The Only Reason Tilt Happens

As appeared in April 2008 issue of 2+2 Magazine

Tilt is a consequence of the brain’s response to a threat. This response has developed over the past 300+ million years and at this point in evolution, a threat does not have to be real physical danger; psychological threats are treated in the exact same way. This part of your brain is so old it doesn’t know the difference. The hundred’s of reasons poker players use to explain why Tilt happens are all examples of psychological threats and are not the cause. Calling a bad beat or being bluffed off the best hand a threat may sound a bit extreme, but the brain’s emotional system doesn’t view it as rationally as we can right now; although neither do you when it happens.

The brain responds to a threat by increasing emotion in proportion to the perceived significance of that threat. When emotions rise to your threshold, which is the point when the brain takes direct action against the threat, higher brain functions are systematically reduced in proportion to the level of emotion. The loss of higher brain functions like: self control, rational thought, logic, perception of self and other, organization, planning, strategy, mental manipulation of information, and others are the hallmark characteristics of Tilt. If the brain didn’t respond to a threat by shutting down these functions, your emotions could be completely out of control and you would still play great; Tilt would not exist.

The sobering reality is that you have absolutely no control over this process. When emotions rise to threshold, the response taken by the brain happen every time, guaranteed (assuming there isn’t actual brain damage). Knowing the brain has limitations is important, because just like in poker, information determines course of action.

Implications at the Poker Table

Some of you will immediately reduce the incidence of Tilt just by knowing what you can and cannot expect to be able to do on Tilt or during the emotional build up to Tilt. Since there is no more ambiguity, there is no reason to fight against it by trying to think rationally when it is neurologically impossible.

For many of you good information isn’t enough, and if you are serious about preventing or eliminating Tilt from your game, there are only two legitimate options. (1) Prevent emotions from crossing threshold and you never experience Tilt again; (2) Train poker skills to such a habitual or instinctual level that emotions cannot affect them. To a certain extent all of you have trained some skills to that level and seasoned pros have trained most of them, which is one reason why they Tilt infrequently. This option is complex and requires either years of experience or use of high performance training. The first option follows.

Prevention Strategy #1: Short-term

Preventing Tilt requires that you have accurate and specific information about how you Tilt. Thankfully, like any neurological pattern it happens in predictable ways and for predictable reasons. Some know these reasons immediately, others will have to gather some information first. Here is what’s important when organizing this information into a preventative strategy.

Step 1) – List the things, actions, situations, etc that cause your emotions to rise; essentially what puts you on Tilt or get you close. These are called Triggers. They can be caused by you, other players, and by factors outside of poker. Be specific and list as many as you can. Analyze the list of Triggers by emphasizing the 3 or 4 that, (1) happen most often, and (2) cause the greatest emotional response.

Step 2) – List the things that you do, think or feel in response to a trigger. These are called Tendencies and they are another way to know emotions are on the rise or that you’re on Tilt. Tendencies can be anything from, increased breathing and heart rate, shoving chips without thinking, aggressive calls, feeling shell shocked, heating up inside, convincing yourself everything is fine, making quick decisions, mind going completely blank, and many others. When analyzing the list of Tendencies, identify your threshold. Threshold is the amount of emotion you can manage while maintaining the higher brain functions listed earlier. Identifying threshold takes a bit of work, but the idea is to know the specific tendencies that show up when you’re getting close to it and when you’ve crossed it.

Step 3) – Develop a strategy to prevent crossing your threshold. To do this you take direct immediate action when emotions increase close to threshold. The consequences are too severe to ignore, so do whatever you can to stop your emotions from increasing further. There are many effective methods that players and authors have written about, and you may already have some that work well. Two ways that I often recommend, are (1) taking three slow deep breaths into your stomach (not chest), which is a great option because it is unlikely anyone at the table will know; (2) create a positive trigger with something like a piece of gum, or most anything that carries the intent of calming down. What you do to stop your emotions matters less than you actually stopping them. Whatever your strategy, write it on a note card and bring it with you every time you play. Rehearse the strategy so you know it well enough that when emotions start to block thinking, you know what to do.

A preventative strategy is a work in progress. Don’t bog yourself down by trying to make it perfect the first time, nor should you be too relaxed about rehearsing it. Make a good first attempt and update the strategy after you see how well it works or when you identify new Triggers or Tendencies. It’s important to keep in mind that this is not a quick fix, it is challenging and takes effort. You also will likely falter several times before you find a preventative strategy that works.

Prevention Strategy #2: Long-term

It is quite common that preventing Tilt using strategy #1 is too difficult for a couple reasons. First, emotions build up over a period of time, dropping the threshold and making relatively small increases in emotion enough to Tilt. This is true both within a session and over sustained periods of running poorly. The second reason is that at this point in your poker career, some threats may be so significant that they hit without notice and put you on Tilt immediately. There are a few psychological techniques that reduce the amount of emotion generated by a single trigger and reduce accumulated emotion from multiple triggers.

The first technique is called Systematic Desensitization (SD). SD has been around for years and can be self administered; it just takes a bit of training. I’ll be releasing a video on that trains you to do it. The other technique is called EMDR (eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing) and requires that you see a therapist that is trained in EMDR. EMDR can be very successful for those with severe Tilt. There is plenty of information available on the web if you want to know more, but it bears mentioning so you know the options is available

Tilt is a hardwired pattern and it isn’t going away without a fight. With sustained effort the preventive strategies outlined here are highly effective in preventing and perhaps even eliminating Tilt altogether.

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