Staying Off Tilt
“Being on tilt” is the most deadly state that a poker player can be in. Just as with a pinball machine, from where the term is derived, when your nervous system is on tilt, you can’t operate in a useful way. You are broken, and, just as the pinball machine needs to be reset in order to function, so similarly do you.
In many ways, getting on tilt is a simple stress reaction of the nervous system. The brain becomes overwhelmed by a disturbing event or series of events, and starts reacting from its most primitive operating manual. In this state, no higher brain function is possible, meaning that even a fourth or fifth level player will be unable to play beyond the skill set of a rank beginner. It happens to the top players in the world, and it can and will happen to you, if you aren’t careful.
The first thing we can do in order to avoid tilt is to remember the mathematics of the situation. When another player hits a two-outer on the river to cripple us, it just means that we were in the wrong place at the wrong time when that inevitable 1 in 23 probability event took place. It was going to happen to SOMEBODY, and you just happened to be the unlucky soul that drew the short straw. WAIT! STOP RIGHT THERE! Monitor your reaction to that last statement. Did you find yourself getting angry, or replaying in your mind the last time that happened to you? If so, then you are probably more prone to tilt.
So how do you avoid the tilt monster? The first thing to remember about stress reactions is that it isn’t stress until your nervous system defines it as such, meaning that if you keep your own brain in as flexible a state as possible, it will take much, much more to throw you off your game. Learn to meditate, or do a meditation-based exercise regimen, such as tai chi or yoga. Practice affirmations and other positive thinking techniques, where you train your mind to expect only the best. There are even technologies out there where you can measure your brain wave response to stressful situations, and train the mind to respond differently when those events arise.
The most important thing to remember is that two-outers and other sick beats WILL happen to you, just as they happen to every single player on the planet. It is how you choose to respond when they do that will make the difference between your being a loser or a winner.
If you find yourself going on tilt, it’s time to “reset the pinball machine,” meaning take a break. Even if you are in the middle of a tournament and not yet eliminated, get up and walk away from the table for a few minutes and collect yourself, away from the scene of the crime. Meditate for a few minutes, have some water to re-hydrate, do some affirmations; in other words, do something that will break the pattern and allow you to get some perspective on your situation. Only when you feel that you are back in control, or better yet, can laugh at what just happened (after all, it’s not as if you actually died, is it?), should you return to the table and start playing again. Yes, you may have a few more chips anted or blinded off, but better that than being in full-fledged chip-spewing mode?
Finally, remember the wise saying “How you do anything is how you do everything.” By mastering your emotions at the poker table, you will be able to translate that to every area of your life, and you will find yourself getting more enjoyment out of all that you do.