin unless they’re winning and you’re losing. Which brings us back to bad beats and bad cards. In one form or another, those are main triggers you need to watch out for.

Part Two: Prevention

By far, the most effective way to combat tilt is to never go on it in the first place. Easier said than done of course, but it all goes back to that old axiom: knowledge is power. To protect yourself against tilt, you must know yourself and know the game.


This can be difficult and slippery, if only because we humans have an incredible gift for deceiving ourselves. That’s why it’s so vital to know your triggers. Of all the things that can go wrong during a poker game, what do you find the most disturbing? So disturbing that it can prompt you to fling all your hard-earned poker knowledge out the window? Only you can truly answer that, although a coach or a poker-playing friend might be able to help you find some tilt-weaknesses from observing your play. Once you know your tilt triggers, this will put you in a much stronger position to side-step tilt before it has a chance to overtake you.

Know the Game

The more you know correct poker strategy, the harder it will be for you to stray away from it. The more you get in the habit of reviewing the hand and considering all angles – position, stack sizes, pot size, pot odds, betting patterns, playing styles, etc – before making any important decision, the more it becomes second nature for you to think this way, even during times of stress. By no means will this knowledge give you any kind of foolproof protection against tilt, but it does act as a very effective buffer.

Know the Probabilities

Remember, the number one tilt trigger is a bad beat. But what’s really sick about bad-beat-induced tilt is that many if not most of those beats were never all that bad to begin with. Poker players have a natural tendency to over-estimate the chances of their good hands holding up, which in turn makes it feel more “unfair” when another player draws out and rakes in the pot.

But realistically, good hands get sucked out on all the time and oftentimes the “favorite” hand is favored only by a small margin. An awareness of common poker probabilities certainly helps.  For example: against four random hands preflop, pocket Aces will hold up to win the pot about 56 percent of the time. Roughly translated, that means the best starting hand in hold’em is slated to lose about two out of every five hands when facing off against four opponents. Even if you reduce the number of opponents to two, pocket aces will still lose about a fourth of the time. Upsetting yes, but hardly cause for a tilt-provoking, god-I’m-so-unlucky pity party.

As senseless and wasteful as tilt can be, the sheer stupidity of tilt increases exponentially if the trigger that caused it in the first place is a run-of-the-mill loss the player should have seen coming. Worse still, some of these bad beats are self-inflicted hurts brought about by poor play, typically when the player is not aggressive enough and gives his opponents free/cheap cards to outdraw him.

But you can avoid this ignominious trap by educating yourself. If you know ahead of time that your hand will fall victim to a suckout every so often, you won’t be surprised or upset when it happens – let alone have a meltdown. If you realize that you made a mistake in the way you played the hand, you can acknowledge the mistake and learn from it, instead of railing against the poker gods because one of your opponents walked right through an opening that you yourself created.

How to Avoid Tilt

And so finally, how do you combat against tilt when it has already sunk its toxic little claws into you? If you have the insight and presence of mind to realize that you’re playing on tilt, that in itself puts you far ahead of most tilt victims. But you’re still left with the problem of what to do about it at that moment.

Two Words: Stop Playing

That’s it, really. The moment you become aware that you’re on tilt, get up and walk away from the table or turn off the computer. Your only defence is to stop the train from derailing. You need to regain your composure and that takes time. If you have extraordinary discipline, you might be able to cool down after a break of five or ten minutes away from the poker table.

What you do at this point will determine the overall outcome of your poker session and it is critical that you do not lose control. If you do have the discipline to take a short break then the following are helpful tactics for controlling your emotions:

  • First, get up from the poker table (or computer) and take a walk or go to the bathroom to cool off.
  • Don’t use your break to call someone to discuss a bad beat – this will further tilt you, not calm you down.
  • Don’t try to chat with your opponent and open the door for defensive comments that may fuel an argument.
  • If you cannot get in the right frame of mind, cash in and do not keep playing – you may need a long break in order to get back to your best game state.

Much depends on your individual personality and the severity of the tilt. If you have a mild case of frustration tilt – say, you caught yourself making a loose call or two – ten minutes might be enough time to get your head screwed back on straight. But if you’ve got a full-blown case of berserker tilt, no way is a ten-minute break going to do the trick. You’ll need at least a day away from the game, preferably longer.

Again it comes down to self-knowledge. This is a judgment call, made by you and about you. When you do return to the game, you must be brutally honest with yourself in assessing that you’re indeed ready to play again. If you’re not 100 percent sure, wait awhile longer. The game isn’t going anywhere.

Your Table Image

Another reason you should get up and stop playing is that your table image is almost certainly compromised. When you’re on tilt, any halfway-decent opponent is going to recognize your lopsided playing style and exploit it. Even if you do manage to un-tilt yourself with a short break, you’ll have a table-image problem to contend with when you return to the game. If you’re playing online, you might want to consider changing tables.

When a Long Break Isn’t An Option

Of course if you’re in the middle of playing a poker tournament, anything more than a short break isn’t really an option. But as long as you can afford to lose a few blinds, go ahead and take a break. Getting off tilt and back to your A-game is more important than playing your blinds. Take a walk. Get your mind off of whatever it was that was upsetting you so. Give yourself a pep talk, remind yourself that the players who sucked out on you were putting their money in with the worst of it. Whatever works to clear your mind and restore your sense of poker equilibrium.

A Stop-Loss Can be a Useful Tool

For some poker players, a stop-loss can be a useful tool in the fight against tilt. In theory, stop-losses shouldn’t be necessary since poker players aren’t supposed to be results-oriented. But realistically, if you’ve lost three buy-ins in a row you probably are on tilt at least a little bit – or tilt is lurking right around the corner, just waiting for one more loss. So until and unless you have the discipline to recognize the signs of tilt and stop playing on your own, a stop-loss can provide at least a modicum of protection.

What you don’t want to do is chase your losses. Ever. The poker graveyard is littered with bones of players who went broke trying to “get back even.” Even more foolhardy is the idea of temporarily moving up in limits to win your money back faster. This is exactly how a moderate loss turns into a bankroll-busting catastrophe.

Final Thoughts

You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again: It’s all one long session. This bit of poker wisdom is key to overcoming tilt. If you can keep your focus on the big picture – the long term – it will be much easier to let the short-term misfortunes of the game roll off your back. It will be much easier to take a break from poker when you’re tilting, confident that you’ll win your money back later after you’ve gotten your head screwed back on straight, instead of getting trapped in the desperate compulsion to get even again right now. Keeping good records and even graphing your long-term results is one effective way to accomplish this. Because if you don’t learn to control tilt, it’s only a matter of time before tilt will control you.

By Barbara Connors

Barbara lives in the Coachella Valley of Southern California and became a serious student of poker in 2001. She particularly enjoys writing about the psychology of the game.