Understanding Tilt

By Barbara Connors

Tilt is a poker slang term that is often used to describe the angry or frustrated emotional state of a player. We commonly associate tilt as the result of simply taking a bad beat or losing a big pot. But going on tilt can be caused by a number of things such as losing multiple hands, multiple sessions or just from getting annoyed by another poker player.

If you ever played pinball as a kid, tilt was what happened when you hit or shook the machine too furiously in an attempt to guide your ball into a desired slot or to keep it in play and prevent it from being swallowed up by that dreaded gap between the flippers at the bottom of the machine. When that tilt sign lit up, it meant game over, and you had to insert more money to keep playing. And tilt in poker gets its name from pinball machines. When you play poorly and irrationally, often because of the emotional response that occurs when your better hand is skewered by an opponent’s long-shot draw, you are off-kilter, unglued, wide-open, and on tilt.

Emotional Responses Induce Tilt

Tilt is not when you make a bad play because you just don’t know any better. If you make what turns out to be the wrong play – but you thought your action through carefully and made as mistake or misread the situation – that’s not tilt either. And some poker experts may disagree with this, but if you make a bad play based purely on the fact that you are overtired and your mind is not as sharp as it normally would be, that is not tilt. Not unless you refuse to acknowledge you’re too tired to play well and stubbornly continue playing poker in a compromised state.

Tilt is when you play poker poorly, making even a single play that you know is bad strategy, because your emotions are interfering with your ability to think clearly.

Tilt Triggers

The events that can push a poker player to go on tilt, known as tilt triggers, are as diverse as the players themselves. The most common culprit is a bad losing streak, but other well-known triggers include bad beats, trash-talking opponents, and being card-dead for a prolonged period of time. Beyond this, there are other factors – drugs, alcohol, lack of adequate nutrition or sleep, problems at home – which can make a player much more vulnerable to tilt before he even sits down to play. We’ll look more at the various tilt triggers and how to recognize them in the second part of this series.

Knowledge is Power

That’s the tricky part. This is a perfect illustration of the old saying “Knowledge is power” because you cannot even begin to overcome tilt until you realize that you’re on it. Simply put, any time you become aware that you’re making a particular play for an emotional reason – a play that you would not be making if your emotions were in check and your thinking was clear – then you are on tilt.

If you make a crying call on the river because you can’t stand the thought that an obnoxious opponent might be trying to steal the pot, you are on tilt. If you re-raise with a second-rate hand because you’re impatient to score a big pot, you are on tilt. If you check a hand that you know is worth a bet because you’re fearful of risking more chips, you are on tilt.

How Long Does Tilt Last?

Tilt can be as brief as one stupid play in a single hand, or it can persist for months or even longer. But the most typical scenario is that it will last from the moment you start tilting until the time you quit the poker session because you’ve either come to your senses or run out of money / chips.

Everyone Tilts (Some More than Others)

Everybody. No poker player has ever been immune from tilt. The best poker players just don’t tilt nearly as often, or as severely. This is because many seasoned poker players have become somewhat resistant to going on tilt, after years of experiencing fluctuations of luck in the game. Getting this resistance to tilt should be the goal of every poker player.

Tilt and Certain Poker Games

Is tilt more likely to happen in certain types of poker games? It’s more about the player than the game. Some personality types are just more vulnerable to tilt than others. That said, poker games with faster action and higher stakes are more likely to induce tilt, if only because the triggers in these games are more potent and more numerous.

The Consequences of Tilt

Tilt is always a very serious leak in anyone’s poker game. Any time that you’re on tilt, you are making -EV decisions and playing the game poorly. If it’s a mild, short-term case of tilt, you might escape with little-to-no damage. But the longer tilt drags on, the uglier the picture gets and the more certain it becomes that you’ll lose a significant chunk of your money. In a serious case, the tilting player will lose every chip he has on the table and then some.

For the majority of poker players, taking a break from the game – whether it’s for a few hours or a few days – is enough for them to cool down and come to their poker senses again. But for a few hardcore tilters, who for whatever reason refuse to acknowledge they have a problem with tilt, the emotional interference persists into the next session, and the next, and the next. And for these unhappy few, tilt can bring total financial ruin.

The Different Forms of Tilt

There are many different forms of tilt. So now it’s time to meet the members of the tilt family…

Berserker Tilt: the Fast and the Furious

The quintessential form of tilt, poker’s version of a total meltdown. It’s the easiest to recognize and the hardest to overcome. Berserker tilt is loose-aggressive – with a big emphasis on aggressive. Frustrated and angry at losing, the tilting player attempts to steamroll his way back into profitability by betting and raising at everything that moves. Virtually every hand he receives is a candidate to be overplayed as he calls with garbage, overbets with hands that barely warrant a call, and shoves out one ill-conceived bluff after another.

More than any other kind of tilt, berserker tilt can inflict massive financial damage in a very short space of time. Unless the tilting poker player comes to his senses or gets miraculously lucky (both unlikely scenarios) he is primed to lose every chip he has on the table and more before he finally quits.

All forms of tilt come in varying degrees of severity and duration, but there is really no such thing as a mild case of berserker tilt. The end result is almost always grim as the berserking player ultimately slinks away from the poker table with his bankroll eviscerated and his confidence shattered.

Lily-livered Tilt: Fright Club

Not as easily recognizable as berserker tilt, lily-livered tilt is thematically its opposite. Tight-passive in nature, it’s almost a stealth form of tilt, flying under the radar and inflicting harm before the poker player has a clue what hit him. Oftentimes, the player won’t even realize that he’s been on tilt until much later – if ever. And that’s what makes lily-livered tilt so dangerous.

The poker player under the spell of lily-livered tilt is constantly searching for any reason to fold and resisting any reason to bet or raise. Like its berserking cousin, lily-livered tilt is usually triggered by a bad loss, most likely by a full-blown losing streak. But in this case the tilting player responds not with an angry determination to win back his money, but rather with a white-knuckle fear of losing even more. Yet he cannot bring himself to quit the game, so instead he plays like the ultimate nit.

In contrast to berserker tilt, the lily-livered variety typically doesn’t cost the player a massive chunk of his stack in the short-term. Its destructive power comes more from the long-term forfeiture of all the money that the player could have won and should have won if he’d been betting and raising normally. In attempting to curtail his losses, the tilting player will ultimately minimize his wins.

Winner’s Tilt: I’m King of the World!

While it may seem like an oxymoron, winner’s tilt is a very real problem for some poker players. The strong emotions aroused by winning can be just as mind-clouding as any form of poker despair. Winner’s tilt can degrade your game in one of two ways. In the first case, the player who has been cruising along and comfortably crushing the game begins to feel invincible and so he plays too loose-aggressive. Flush with a large stack of newly-acquired chips and convinced he can do no wrong, he routinely overplays his hands, putting in too much money with weak cards and setting himself up for the inevitable fall. At best, he gives back a small portion of his winnings. At worst, the losses make him angry and he slides down into berserker tilt.

Winner’s tilt is also a problem when the victorious player falls in love with his newfound wealth and cannot bear the thought of losing it back. Wanting to “lock in” his win without actually having to quit the game, he attempts to protect his stack by playing weak-tight poker .

Frustration Tilt: The Need for Speed

A watered-down version of berserker tilt, frustration tilt can happen after a player has been card-dead for a long period of time. The result: loose play. In an effort to force the action and make something happen, the player makes sloppy calls that he would never normally make – for no other reason than he is sick and tired of folding.

For obvious reasons, frustration tilt is more likely to happen in a live poker game, where the player is limited to playing one table at a time. But online players are not immune. Even with multiple tables all going at once, long dry stretches of mediocre cards and missed flops can occur, creating a fertile environment for frustration tilt. And while frustration tilt may seem innocuous enough compared to other more virulent forms of tilt, that’s a deception. There is no such thing as an innocuous form of tilt. All it takes is one loose call to produce one nasty loss, starting a downward cycle that ends in berserker tilt.

Something-to-Prove Tilt: Long Day’s Journey Into Spite

Another offshoot of berserker tilt, the something-to-prove variety occurs when a player feels antagonism towards his opponent(s), usually as the result of trash-talk and/or an embarrassing loss. Like berserker tilt, this involves a lot of loose-aggressive play – just not quite as mindlessly off-the-hook – and unwise bluffs aimed at the object of the player’s derision. Those things alone are a potent recipe for disaster.

The something-to-prove tilter also falls prey to fancy play syndrome, executing over-elaborate plays in a desperate attempt to show everybody what a great poker player he is. If he’s lucky, the extra-fancy plays will merely cost him a little EV; if he isn’t, they’ll cost him his entire stack.

Despondent Tilt: Point of No Return

This form of tilt happens when a poker player has crossed what Mike Caro calls the “threshold of misery.” When a losing streak has been so brutal for so long that the player no longer believes he can win and just about every ounce of rational poker reasoning has been beaten out of him. Mired in self-pity, the despondent player effectively throws up his hands and abandons any pretence of even trying to play well. Or win. He has given up. He could leave the game of course, but one of the main hallmarks of tilt is the player’s stubborn refusal to quit. So instead he stays and almost literally throws away his money with loose-aggressive play – emphasis on loose because for the most part he’s too beaten-down to get very aggressive.

The Not-so-Final Analysis

You could be the smartest poker player in the world – know every aspect of poker strategy, read your opponents flawlessly, be able to calculate complex odds in seconds – but in the end all those skills won’t do you a bit of good if you go on tilt. Poker is a game where money and ego are constantly on the line. If you have red blood in your veins, you can fall victim to tilt. It’s impossible to be a long-term winner at this game if you don’t know how to handle tilt, but you cannot know how to handle tilt until you’re aware of it.

You must be able to recognize when it’s happening to you, when you’ve started to make poker decisions based on emotion – be it anger, fear, frustration, whatever – rather than clear, rational thought. It can help to have a friend, coach, or some other impartial observer, watch your game and alert you to those times when you’re leaning precariously over the edge. But ultimately it comes down to you.

Now that you know how to recognize the different forms of tilt, the next step is knowing what to do about it. How to put the kibosh on tilt, or better yet, prevent it from happening in the first place. We’ll talk about that in the next lesson on dealing with tilt .

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.