Even the best poker players lose it sometimes. They suffer one too many bad beats, or get coolered, and presto, they start making sub-optimal decisions. For the most part, the top pros recognize this quickly and find ways to calm down. Are you one of these level-headed players? Or do you find yourself slamming down your mouse every time you lose a hand playing online poker?

If you fall into the latter category, you might be suffering from poker tilt. Don’t worry – you’re not alone. Poker can be a cruel game sometimes; it can also be an incredible game where you’re winning every hand and it seems like you can do no wrong. That’s yet another way you can wind up going on tilt, by growing too optimistic about your situation. Striking the right balance is key if you want to play your best.


What Is Tilt in Poker?

There’s been some debate when it comes to defining exactly what is tilt in poker. Some say that tilt is anything that prevents you from playing optimally – but that’s more like identifying the sources of tilt. Instead, think about tilt as a loss of control. Any action you take requires a set of cognitive processes known as executive functions. These functions include controls on attention and inhibition; when something interferes with these controls, your behavior changes, and it’s usually for the worse.


Examples of Being on Tilt

The classic case of going on tilt is when you can’t stop yourself from making a call that you know you shouldn’t be making. No matter what math and logic say is right, human beings are instinctually loss-averse; poker players are inclined to risk more than they should to prevent their opponents from taking the pot. At the other end of the spectrum, poker players won’t risk as much as they should when they’re ahead. They’ll fold too much, bet too small, and generally fail to take advantage of their situation.

There are many ways to lose control over these inclinations. Maybe we’ve already given up several pots to a certain opponent and just can’t bear losing another one. Maybe we’re so anxious about getting bluffed that we have to call and confirm what cards they have. We might even be in a bad mood because of something that happened away from the table. It’s usually a nasty emotional soup containing several of these ingredients.


Stop Tilt Before It Starts

The best way to deal with tilt is to prevent it from happening in the first place. By strengthening your mental game away from the table, you gain more control over your behavior, and become less likely to fly off the handle when things get heated. Start by being honest about your level of play. If you come to the table expecting to win, you’re going to get frustrated more often than not, especially if you haven’t taken at least some time to learn how to play better poker. But even if you’ve got a solid foundation and you understand what you’re doing throughout the hand, there’s enough dumb luck in poker that there’s just no point in getting worked up over wins and losses.

Most people have a difficult time understanding how little control they have over their results. If you’re playing No-Limit Hold’em and you get it all in preflop with pocket Aces against Seven-Deuce offsuit, you’re going to lose that hand almost one time in seven (See our Poker Hand Rankings). You need to accept this and move on. Just make the best play you can and treat every hand with a clean slate. Imagine that, instead of poker, you’re flipping a coin, and that coin is biased so it comes up Heads 53% of the time. You bet even money on Heads. In the long run, you’ll be rich – if you exercise proper bankroll management, and don’t go on the most epic losing streak ever recorded. But every time you flip that coin, there’s a 47% chance it will land Tails. That’s just the way it is. You win some, you lose some.


How to Stop Tilting

No matter how strong your mental game is, you’ll eventually end up going sideways at the poker table. If you find yourself going on tilt in the middle of a hand, stop for a moment, breathe deeply, and re-focus. If that doesn’t help, finish the hand and walk away from the table – or fold anything remotely marginal if you happen to be playing a poker tournament, then walk away when it’s over. Take however much time you need to calm down. Review your hands and see if you played them as well as you could have. Then come back when you’re ready. There will be a game waiting for you.


How to Tilt Others

Once you understand the concept of tilt, you can use that understanding against your opponents. What can you do, within the rules of poker, to compromise their executive function and make them lose control? If you know how to do it properly, you can play an aggressive style of poker that will put them on their heels; maybe they’ll be the ones calling your bets when they shouldn’t. You can also try to confuse your opponents with unusual plays, like slowplaying the nuts every once in a while, or making min-bets and min-raises.

In a live poker setting, there are countless other ways to tilt your opponents – and it should be obvious when it’s working. Do they hate conversation? Talk their ears off. Are they the salty type? Poke fun at them. You can be as annoying as you want within the rules, but it’s in your best interests to keep things “socially appropriate” for the poker game you’re playing, especially if it’s a home game and you’d like to be invited back. Tilting players online is naturally more difficult; to improve the social experience, we’ve removed the chat box at Ignition Poker, but you can still use those tricky moves like the slowplay and the min-bet to throw your opponents off their game. Just make sure you’re not on tilt yourself when you consider employing these tactics.