Greetings citizens of the world,
It’s become something of a routine that whenever I post a new blog post, I apologize for not rolling them out often enough. This time, I’ll save you the jig.
You’ll notice I have a new site! Basically, the formatting on Blogspot really sucks and the interface is pretty clunky, so I decided to migrate my blog over to WordPress instead. Right now it’s a little rough, and I’ll clean it up later, but I’ve been told that having a central site will come in down later on down the road if I want to publish a book. So, if you have any advice regarding the site, do let me know. I’ll be adding stuff as time goes on, but update your bookmarks if you haven’t already. :)
This next chapter took me a long time before I got it to be satisfactory, but it has been informed by a lot of my experiences in mental coaching. If you have any tilt issues, or are simply interested in the questions of how emotions, such as fear, anger, and excitement relate to poker, I think you’ll find this chapter really fascinating. It’s the longest chapter yet, but there’s a lot of good stuff in here.
Again, if you are interested in mental coaching, or want to contact me for whatever reason, I’m reachable at email@example.com. I’ve been getting some questions about mental coaching (that is, asking what exactly it is), so I may make a short post later explaining the in’s and out’s. [update: all about coaching] But, enough from me. Here’s… well, me. But better me.
Let us return to our original question: what is the relationship between emotion and rationality? We saw in the last chapter that even when we attempt to be rational, our cognitive apparatus often fails us, because aspects of it are inherently irrational. The nemesis of rationality is irrationality, not emotion. So what role does emotion play?
We can understand the role of emotion by examining the limits of rationality in more detail. What precisely does it mean to be rational? Consider this within a wider context than poker.
Ideally, we can say that rationality is a kind of optimization. It is acting in order to maximize desirable results. Note the goal in this definition—“desirable results.” How do we rationally determine which results are desirable and which are not? A result being “desirable” implies that it’s a result we want. But why should we want it?
The famous dictum goes “no is implies an ought.” In other words, facts can ever lead to an imperative. You cannot use rationality to determine your path until you know what you want. The only way that we can say someone ought to do something is by having preexistent, axiomatic values; and values can never be derived a priori, by facts, or by “rationality.” Rationality is an optimization algorithm—but it must have as an input the value you want to optimize for.
This means that rationality and emotion are intertwined. If you have no emotions—that is, if there’s nothing that you inherently value more than something else, then there is nothing to optimize for. Emotion is the seed for rationality. Imagine, for a moment, an extremely intelligent AI that exists purely within a computer, but is not programmed to value anything in particular. Would it try to cure cancer? Compose art? Master a game of cards? If one does not possess values, rationality is like a hammer in a house with no nails.
So what is it that we value? In moral reasoning, the value optimized for is moral equity. In cooking, the value optimized for is taste. And in poker, the value optimized for is money. Or is it?
There is a long-standing idea in poker that poker players are supposed to be “emotionless,” and care only about money. Though it’s not immediately obvious, there are more things than money that are of value in poker. We brushed against this idea earlier when we discussed tilt and the notion of giving tilters what they want. The reality is that poker player cares about many more things than money. Poker players are enticed into making monetarily suboptimal decisions all the time! Consider just a few of the values that they sometimes pursue instead: lowering variance; reducing anxiety by playing lower or game selecting tighter; having fun or avoiding boredom; experiencing excitement; bolstering their egos; feeling better than their opponents; feeling like they are is improving or learning; feeling a sense of community; feeling cool; teaching others; getting even; venting anger; sleeping well; having a balanced lifestyle (electing not to play in certain +EV games). The list goes on.
As poker players, we make these sorts of tradeoffs routinely. Though we probably don’t think of them in such terms, in their rawest form, that’s what they are. You should not dismiss these as betrayals against rationality. In fact, it’s better to think of these behaviors as indicators of your values.
In other words, if you choose to quit a profitable match because it’s boring, or choose to play a more aggressive style because it’s more fun and interesting, or even if you choose to play for 8 hours straight to try to get even, you should not think of those choices as working against your ultimate value of making as much money as possible. What these choices indicate is that you have other values in play that you are working toward, and that you are paying for in $EV. Now, you may not be fulfilling those values rationally (i.e., in a fully optimal way), but that’s a separate matter.
You might object, “but when I’m playing a marathon session to get even, I don’t actually value getting even, I just want to get even in that moment. It’s different.” This is true, and gets at an important insight, which is that not all values are equal. We clearly value money in a different way than we value something like getting even. This distinction is known as orders of desire. The things that you want at any moment are first-order desires. But the things that you want to want, or the values that you wish you upheld are your second-order desires. For example, if you’re trying to quit smoking, then your first-order desire might be to smoke a cigarette and to alleviate your cravings, but your second-order desire (what you want to want) might be to not want to smoke that cigarette, and thus you try to push through your withdrawal symptoms, so that you can eventually not want to smoke cigarettes anymore.
You might then argue that getting even during a session is a first-order desire, but maximizing money in the long run is a second-order desire. Generally, at any given time, there may be a discrepancy between our first-order desires and our second-order desires. Thus, one of our major second order desires is to align our first-order desires with our second-order desires. And this is the impulse that leads us to scorn ourselves when, in a moment of “passion,” we tilt, play above our rolls, or such.
This is a valid insight. It goes without saying that you should try to adapt your current self to your ideal self. But problems arise because many poker players mistakenly believe that money is their sole second-order desire. They believe that money is the only thing that they should want. But since money is not an end in itself, this is ludicrous. Money is only valuable insofar as it leads to happiness. Instead, happiness should be the second-order desire, with money only as a sub-goal insofar as it can secure happiness. But happiness is also optimized by other means!—such as choosing to play fun matches, not playing marathon sessions, getting good sleep and taking care of one’s body, minimizing variance and stress, or even challenging oneself with difficult opponents. We choose happiness over monetary optimization in many ways. And we are right to do so!
This is what I am driving at. There are certainly some emotions that we should wish to avoid, but neglecting one’s entire emotional life is a profound mistake. Poker takes place within the context of your life—your life! You shouldn’t want to be an emotionless robot—not only because it’s impossible, but because it won’t make you happy.
To completely eschew emotion is, in a fundamental sense, to misunderstand what you’re working toward.
Even if this reasoning seems sound to you, the intuition might persist that there’s a deep opposition between emotion and rationality. You might think, “Sure, I can see your argument, but the next time I sit down for a game of poker, I’m still going to see emotion as the enemy. That’s just how it is.” Let us then look at a second problem with the supposed rift between emotion and rationality.
When we think of emotion as the enemy in poker, really what we mean by “emotion” is something like “emotions that negatively affect good judgment.” It’s obvious that emotion can sometimes interfere with and override rationality. But emotion plays many complex and multifaceted roles in human life, which are not always at odds with or detrimental to rationality. Our emotions are not limited to things like anger, frustration, envy, and the like. Confidence, self-criticism, preference, and elation are all also parts of our emotional substructure, and clearly those things are not detrimental.
Psychology and neuroscience have taught us that emotions are essential even in cognition and decision-making. Consider an experiment known as the Iowa gambling task. In the experimental setup, a subject is presented with four decks, and they either win money or lose money, depending on which card they draw off the top of a deck. It’s a game of pure chance. The catch is that the experiment is set up so that one of the decks is rigged so that it loses more often than the others. The subjects are not told this.
The experiment reveals that before any of the subjects are consciously aware of one of the decks being rigged, or are able to articulate any suspicions, they emotionally respond to the rigged deck. Their hands may shake, or they may have an elevated galvanic skin response when they hover over the bad deck, and they will choose the other ones. This is all pre-conscious, pre-rational. However, if you take subjects with damage to their orbitofrontal cortex, a central part of the limbic (emotional) system, experiments have shown that these subjects will persist in choosing rigged decks, regardless of their results. Until their conscious minds pick up on the fact that the deck is rigged, and sometimes even after their conscious minds do, they have trouble differentiating the deck from the others.
What does this mean? It means that emotion is integral to learning. Essentially, the Iowa gambling task hinges on reward and punishment—bad decks punish you, and good decks reward you. But reward and punishment are not only absorbed by your conscious mind, they are also processed via emotions. This makes sense intuitively—in most forms of punishment, it’s the emotional recoil, not the conscious consideration, which is more powerful. Of course, poker is no exception. If you choose a bad strategy, or consistently make a bad play, one of the chief ways in which you will learn and adjust this behavior is getting punished by losing pots. And your unconscious mind, your emotional system, is constantly being adjusted by this reward and punishment.
Again, imagine a truly emotionless person, a sort of internal zombie. Why would they prefer winning over losing? There would be no reason to. Emotion is a vital part of how we make meaningful decisions, in both simple and complex problems. In our day-to-day lives, when we talk about emotion, we tend to mean only certain ones (and in poker, particularly the negative ones). But the role of emotion in our cognitive life is much more various and complex than that, and we must take it as it is, without simplification.
This is why the idea of being an “emotionless robot” in poker is fundamentally absurd. To not have any emotions would actually impair our ability to learn, to respond to the world, and most importantly, to secure our own well-being. The notion hinges on a misunderstanding of what emotion actually is.
You might interject, “well, what about an abstract poker playing computer program that doesn’t have human emotions, never tilts, and so on? Wouldn’t that be superior to an emotional human?”
I concede, this is correct. An AI that was of equivalent skill to a human being, but without emotional responses, would be a superior poker player. However—we are not faced with that choice. Remember, the game that we’re playing is not some abstract version of poker. The game we are playing is humans playing poker. And in this game, emotion is an indispensable part of our mental apparatus. Emotion simply is part of how we think and learn. We must try to master ourselves, but we must do so within the confines of our mental machinery.
So, yes, let us be as rational as we can. And indeed, let us try to dampen the emotional responses that are to our detriment. But to be a good human poker player, you must also be emotional. You must recoil from losses; you must hurt when someone outsmarts you; you must have a selfish ego that hungers to improve; and you must feel good when you succeed! Without these things, poker would be an empty ritual, a dispassionate procedure, and it would be impossible to muster the energy and desire that it takes to climb up the mountain. You must suffer, you must fantasize, you must be drunk with imagination. The path to mastery requires no less of you.
Understand, then, that emotional responses, such as tilting, are not merely random blips. They do not arise without a reason. After all, not every player tilts in the same way, or has a similar threshold for tilting, or is tilted by the same things. But if we take emotional responses as indications of our underlying values, then we gain insight into how we can reduce tilt and other unwanted behaviors.
Consider emotional responses as ticker tape from the unconscious mind. If you have a persistent issue of quitting games too early when you’re winning, or if you’re liable to tilt when you lose to a player who you think is bad, or if you tend to start splashing around when you’re bored, these are all indicators of underlying values—that is, your first order desires. If you quit games too early, it’s likely that you value the feeling/knowledge of having a winning session; if you tilt against bad players, it’s likely that you value the feeling of superiority over others and feel strong entitlement to winning; and if you splash around when bored, it’s likely that you value excitement and having fun.
Notice I refrain from claiming you “over-value” these things. It’s impossible for anyone to objectively claim that you anyone over-values anything, because values cannot be “decided” rationally. A person merely has values and chooses to uphold them. If you value excitement, and are perfectly happy with that value, who am I to say that you should choose money over excitement? However, if your second-order desire is that you want to prefer to make money over playing exciting matches—that is, you want to change your first-order desires—then at that point, we can try to rectify this mismatch.
Harnessing your emotional capacities, positive and negative, begins with an honest evaluation. You cannot blindly rebel against the emotional reaction, as though the emotion itself is the problem. If you splash around in boring matches, that is only a symptom of an underlying desire. To blame your splashing around would be like blaming a cough, while ignoring the underlying virus. If you value excitement, then first you must admit to yourself that you value it. If you didn’t, then you would simply not splash around to begin with.
Once you acknowledge that you do indeed value some emotion, you can work toward rerouting it through a different outlet, or extinguishing the emotion altogether.
The word can hardly be pronounced without conjuring memories—dented walls, marathon sessions, broken keyboards, and that empty, flattened feeling you get after having donked away half of your bankroll, staring at the ceiling at 5AM, waiting hopelessly for sleep to arrive. Everyone has a story about it, everyone has a scar. It is our common demon. Any poker room will bubble up with advice on how to deal with it. Tilt is one of the most fruitful, and tired topics in poker.
Let’s talk about tilt.
We tackled the subject briefly when we discussed opponent psychology, but now we will take the internal perspective. We will explore how tilt manifests, how to conceptualize it, the various forms it takes, and how to abate it.
We’ll begin with some definitions. Tilt is, simply, when your emotions negatively affect your normal gameplay. Tilt is primarily caused by five things: losing a pot, failing a play, feeling insulted or disrespected, having an atrophied mental state (such as by being tired, hungry, or hung over), or being affected by concurrent life events (such as losing a job, having a fight with your significant other, etc.).
I also stated before that there are two major manifestations of tilt—hot tilt and cold tilt. Hot tilt is the aggressive, angry, try-to-win-it-all-back-right-now type of tilt, which can be emblemized by the blind all-in preflop shove. Cold tilt is more of the resigned, tired, just-let-me-get-aces-one-time type of tilt, which is emblemized by the player who’s been playing for twelve hours straight and is folding to all of your 3-bets. For more discussion on hot tilt vs. cold tilt, see Chapter 3.
We discussed before the “pot of boiling water” metaphor for tilt. Your tilt level is like a pot filled with warm water. As bad (tilting) things happen to you, they each deliver a unit of heat to the pot of water. For a while, the heat won’t affect you, and your internal water will remain stable and calm. But after a certain point—at your boiling point (i.e., your tilt threshold), the water will start to simmer, and as more heat is added, boil more and more violently. This is the nature of tilt.
But like with a pot of water, once you turn off the heat (i.e., step away from the poker game), this does not mean that your tiltedness diminishes to zero. The pot of water will retain some of the heat, which we call accumulated tilt. It is essentially the residual tilt from a downswing, or lots of bad beats, or whatever. Thus, the next time the heat is turned on, it is easier to bring one’s pot to a boil. Accumulated tilt can be naturally resolved by simply letting the pot cool down for a while (i.e., taking a break), but there are also other methods for attacking accumulated tilt, which will be discussed in the subsequent section on downswings.
This serves as an adequate definition of tilt. But this leaves the question—what is going on beneath the surface? Why does tilt happen at all? How does it work?
Let’s start at the level of the brain. If tilt is when our emotions negatively affect our normal gameplay, then we can restate this as our limbic system (part of the unconscious mind, which regulates emotional responses) inhibiting our conscious mind (which is supposed to be regulating our unconscious poker game with theory). When a player goes on monkey tilt, he undergoes a flight or fight response—due to various neurochemical reactions, his unconscious mind, with its impulses, instincts, and reactivity, takes control over his poker decisions. The conscious mind is essentially overridden (and partially shut down to conserve energy).
Recall the distinction we made before between conscious competence and unconscious competence. Essentially what happens when one is tilting is that the conscious mind is getting pushed out of the picture, and therefore the unconscious mind is in full control. The result is that when you tilt, you are performing your unconscious competency, without the self-checking conscious mind looking over your shoulder. In other words, what you do when you tilt is equivalent to your unconsciously mastered game.
Have you ever wondered why people behave differently when they tilt?
Let’s take two players of equivalent skill level, who play the same stakes, but tilt very differently. And let’s say that they both go on monkey tilt (and their level of tiltedness is equivalent). The first player might start 3-betting more aggressively and 4-bet calling off with medium pairs, making more desperate hero calls, all of which he normally doesn’t do. But the second player, despite being of the same skill level—when he goes on tilt, he open shoves ace-rag preflop into four players, and then checkraises a flop with a gutshot, fires turn, and overbet-shoves-river when he misses. He seems much crazier when he tilts.
Clearly, these two players tilt very differently. A naïve interpretation might be that “oh, player 2 is just a monkey.” But let’s be more precise. If we take tilt as an indicator of your unconscious game, what this implies is that when player 1 takes off all of his conscious mental checks, all that he has unconsciously trained himself to be able to do is to elevate his 3-betting frequency, 4-bet/call more, etc. Player 1, in a profound sense, cannot open shove A4o preflop like player 2 can. His unconscious mind won’t let him. He doesn’t even perceive it as a possibility, or a decision to ever make. In other words, player 2 is not “more tilted” than player 1 in order to make “tiltier” plays—it is simply an indication that player 2’s unconscious mind is less restricting of the available poker space. Player 2’s unconscious mind sees open shoving A4o preflop as a possible play, where Player 1’s mind does not.
In a sense, when you tilt, your mental shackles start going off, one by one. Your most unrestricted conception of what is possible in poker begins to come out. But most people, myself included, have too much mental inhibition to ever open shove a hand, no matter how tilted they are. I have monkey tilted many times in my career, but I have never considered open shoving a hand preflop—I have never even been close. This is not because I have not “tilted as bad” as someone else, but simply that my completely unfettered unconscious mind could not even consider doing such a thing—but it nevertheless did all that it was capable of doing. With tilt, some play looser, some 3-bet more, and some make hero shoves. But, at its essence, your unconscious mind will only do things that it believes might work. Chances are, if somebody is open shoving preflop, he unconsciously believes that he might end up winning (and it is likely that if this behavior has not been extinguished, it has been rewarded at some point in the past, which is why his unconscious mind continues to do it)—or, alternatively, if someone is open shoving hands preflop, it is possible that what he actually wants to do is lose (we will discuss the desire to lose and reset your narrative in the subsequent section).
Recall the perspective we’ve been discussing earlier with regards to emotion. Emotional responses always arise for a reason; they are vestiges of the emotional substructure beneath them. To dismiss them as merely random blips is to simply throw away information. There is no such thing as “just tilt.” There is always some underlying value, desire, or belief to which tilt is merely the response. If you want to correct your tilt, you must first understand the underlying emotional structure and incentives.
Here, then, we can see one of the problems for the term “tilt” as it’s commonly used. We have defined tilt as “emotions negatively affecting our gameplay”—but if you think about it, this definition is enormous. We already know that “emotion” runs a large gamut. To compress all of the ways that emotion can affect us into one word, “tilt,” is problematic—two players can both say that they have tilt problems, and yet have almost nothing in common in terms of their particular issues, triggers, or solutions. One player may tilt because he feels like he never gets to win a flip, and the other may tilt because he’s tired, and has been playing too long, and his mother-in-law has been yelling at him. So if you tell me “I lost money because of tilt today,” the inexactness of that word fails to capture nuanced information about why and in what way you tilted.
Poker players are great at discussing strategic mistakes that made them lose—“I was 3-betting too much and trying to win too many pots,” or “I kept calling all his river shoves when he was playing pretty nitty,” but never will you hear a poker player tell someone else “I was tilting because I felt like I deserved to win, so I decided to try to force winning and increase variance by moving up.”
Perhaps this is an understandable development—our hyper-masculine poker culture is discouraging of emotion and vulnerability. This has the effect of stifling emotional self-awareness. Interestingly, poker strategy has evolved tremendously in the last five years, as a result of open, rigorous discourse and exchange of ideas—but emotional skills have not really followed alongside it. This is due in no small part to the implicit taboo of talking openly and vulnerably about one’s own tilt. Though we might be fine admitting to strategic mistakes, we are more likely to laugh off our tilt mistakes—among friends, to joke about our degeneracy, only to sulk over our failings in private.
Emotional skills are developed no differently than strategic skills. And in order to develop them, it takes time, discipline, and most importantly, the acuity to see oneself and one’s mistakes honestly.
So we’ve established that there are many different kinds of tilt, and that it is problematic to group them all under one umbrella. Jared Tendler, in The Mental Game of Poker lists what he thinks are the six main types of tilt: injustice tilt, hate-losing tilt, mistake tilt, entitlement tilt, revenge tilt, and desperation tilt. These are convenient categories, but ultimately, tilt spans a spectrum, and there can be no generalized solution to tilt that will apply to everyone, since everyone has their own specific emotional profile, beliefs, and values.
Thus, there is no generalized answer to the question—“why do people tilt at all?” If we take the perspective that our behaviors arise for good reasons, then what problem in our emotional substructure does tilt solve? You could talk about the conditioning of correct behaviors with their rewards, you could talk about trying to secure positive self-perceptions and egotistical homeostasis, you could talk about rebelling against the structure of injustice in poker, you could talk about trying to attack your opponents to restore your sense of superiority—there are many reasons why people tilt, but we each tilt for our reasons, and in our own ways. There is no single answer that pertains to everyone, and so we must each seek to understand how we ourselves are emotionally constituted.
So let’s say you’re already in a session, and you realize that you’ve begun tilting—what can you do to allay your tilt? Well, as long as I have you here: quit. But, of course, you’re tilting, so perhaps that’s a futile suggestion. The first of the effective techniques for alleviating tilt is breath control. There are literally hundreds of different breath control techniques—which one in particular you choose is unimportant. If you are not familiar with any, I would recommend simply this—when you realize you are on tilt, lean back in your chair to open up your diaphragm and support your lower back. Relax your body as much as you can. Then, close your eyes, and take ten deep, long breaths. As you are taking these breaths, try to internally scan your body. Try to think, “Hmm… let’s look at what sensations I’m feeling. Let’s see what this tilt feels like. Where do I feel it? What does it feel like in my body?” As you are taking these long breaths, try to look objectively at what sensations you’re experiencing internally. The very act of calm examination will defang many of the emotions and sensations. If this moment of mental distance allows you to convince yourself to quit, or even if you sit back in and continue to play, you will feel better, more centered, calm, and self-aware if you engage in this exercise.
There are a number of other things that can help with tilt problems—there are mantras you can recite to yourself, pre-session rituals, taking breaks, visualizing, and so on. The list is endless, and like I said, there is no special ritual that is going to work for everyone.
But ultimately, for most people, tilt is a very difficult issue to correct on one’s own. It’s not impossible, by any means, and most players will naturally improve at it over time—but having seen many, many players who wanted to improve on their own, I have noticed that tilt tends to be the most recalcitrant part of people’s games. When someone is a complete tiltmonkey, it is usually obvious, even for them. And those people, if they hit their bottom or get the wind knocked out of them enough times, will often seek help. They know that they are tiltmonkeys. But for most people, tilt is like a sleeping bear that lives in their mental cave—they never know when it will wake up and bite them again. But because it is usually asleep, most of the time they feel like tilt is not really a significant problem. In a way, most players would be lucky if instead of only tilting in small, intermittent episodes, they tilted continuously, only a little bit, all the time—they would be forced to be more aware of their emotional weaknesses.
Ultimately, if your tilt problems are very serious, and are causing major negative effects on the rest of your life, then I recommend consulting a psychologist or licensed therapist. Although a poker mental coach can help you to understand your motivations, your tilt profile, and help you to work through tilt and develop better habits—it is a short stumble from a tilt problem to a gambling problem. When in doubt, you should consult a licensed professional.
Downswings are inevitable in poker. As successful as you think the greatest players are, part of what makes them great is that they have braved downswings harder and deeper than anyone else. It is a statistical reality that the longer you play poker, the more likely it is you will face a downswing of such titanic proportions.
We are naturally inclined to think of ourselves as poker players in terms of how we are when things are going well, and we are successful. But how you face those downswings is just as big, if not a bigger part, of your true capability as a poker player. How you face your downswings is a vital part of your skill.
I emphasize this, because it’s such a direly important point. Being a great poker player isn’t just about grinding past the downswings and focusing on the upswings and the nice graphs and taking shots and moving up. A huge part of the journey of a poker player is how you brave your downswings. It is gritting your teeth, and taking punishment, again and again, day after day, and holding fast. Being a good player when you’re winning is not enough.
It is always possible that a storm of variance will hit you—a storm so large, so powerful, and so destructive that you will not survive it—so destructive that it will break you. And someday, if you keep playing poker, you will face a downswing bigger, deeper, and longer than you ever thought possible. This is a statistical reality. No amount of playing good, or praying, or good karma will protect you from it. It is only a matter of chance. The question, then, is what is your threshold? How big of a storm are you capable of weathering?
There are scores of players who were fantastically skilled when their ships were sailing out in the open waters of running-good. But they could not handle the storm that hit them, and went broke. It is the oldest story in poker, and though it happens again and again, this story always goes untold, unremembered. Narratives in poker revolve around the successful, the upward spiking graphs and the smooth, continuous winrates. The masses of poker seek these stories out, they selectively inundate themselves with these stories, as though to blanket themselves from the harsher reality.
But this is the way it is. Poker is a fickle mistress.
So let us say this: skill and winrate in poker is not measured merely by how good you are when you are running well, but also by how good you are when you are running poorly. That is simply part of your overall winrate, when abstracted over the long run. So if you look at a sample of your winrate while you’re playing well and running well—that winrate isn’t your true winrate, because it’s skewed positively.
When you are downswinging, you will always play worse. How much worse?—that depends on your emotional skills in being able to brave downswings. So we must ask the more pressing question. What tools do we have to handle our downswings? How can we strengthen those emotional skills?
Imagine your worst downswing. Take a moment and try to remember. Think about the weeks, or months that it dragged on. Losing day after day. Constantly having to lower your sense of progress—you’d lose one day, hoping to recuperate it the next—but you’d only lose more, and more the next day, on and on. The feeling that maybe you weren’t good anymore, that you had been wrong all along, or maybe you lost the skill you once had, or maybe everyone else got better. The feeling that poker was punishing you, a feeling of overwhelming, indiscriminate injustice. But worst of all, the feeling that you were moving backwards. That you were no longer climbing the mountain. That you were beginning a slow and indefinite descent downward, and that things might never turn around.
All of these feelings create a feedback loop. Because you are running bad, you lose confidence, you believe you’re never going to win again, you play worse and tilt more, which all makes it more likely that you’re going to continue to lose. Thus, the cycle self-perpetuates, feeding itself, like a snake eating its own tail. I call this phenomenon Poker Hell. Once you descend into this cycle of losing, tilting, and more losing, how do you ever break out of it? Obviously, one has to run good—but because you’re in Poker Hell, you’re inherently going to play worse, and your winrate is going to be depressed. Thus, you would have to run better than you would otherwise, since any positive variance is tapered due to these negative effects. So the better question is this: how do we climb out of Poker Hell, so we can hit the escape velocity out of our downswings more easily?
To answer that question, let’s pull back and more closely analyze the actual mental processes in downswinging. There are two major types of negative effects caused by downswings: the first type is short-term negative associations, and the second is disruptions in one’s self-narrative.
First, we will look at short-term negative associations. Let’s begin with the obvious. A downswing is a stretch of time over which you are repeatedly given negative feedback, regardless of what you do. Because a downswing is a deviation from perfectly calibrated feedback (that is, rewarding correct behavior and punishing bad behavior), the natural effect is that a downswing is going to miscalibrate your senses. You are going to learn—at least in the short term—certain things that are simply incorrect, but which have been impressed upon you by repeated reinforcement.
For example, a common thing that people learn while they’re downswinging is that “he always has the nuts against me,” or that “I never win with [x] hand or in [y] situation,” or even more obtuse claims like “I never win flips.” Of course, to a non-downswinger, a lot of these claims sound silly. But to the downswinger, these claims are actually the product of his conditioning. He has learned these things by the feedback that poker is giving him, through simple trial and error. And, in a sense, such a thought is not stupid—it is simply what his unconscious mind, which is constantly receiving and integrating information, has learned in the short-term.
Because the unconscious mind adapts quickly to new information and changing dynamics, the player “feels” many things are true that a non-downswinger knows are not true about poker in and of itself. And as you may have experienced, even if his rational mind knows that objectively it’s not true that he never wins flips, he still cannot resist his unconscious premonition. He can’t help but feel like he’s going to lose every flip. It looms over him, and affects his behavior, as well as his emotional responses.
The sorts of behaviors that are engendered by downswings are, for the most part, risk-averse. Downswingers tend to stop making high-variance bluffs, they stop being as creative or experimental, they prefer low risk-reward situations to high ones, and they try to prevent from getting into situations where they can make mistakes.
In animal psychology, there is a similar concept known as “learned helplessness.” If you take an animal and place it on an electrified mat that delivers electric shocks at purely random times, from which the animal cannot escape, the animal essentially undergoes a depression. Once it realizes that there is nothing it can do to change its fate, it hunkers down, stops expending energy, and simply accepts the pain that it’s going to receive. It has learned that it is helpless, and therefore not to expend energy or to take risks.
In a downswing, you experience very much the same thing. Because your unconscious mind has learned that “nothing works,” you stop trying to make plays or take risks, and simply hope to wait it out until the good side of variance arrives. Exerting dominance over your opponent is integral to good poker, but it is the first thing to go out the window in a downswing.
So we understand the problem. What can we do to circumvent this?
To some extent, this phenomenon is intractable. You cannot prevent your unconscious mind from learning from short-term patterns—it is too absorbent for that. The mental distortions that are caused by long fluctuations in variance are thus inevitable, and no functioning human brain can escape them. Downswings and their negative effects are simply part of our lot as poker players. But there are a few things we can do to mitigate these effects.
First, win. This sounds simplistic, but it’s profoundly important. Once you start winning, your unconscious mind will unlearn its distorted negative associations. Of course, that’s the catch-22, isn’t it? If you’re downswinging, you have no control over whether or not you win. But there are a few things you can do to give your winrate an extra nudge forward, re-assert a feeling of control and mastery (which will retrain your unconscious mind to start taking more risks and play more masterfully), and get yourself back to winning.
For one, you can move down—even if you don’t need to for bankroll management. I would recommend even moving way down. If you’re playing $2/$4 and going through a brutal downswing, a week of playing $.50/$1.00 would likely do you a lot of good—it will make it much more likely that you win, feel a sense of control and mastery over your opponents, and thus it will straighten out a lot of your negative mental distortions.
Secondly, you must force yourself to start taking more creative risks, in order to re-sensitize yourself to a wider range of possible behaviors. A downswing is naturally going to clip your wings when it comes to creativity, because your creativity is being consistently punished. Especially when you’re playing lower, since it’ll be easier with smaller amounts of money to make creative plays, forcing yourself to take such risks is going to undo that short-term conditioning.
A third thing you can do is game select harder. Again, this seems obvious, but it also will have the effect of nudging your average winrate higher, as well as your sense of mastery and control over weaker opponents.
The fourth third thing you can do is to try to focus on process rather than results. This is a very important idea in poker, which will be reiterated when we talk about learning. If you force yourself to accept punishment and reinforcement on the basis of playing well and making the right decisions rather than on winning pots, this will lessen your susceptibility to mental distortions by downswings. If you are process-oriented, then even if you’re downswinging, what you will care about is whether you make good plays or not, even if you lose those pots. On the other hand, if you’re results oriented, when you are running bad, you are going to continually accept and process the negative feedback from losing pots, even if you’re making the right plays. If you consider your likelihood of making correct plays as a base degree of variance, and the likelihood of your plays working as a higher degree of variance, then if you’re results-oriented, you’re resigning yourself to accept more variance in your self-reinforcement, meaning you will also have more “mental downswings,” or mental distortions.
Consider an EV graph, in which your winnings and all-in EV lines deviate substantially from each other. Of course, it would be nice if your winnings line were glued to your all-in EV line. Mental feedback works the same way. Your mental feedback has its own winnings vs. all-in EV line, but we would call winnings “results,” which has more variance, and all-in EV “process,” or “making the right plays,” which has less variance. So if you could only make your mind interpret whether or not you made good plays, rather than their results, then you’d greatly dampen the effects of a downswing—though, as I said before, it’s impossible to fully stamp them out.
So those are the short-term effects that we feel from downswings. The second major aspect of how we are affected by downswings is disruptions in self-narrative.
Self-narrative is a very important idea in the psychology of identity. According to some theories of self, the way that we make sense of who we are as individuals is through constructing our personal narratives. That is, even when we change in dramatic ways or undergo shifts in consciousness, what unifies our sense of who we are is the narrative thread that winds through all of our life. We carry this narrative continuously through our memory, changing it bit by bit as time progresses. This is how we make sense of who we are—through the stories we construct about ourselves.
As a poker player, your identity is to some extent tied to your success in poker. Poker is what you do; it might be your calling, your craft, or your passion. So when you succeed at it, you are validated, and when you fail at it you are failing yourself—at least, this is the underlying unconscious emotion for many.
So during a downswing, your self-narrative becomes disrupted. Up until now, poker has been the story of your continuous ascent—you started off with nothing, not knowing even the rules of the game, and now here you are, half-way up the mountain. Not a week of playing poker has gone by without you learning, improving, changing. But a downswing is a reversal in that narrative. In a downswing, suddenly you feel like you are going backwards. Like you are losing progress. Your self-narrative, instead of one of growth and ascent, becomes one of stagnation and degradation.
That self-narrative affects you deeply! It’s not simply what you think about when you passively reflect upon your life. Your self-narrative is what you feel like your life is doing. It’s your sense of tomorrow when lying in bed at night. It’s your internal compass of purpose and growth.
In a downswing, it feels as though you are going downward. Of course, you are, in a literal sense. But for most good players, downswings are aberrations from their true winrates. They should be winning, but that fails to assuage them. They just feel the down-ness of the downswing. This prevents them from an overall feeling of optimism about poker, and more importantly, they lose a sense of personal well-being, of motivation, and so on. This affects their monetary EV, but also much more importantly, affects their happiness.
So how can we defy this effect?
Here, we have to utilize the power of mental frames. A mental frame is a perspective, or interpretation from which to view reality. We’re going to analyze frames in a lot more detail in the following section, but for now we will consider the stereotypical, well-worn example, taking a glass of water: one can see a glass as being half-full or half-empty, depending on how you choose to interpret it. A simple shift in mental frame makes all the difference in how one perceives and feels toward the glass of water.
In the same way, self-narratives, being stories, rely tremendously on mental frames. Generally a downswing is going to create the mental frame of “nothing is going right; I am getting punished when I should be rewarded; I don’t deserve this; I am going downhill; I’m losing money,” and so on. Generally, a downswinger tends to feel entitlement, victimization, and that they are in decline.
But let’s try to reverse these perspectives, solely using mental frames. That is, let us take the exact same set of facts, but interpret and contextualize them differently—more advantageously. Let’s say that instead of thinking “I am getting punished when I should be rewarded”—the entitlement frame—we replace it with “how I brave this downswing defines me as a poker player”—which is instead, a challenge frame. Then instead of “I don’t deserve this,” the victimization frame, we replace it with “everyone has downswings; this one is mine; I knew it was coming eventually, and now it’s simply here”—an acceptance frame. Closely related to the acceptance frame is the progress frame: instead of “I am going downhill,” we think “I am making progress through this downswing.”
I call this last notion the fog of variance. One of the fundamental reasons why downswings are so difficult is because we believe we are the only person getting punished unfairly. No matter what good we do or how well we play, when we’re downswinging, poker seems to punish us and only us. There are two ideas in poker regarding variance—the first, that we create our own graphs, but the second, that we are also victims to variance’s whims. People tend to vacillate between these two ideas, never really choosing one clearly (and probably the truth is somewhere in between). But the most fruitful answer is to fully take on both.
Instead of imagining that poker is a monolithic entity that treats one person fairly and another person unfairly—some murky, mindless god of variance—it is valuable instead to isolate poker for each person. If you are facing a downswing, instead of thinking “that’s not fair that poker chose me to face this downswing,” instead take on the frame that “this downswing was inevitable. This downswing is part of my mountain. Eventually I would have to face a downswing of this exact proportion and length; it happens to be right now.” It is like climbing up a mountain and finding an upcoming portion that is going to be especially tricky and time-consuming. Does a mountaineer curse and say “I don’t deserve this part of the mountain; this is unfair that the mountain did this to me”? Of course not. To a mountaineer, that is simply part of the mountain. It makes no sense to talk about climbing a mountain if you are going to complain about it having difficult parts.
But why does poker feel different? It feels different, because in some part of our mind, we imagine that we don’t have to have downswings. Things could be different. Variance could simply “choose” to be kind to us.
And there is, in fact, some truth to that! But nevertheless, that perspective, that mental frame, is extremely deleterious. We must instead choose the fog of variance frame. We must imagine that, in fact, our graph of variance has already been written for us. There is no moment-to-moment re-deciding, re-shuffling, but instead the variance that is going to hit us is like a mountain that we have already begun to climb. We cannot see the variance that is going to hit us—it is obscured by a layer of fog when we look up. But nevertheless, we must know (or pretend) that it is going to be there, that it is simply part of what it means to play poker, and therefore that we inherently accept it the moment we choose to play.
Then there’s the last frame, the frame of monetary decline—“I’m losing money.” A stubborn downswinger might interject at this point in our discussion, “how could I re-frame that? If I’m losing, I’m losing, that’s just a fact. I can’t delude myself on that point.”
But think for a second how we delineate downswings. If a winning player loses over a week, he’ll announce “I’m having a week-long downswing.” What this really means is that he has defined his local self-narrative as restricted to what’s going on in this week, during which he’s been losing. Thus, he has defined his self-story as starting within the period of this “downswing.” But let’s imagine he’s won the previous three weeks. Why do we accept that he’s having a week-long downswing? Why don’t we say that he’s breaking even over two weeks? Or on a three-week, or four-week upswing? It’s completely arbitrary where we draw the starting point of our current self-narrative. This is true even drawn over a month, or two months, and so on.
So if your lifetime career graph has been going up, and for the last month it has been going down—why are you deciding that you are on a downswing? Why not instead choose to reframe as that for the last four months, you have been winning? Or, hell, that since the beginning of your career, you have been killing it?
So the final and most powerful mental reframe is what I like to call “it’s all one long session.” Because it’s completely arbitrary where we begin or end what we call our downswing (that is, our local self-narratives), we can choose to draw those lines anywhere—then let’s choose at the beginning and ends of our careers. So every session you play, you’re not entering into any new upswings or downswings; there are no special episodes dividing up your experience. You are simply in the same continuous stream with which you began, which is your entire poker career. And so you do not need to take responsibility for individual days, or weeks, or months being bad or good. You do not need to experience all of that as individual episodes in your story. Instead, accept the entire story, from beginning to end, all the time.
It sounds nice, right? But it’s easier said than done. Can you actually identify with your entire poker career? Can you actually sit there after a losing session, and think to yourself “well, my lifetime career has gone pretty well”? Clearly, it’s not easy. But this reframe is a skill that can be learned, given honest and deliberate practice.
In the end, everyone at a poker table is fighting for something. Some are fighting for money, some are fighting for fun, some are fighting for self-respect—there are many motivations that drive a poker table. But what is a person who is on monkey tilt fighting for? What is it that he most wants?
Money? Not really, no. When a tilter is on furious tilt, he is generally in the worst possible position to make money—and many times, he moves up to higher stakes, and plays people against whom he knows he’s not a favorite. Let’s say that there’s an 80% chance that he loses a lot, and a 20% chance that he gets even. If we assume that he knows what he’s doing, and is acting according to his incentives—what is it that he really wants?
What he wants is precisely this. He wants to alter his self-narrative. He wants to escape the story he’s living. Once this player hits his downswing, the entire episode will feel to him like one continuously painful event. On the 20% chance that he gets even on the day, he can escape that pain, obviously—but even on the 80% chance that he loses a great deal of money, he will lose so much that he’s no longer in the same situation monetarily, and therefore will reset his narrative.
Have you ever lost so much money that you felt like you were in a new place? That everything changed? That suddenly, you had to re-take stock of yourself and start over?
This is resetting your narrative. It is pushing so hard through the other side that you feel, perverted as it seems, almost… refreshed. It is forcefully creating a new chapter in your personal narrative. It is, in a strange way, a relief. You no longer have to associate with the decline you were feeling before—everything has started over. It’s like throwing out your old wardrobe, or moving into a new apartment, or making a list of New Year’s resolutions. It’s an arbitrary place that makes you feel like everything’s brand new, and pristine. But here’s the point—no matter how arbitrary and artificial it is on its face, you fully experience that difference! You truly feel released from your story. By monkey tilting in this way, you ensure that you will experience a mental reframe. The only problem is, from a second-order perspective, it’s not a good way to go about doing this, since it sabotages our long-term goals. Rather than sacrifice a lot of money to reset our narrative, we’d much rather try to impose our own mental reframes.
Since mental narratives are how we make sense of ourselves, mental reframes are, essentially, rewritings of our stories. We’ve seen many of these stories that are advantageous to adopt—but how does one adopt a new story? Simple. By telling it over and over again. This is how that narratives function. Why did the ancient Greeks believe in stories of Zeus and Apollo, never having seen any evidence for them? They believed it because of the power of the storytellers themselves. Stories gain their power by being told, again and again. With enough sincere tellings, the story itself becomes more and more convincing, to the point at which one must suspend one’s natural disbelief.
So consider the stories you keep telling yourself. They may not be obvious, but if you turn them over in the light, you will reveal them to yourself. Examine these stories, and consider how you can revise them to better frame your mental life. And therein, with practice, you can rewrite the lived experience of your journey.
We’ve begun to explore the use of frames, but let’s explore the concept in more detail. Frames are enormously powerful tools, and they are essential in mastering our mental life. There are a couple of classic gambling experiments in behavioral economics that shine some light on this phenomenon.
Consider this first experiment. In this setup, a subject starts with no money, and he is told that he has two choices. He can either take a 50/50 gamble between winning $20 or nothing, or he can choose to go home with an assured $10. The EV of these two propositions is the same, of course—and you might correctly guess that the vast majority of subjects choose the assured $10. This seems to suggest that people are mostly risk-averse.
Now, let’s say you switch around some of the variables. Let’s say that instead of starting with no money, the subject begins with $20. Now he has two new choices—he can take a 50/50 gamble to either keep his $20 (+$0) or lose it all (-$20), or he can accept a guaranteed loss of $10, so he’ll have $10 remaining. Which of these do you think most people choose? Turns out, most people choose the former. Most people choose to gamble in this case, to try to keep everything. Perhaps then, in some cases they’re risk-prone.
But if you are an astute observer, you will notice that actually both of these experiments have the exact same outcomes. In both cases, if you take the gamble, you have a 50/50 chance of walking away with either $20 or $0, and if you don’t take the gamble, you’re assured $10. Not only the EVs, but the actual outcomes are equivalent. Yet, in one case most people avoid risk, and in the other case, seek it. Why is this?
We could say simply that people are irrational, but again, this is a dismissal of complexity. We would do better to instead assume that people are responding to actual incentives in their behavior. At its essence, risk aversion means that winning a certain amount won feels less good than losing that same amount feels bad. Consider a poker example: when you choose to forego a slightly +EV flip that is so big it would make you anxious, your decision is not necessarily irrational—you are simply optimizing for your feelings rather than for money. In the same way, these subjects are responding rationally to their incentives—but we might argue that according to their second-order desires, those incentives may be undesirable. In poker, what we ultimately want to do is to reconfigure our first-order desires so that EV takes precedence over feeling, or otherwise, change our feelings so that they better align with EV.
The idea of changing our feelings and our relationship to EV is a very important one, and we will return to it later when we discuss learning and self-conditioning. For now, we will focus specifically on this phenomenon of perceiving wins and losses.
So these aforementioned experiments show the power of framing something as losses or wins, but there’s also a more subtle point to be made. Notice how in each experiment, we gave the subject a different amount of money to start with. Of course, the starting amount is immaterial—the subject’s outcomes will be exactly the same. But if you tell a subject he starts with $20 as opposed to $0, this gives a subject a reference point. Reference points are mental and emotional anchors with which we orient ourselves. By controlling the reference point, we can control the mental frame with which we view an object or a situation.
Even experts can be swayed by reference points. Experiments have shown that when medical professionals were proposed with hypothetical procedures which had a “90% 5-year survival rate”, or “10% chance of death within 5 years,” even though these are functionally the same information, experts reacted to them very differently. The way information is presented very strongly affects how it is processed. The use of framing and adjusting reference points is widespread in advertising and politics, as well as the arts of rhetoric and persuasion. But for our purposes, we must narrow our focus on poker, on money, and on EV decisions.
The former experiments suggest that there are some patterns when it comes to risk-seeking behavior. When people perceive that they are even, or starting from scratch, they are more likely to be risk-averse; but when people think that they are threatened to lose what they already have, and need to protect their winnings, they’re more likely to be risk-prone—they would rather risk a loss than definitely diminish their winnings.
Of course, you know by now that the relationship between risk-aversion and risk-proneness is complex. It depends on the player in question, how tilted they are, whether they are at risk of wiping out their winnings or simply diminishing them, and so on. But the important point is that reference points play a big role in risk preference.
Turn this back on yourself. When do you tend to be risk-averse? When do you tend to be risk-prone? Everybody has triggers to make them more likely to be one or the other. It is important to first understand which situations trigger a shift in your risk behaviors.
It’s likely that when you’re down a lot, you tend to be more risk-prone, and when you’re up you’re more risk-averse. This is fairly common. This is because of attachment to specific reference points over the course of a session, like being “even,” or “up [x] buyins.” For example, if you’re up 2 buyins and are put in the situation to make a large 3 buyin bluff that’s giving you somewhat +EV odds, but will wipe out all of your winnings if called, most people will avoid making that bluff. They will be risk-averse. And yet, if they simply wait 6 hours and start a new session, they will likely be okay with making the bluff. They will become more risk-prone by simply including a 6 hour gap between these two hands.
Notice, then, how “the current session total” functions as an implicit reference point. But as I’ve said before, where we draw the lines starting and ending what is our current session is arbitrary. Some people are really attached to only single sessions, and some are attached to an entire day’s session. What this really means is that one player is picking a new reference point with every session, and the other type of player is keeping the same reference point from his session earlier in the day—he won’t want to wipe out his winnings from earlier in the day. Let’s give a name to these units of time after which we choose new reference points: we will call them periods.
So how can we manipulate reference points and periods to our advantage?
We’ve already seen that the periods after which we choose new reference points are arbitrary. There is no intrinsic reason why we should choose any specific period over any other. But we don’t arrive at our specific period arbitrarily—it arises out of our mental conditioning. Programs like PokerTracker and HoldemManager, daily graphs, Excel sheets, and the simple phenomenon of telling somebody else how much we’re up or down on the day—all of these help to reinforce the idea of the day as being the natural period, and thus suggesting we adopt daily reference points.
But is this advantageous?
Theoretically, there should be an optimal level of risk proneness for each of us, dependent on our bankrolls, our emotional stability, and the types of games we’re playing in. But if our level of risk proneness or risk aversion causes us to make suboptimal plays, then clearly it’s detrimental, and we should try to change it. If you think about it, having reference points tied to your daily session is going to very often cause fluctuations in your level of risk-proneness (since your reference point will continually change) and therefore it will create deviations from the optimal amount, not to mention the emotional swings that it will put you through.
So, instead, let’s try to untangle our local self-narratives from our daily winnings. Let’s stop thinking about how we do on any given day as “what we’re going through.” Try setting your PokerTracker or HoldemManager to show you your weekly results by default, or your monthly results, or your lifetime results even. Imagine what would happen if you broke the paradigm of daily results as how you experience poker.
Again, a new narrative can be imposed over an old one by repeatedly being told in its stead—so tell yourself this story, again and again: how I do today doesn’t matter. There’s nothing special about today. It’s all one long session! If I end up down on the day, or up on the day, that doesn’t matter—what matters is whether my overall bankroll is on its way up or down. It’s all the same thing. It’s all one long session.
Another example of the influence of reference points is in quitting behaviors. There was a telling experiment done on this phenomenon with New York taxicab drivers. In this experiment, they surveyed how many hours the cab drivers worked during busy days, and how many they worked on slow days. Of course, a cab driver’s hourly rate is going to increase substantially on busy days, so it would seem to make sense that they should concentrate their hours on busy days, and slacken on slow days. But this is the exact opposite of what was observed.
What they would do instead is work fewer hours on busy days, and more hours on slow days. Why?
It all has to do with reference points. For the taxi drivers, the average amount of money they made in any given day was their internal reference point. So unconsciously, they were aiming to get about the same amount of money everyday. On busy days, they made a lot of money quickly and took the rest of the day off, and on slow days they worked long hours to try to ensure their usual paycheck. Their reference points were causing them to pursue very suboptimal behaviors, in order to satisfy their reference points.
In poker, you can observe the very same phenomenon. People love to quit when they’re up past a certain threshold, which feels like a “good win,” and they hate quitting when they’re down—some will keep playing indefinitely, until they’re forced to stop. This is the same reason why. Unconsciously, we are actually aiming to win about the same money everyday, and to play about the same amount everyday—when clearly that is not the optimal strategy.
The optimal strategy would be to play as long as we can on the days where we’re winning (not only because we will be on our A game and especially confident, but also because if we’re winning, we’re likely playing bad players, tilted opponents, etc.), and then to quit early on days where we’re losing.
Consider your own mental life. What are your quitting patterns? What amount of winnings feels like “a good enough win” for you, that you’re comfortable quitting on it early? How much of a loss is so small that it doesn’t really feel like a loss, and you can quit essentially even?
We have a constellation of these internal reference points—but ideally, we would want to do away with them altogether, and to act purely disinterestedly in our daily continuity. Our second-order desire is to optimize our winnings in the long run, which means to keep playing through upswings, and to quit early when we’re taking a beating.
Again, the mantra is the same—it’s all one long session. If you’re having a losing session, or a winning session, it doesn’t matter, because it’s all just the tiny little tail end of your lifetime graph. If you can see it that way, and choose only to make choices to continue to play based on the quality of your games, then you will optimize your playing behavior.
The direct consequence of this perspective is that playing marathon sessions to get even makes no sense anymore. What do you mean “get even?” If you’re down 10 buyins in one night, what’s so special about trying to win another 10 buyins tonight? Why not try to win them back tomorrow? Or tomorrow and the day after? The next 10,000 hands will be dealt to you with the same EV regardless of when you pick them up, so what’s so special about this night? Except, of course, that tonight you will be playing worse—implying that the logical answer is to get some sleep, and play again the next day, and the next.
Another powerful mental frame that is a corollary this is the one of winning your hourly. The idea of winning your hourly is simply that you know that you have a certain average hourly rate—perhaps you calculate it to be $100/hr, and let’s say you’re down $1,800 on the night. Well, if you want to play a marathon session to get even, according to this perspective you would say to yourself—well, why? If I play for another hour, I’m only making $100 on average (plus, I’m tilted and tired, so it’s probably less than that). It’s going to take me 18 hours on average to win this money back. Is that really worth it? The answer is usually—probably not.
Inevitably, one of the difficulties with shifting your perspective on these reference points is that it’s impossible not to, on some level, know how you’re doing during any given session. Even if you shut off your tracking program and don’t look at your bankroll—you’re always going to have a good idea of how much you’re up or down, if you’re even minimally observant. So how can you resist not wanting to finish up or down, if you can’t shield yourself from this?
Well, this is the raw challenge. There are no special tricks or shortcuts—one simply has to force oneself to frame reality differently. Once you accept that frames are powerful and vitally important to performance, then you cannot brush aside your responsibility over them, along with the difficulty of controlling them.
It is up to you to master yourself, and to strategically alter these perceptions.
“Ego” can be a dirty word when it comes to poker. It’s obvious that ego drives many poker players, but many people have the underlying feeling that to be driven by ego is somewhat juvenile, or even base.
The truth is, many of the greatest men and women of history were driven by ego—not exclusively, of course, but the desire for greatness and self-creation is one of the oldest and most powerful drives in human history. Poker players are no exception to this. Money is not nearly as motivating, as aggravating, or as profoundly exciting as the process of self-creation. Ego is important, and we would be remiss if we did not consider its role in the mental life of a poker player.
Now, my intention is not to proselytize on behalf of the ego, or to say that it is “good” to be egotistical. My point is merely that ego drives an enormous amount of the work and energy that great players pour into honing their games. We should acknowledge the existence and power of ego—but we should also try to curb it, and indeed, to harness it when we can.
Almost all of the great players I have ever met were driven more by their egos than by money, at least initially. For a long time, I have wondered why that is. When I was coming up in the poker world, playing low stakes, I ran across many people whose only goal was to make a lot of money, to become ballers, to afford an expensive lifestyle, and all the rest. But few of these people ever seemed to make it. Why is that? What is it about ego as a principle that makes it a sustainable motivator?
I suspect that it’s because, in reality, poker is not an easy way to make money. This sounds counterintuitive, because chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re fully sold on the notion that poker is a great way to make money, and you may have even made a decent bit yourself. But in reality, most people don’t make money in poker in the long term. Not only that, but most people end up busting their entire bankroll once, twice, or more before they end up becoming successful. Poker is not easy. And if money is the only thing motivating you, there are numerous points along the average poker career at which point poker will simply not seem like the best option to take when it comes to financial success—for most people, it will make more sense to invest oneself in school, or work, or other endeavors to try to make money.
But maybe it’s even more than that. Why is it, after all, that we don’t see great poker players emerging out of poverty? Why don’t they come out of the slums of China, or India? Why isn’t it that out of the billions of people who truly would need the money, who are most hungry for the money, among whom many must be intelligent, hard-working, steadfast, it simply doesn’t seem to happen? Well, you could argue that this is partly because online poker culture hasn’t disseminated into those areas—but you observe the same thing even in the first world. Online poker players seem to be largely post-adolescents with no dependents, and they don’t emerge out of the lower class.
There’s something about ego that makes it a more powerful driving force than money or success. I cannot claim to know why that is, but it seems to be true. We’ll talk about this notion in more detail when we discuss the life of a poker player.
So maybe you think you are primarily driven by your ego, maybe you think you are not. But ego plays a role in every poker player’s life, and no matter how equanimous or “Zen” you consider yourself to be, ego affects you as it does the rest of us, at least on some level.
When we talk about ego in the context of poker, what we’re referring to is essentially the sense of ourselves as being better than others. We inherently want to be better than other poker players. And when that sense of superiority is challenged, some people react more strongly than others, either emotionally or behaviorally. We would describe these people as having bigger egos.
In psychology, there is an idea known as horizontal vs. vertical skill improvement—the idea being that if you think of skill horizontally, you think about how you’re improving your skill relative to other people in your field, whereas if you think of improvement vertically, you think about how you’re improving relative to where you were yesterday, or last month (generally, it’s said that men think of skills more horizontally and women think more vertically). In a game like track and field, one is free to think of one’s skill development vertically, if one so chooses. You can simply measure your own personal best times, over and over. But in poker, I would argue that you cannot—your success and the value of your skill is contingent on your opponents. Somebody who’s successful in one situation against certain opponents may not be successful against other opponents, and the same level of skill may mean a lot less 6 months down the road. Poker is a more complex and chaotic system in that respect.
So to some extent, thinking of our skill horizontally is inescapable, because it’s tied to the structure of poker. It’s starting to sound like ego is inherent to poker, then. We’ve also noted that it is an extremely strong and sustainable motivator. So what’s the downside of ego?
The downside, of course, comes when one’s ego gets assaulted—primarily by losing. If a poker player has an extremely strong attachment to his ego, he may react violently or aggressively against the possibility of being worse than he thinks he is. He may tilt, have an outburst of anger, or make other unwise decisions when his sense of himself as being better than his opponent has been penetrated.
Not only that, but ego can have the effect of clouding one’s accurate self-evaluation. If you have an unchecked ego, you may think you are better than you really are, which causes you to play in bad matches, not to recognize your own weaknesses, not to quit matches when you’re losing because you’re unwilling to admit it, and thus spew off money in the long run.
So there’s a dark side to ego as well. But my argument here is that ego cannot be done away with. It is too important to the journey of playing poker for us to squelch our egos entirely. Ego, at its best, is a powerful force, though it can become harmful when unregulated.
Let us not try to throw it out, then—but let us temper it. I have always believed that self-awareness is the single most important skill for a poker player to have, and ego plays a big role in that. To be self-aware in this sense is to accurately be able to look at yourself and say, “This is where I am. This is what I’m bad at. This is what I’m good at. This is who beats me. And I could be wrong about this, too.”
When you’re playing a match, the most valuable mental skill one can have is the mental belief that “this guy might be beating me.” No matter how bad he is, or how much you think that he fundamentally misunderstands some important concept, or how badly he played this hand or that, you must ALWAYS be willing to accept that it’s possible that in this match, right now, right here, you have a negative winrate.
Notice how I speak of winrates, and “beating,” rather than “being better than.” It is unfruitful most of the time to talk about “being better than,” except in cases of drastic differences in skill, because poker skill is non-linear. You might have a positive winrate against 3-4 strong regulars at your stakes, but lose to the worst regular—simply because something about him throws you off, and you’re just not adjusting correctly. Don’t think about skill as being linear: not only because it’s not, but also because it creates unnecessary assaults on your sense of self.
Rather than trying to dissolve your ego, subvert it. If you are losing against someone, it’s not necessarily because “you are bad.” It’s simply that your style has a negative winrate against that particular person’s style, and so you need to do your homework and figure it out. But the fact that his style beats yours needn’t be integrated into your ego. It’s not a fact about “you.” It simply is.
One must always be able to acknowledge the possibility that one has a negative winrate at any given time, and to be able to quit a match with grace. And you may even say to yourself afterward, “I don’t know if I was losing or not”—that’s fine. But when you walk away from that game, your ego that is going to be burning, driving you to improve, to figure out what you did wrong, and to amend your mistakes—so that when you return to that person’s table, you will be ready to rise above him.
I concede, the idea persists, even for me, that ego is somehow bad thing. Sure, maybe everybody needs a certain amount of ego when coming up in the game—perhaps without it, nobody would be motivated to get over the initial plateaus of becoming a serious poker player. But once you get there, once you start climbing the mountain, what use is ego? Maybe then it should be extinguished.
Don’t get me wrong—I am no Randian in this matter. I don’t believe that ego is the be-all-end-all, or that selfishness is the highest value men can pursue. But there are two senses of ego that we’re operating with here. One is ego as a motivation, as a driving factor; the second is ego as a personality trait—as narcissism, and self-centeredness. Clearly, the latter is undesirable, and the two are probably correlated. But they are not the same. Ultimately, I do not believe that the desire for greatness, indeed, the desire for self-actualization, can be divorced from ego.
So, yes, let us try to be good to people. Let us be honest, let us be genuine, let us care for others around us. But this does not mean we extinguish our ego—instead, we partake in a different kind of ego. A selfless ego.
To become a great poker player requires inspiration. You must push yourself through darker depths, and into greater choruses of concentration than ordinary people put into just about anything. It is not about money. No poker player becomes great because of money. It is about you, it is about creating yourself—and at the same time, it has nothing to do with you, it is only poker, it is only the climb, only the mountain. Selfish, and selfless at the same time.
So take ego seriously. Be ready to lose to many people, over and over, throughout your career. No matter how successful you’ve been, and no matter how bad you want it, no matter how smart or precocious you are, you are going to lose to people, and that’s fine. But I would say to you—hunger nevertheless. Hunger to be better. Hunger to be the best. Let that boiling desire bubble up in your belly. It is good for you. It is the spring from which you draw your energy. And it will guide you to grow and evolve into the kind of poker player you want to be.
Poker, at its highest level, is an art form. Of course, the traditional notion of art is restricted to things such as painting, music, and the like. Yet, you will occasionally hear people speak of a beautiful baseball swing, or a sublime mathematical proof. In poker, we also speak of beauty, though we sometimes use different words for it—“sick play,” “a soulread,” and so on. What we apprehend as beauty in poker, I would argue, is the masterful demonstration of creativity.
Where does creativity in poker come from? What role does creativity play? And how can we try to be more creative?
In a sense, it’s natural to be creative. Think about it. When you first began playing poker, just about everything you did was creative. You experimented, you made plays you’d never made before, and you were unafraid. It is only over time, as you learned what you shouldn’t do, that your creativity began to be stifled. By the time you become a fully capable and disciplined poker player, you are no longer even aware of just how restricted you are by your conditioning—at that point, you can no longer even see all of the available possibilities. When you are dealt AA preflop, you don’t see limping as a possibility—it has been culled completely from your perception.
Imagine that poker is a wide open field. Your “game” is a set of trails etched on top of this open field, which restricts the space available to you. Imagine them restricted by walls, keeping you inside of their bounds. Instead of simply being able to roam freely, you now only move inside the space you’ve delineated. This is for good reason! You put up these walls to protect yourself from unsafe, –EV plays. The structures become your own self-imposed map, insulating you from the dangers of losing money.
But once you reach a basic level of proficiency, you realize the structure you’ve built is not perfect. Hypothetically, there is some better shape that your trails can take (the shape of a perfect poker game), but your structure doesn’t capture that shape—you suspect it extends out too short in most places, and perhaps too far in a few (it is easy to see when you are overstepping the bounds of safety, but hard to know when you’re understepping).
Creativity arises naturally from the simple process of trial and error, of making plays and learning from their results. And while you are in the process of creating the structure of your game—when you are deciding where to draw your boundaries, it is natural and easy to be creative, to test your limits, and to take risks. That is, in a sense, the easy part.
It is after those parts of your game have hardened—when the cement has been laid so long ago that it is now solid and immovable, that creativity becomes a real challenge. If you perceive limping AA as an unacceptable choice, if you have walled it away, how are you ever going to find out if limping AA is, in fact, the best play?
You might wonder why I’d use such an obtuse example—“of course limping AA is never the best play,” you might say. Ah, but that is precisely the way that errors are perpetuated! You and I both know that open limping AA is never good in a cash game. It is a wall that you and I have both built, and that wall happens to align perfectly with the shape of +EV play. However, you don’t know which of your walls is misaligned with +EV play—it could be a wall that seems just as obvious as the one that dictates you should never limp AA. Since it is a solidified part of your game, it is something that you pass over in silence; it is a tacit assumption, an unasked question.
When you have overstepped your bounds, it is usually obvious. When you are making bluffs that don’t work, or plays that get easily countered, you immediately receive negative feedback, and so you know where you are leaking EV. It is hard not to be aware of such problem spots in your game. But generally, far greater than the spots in which you’re hemorrhaging EV are the spots in which you’re unaware of the EV that you could capture. You don’t receive any negative mental reinforcement for missing out on EV you didn’t even know existed; the only effect of understepping your bounds is a smaller winrate (than it could otherwise be).
In a very important sense, you can’t know where you’re understepping your bounds. This is the state of nature for a poker player. You are missing value, and you don’t know where.
To be creative, then, is to go exploring for that value. And the only way to explore new spaces for value is by pushing past your mental walls.
So how does this manifest in reality? What does it mean to “push past a mental wall”? The transgression of a mental wall manifests in your game as fear. It is the feeling that something isn’t right; it is discomfort. It is the same thing that stops you from overbetting the pot by 2 buyins if I instructed you to do it. It’s not that you’d think to yourself “this is –EV,” although maybe you’d be able to convince yourself of that if you thought about it—but viscerally, the moment you moved the slider all the way to the right and considered clicking, before you ever did any mental math or digested the theory, your body would recoil. It is this physical, psychic wince that I want to focus on.
I call it the pang. The pang is what happens when a potential play scares you. It’s the stone that drops in your gut. It doesn’t matter what you label this feeling—fear, discomfort, whatever. If you have played poker, you know what I’m talking about.
Of course, the pang is tremendously useful. It is what prevents you from making plays you know to be bad! Without the pang, you’d probably go off and do every stupid play that ever occurred to you out of boredom, or curiosity. Using the conscious/unconscious framework we discussed before, the pang is basically the unconscious mind’s method of regulating your play. Where the conscious mind disagrees with you, you will feel stupid—where your unconscious mind disagrees with you, you will feel the pang.
If the pang is what happens when you traverse a mental wall, then to be creative in poker is to push past the pang. To overstep your bounds, you must accept that the pang will come. The pang is merely a signal that your unconscious mind thinks you’re making a mistake—that is, it is the signal that your internal mental walls forbid you from making such a play.
But you know that your internal mental walls are imperfect. Thus, if you want to move toward a perfect game, you must acquaint yourself with the pang. The pang is the mark of creativity. If you are making a genuinely creative play—if you are doing something you’ve never done before, a call you’ve never considered, or a raise that your unconscious mind has trained you against—the pang is the signal that you have come up against a mental wall.
You must want to feel the pang, then. The fear, the pain, the discomfort—it’s the only way to know you’re making progress. You must flirt up against it. You must slam your shoulder into it. And finally, when you are ready, you must step with security over the collapsed walls, and erect new ones. This is the way that poker evolves. There have always been rules that seemed ironclad—the way to play preflop, rules of betsizing and hand selection—one by one, all of those walls were torn down and rebuilt, always a little stronger, always a little farther out.
This is how poker and its players evolve. Just a little farther out each time. Taking one more step. Feeling one more pang.
You probably have some notion of “style” in poker. It’s the notion that stuff that works for one person’s game may not work for another’s. Consider some of the plays that other people do, which you don’t. It’s likely you attribute the absence of these plays to your “style.”
I’m here to tell you—style is a myth.
“Style” is a justification people use for not incorporating new plays into their repertoires. A poker player might say, “oh, that’s not my style. Maybe it works for him, but not for me.” I won’t deny that different game structures will require different plays—that’s absolutely true. However, what I am challenging here is your a priori ability to differentiate them without trying them out.
What would happen if you flatted AA to 3-bets instead of 4-betted it? What would happen if you started minraising everything preflop? Or limping everything? What would happen if you started overbetting every value hand 1.5x on the river? What would happen if you started min-4-betting your opponent’s 3-bets?
If you don’t know—then accept that you don’t know. Try it! Experiment! Style is nothing. Experimentation is everything.
Ram your shoulder against your mental walls! This is the essence of creativity in poker. The greatest poker players I have ever known are the players who are unafraid of taking stupid risks. They are the ones who are suspicious of every wall they have built, until they have proven its sturdiness with their own shoulders. They are ceaselessly curious and transgressive.
Yes, they make stupid plays—and often! But through constant reinvention and innovation, they learn what works, and they don’t take anything for granted that hasn’t been proven through their own experience. They are not impressed with poker dogma. They don’t care that “they were supposed to go broke there,” or “that hand was supposed to be uncallable.” The greatest players are the ones who make uncallable calls, and unfoldable folds—not because they know they are right, but because they want to know.
And, yes! To be such a player, you must sacrifice some EV. You must accept that sometimes you will make terrible plays, you will lose huge pots. You will be unsafe. You will move into the landscape of fear and uncertainty. But it is by pushing through that fear, by groping into that darkness that you will understand how poker truly works. It is through creativity, and through taking risks that one can truly reach out and, for a moment, graze against the raw surface of the structure of poker.
While most poker players commit the mistake of understepping their bounds, there are a few who consistently overstep them (and we are all guilty of it occasionally). This is known as FPS, or fancy play syndrome. As the name suggests, it is the error of trying to make a complex or fancy play where the simple and obvious one would be superior. As far as being a consistent error, FPS is relatively rare.
So what can we say about FPS?
Despite the widespread use of this term, I think the name “fancy play syndrome” is a bit deceptive, because it seems to suggest that being FPS-y is being “excessively creative.” In fact, generally I would contend an FPS-y player has a shortage of creativity.
If you are making a play dubbed as FPS-y, what it really means is that you are attributing to your opponent some kind of thought process that is incongruent with reality. The most common example of this is the suicide bluff—a spot where your opponent puts a huge part of his stack into the pot with a clearly strong hand, and by going back over the top you try to make him fold it, despite giving him good odds on the call, because you think he’ll put you on the absolute nuts.
Now, here’s the problem I have with calling this “creative”: chances are, if somebody is doing a lot of suicide bluffs (and hence is termed an FPSy player), really, he’s not actually doing anything genuinely inventive. He simply has an overall tendency to misattribute other people’s ability to fold huge hands, and that tendency is probably paired with an emotional over-attachment to investment. He’s not making lots of different experimental plays—he’s simply making the same speculative play over and over again, hoping eventually it will work, or that he’ll stumble upon the perfect situation for it.
Creativity, on the other hand, is trying out new stuff. Of course, it takes a certain amount of introspection to realize when what you think is your creativity is really just you justifying a bad play that you often make—but this is part of the challenge.
If you are considered to be an FPS-y player, then I would say the most important two mental frames to keep in mind are “people usually have it,” and “people don’t fold when they have it.” If you keep repeating these two phrases to yourself, you will relax a lot of your excessive and misguided aggression.
But if you are called an FPS-y player because you are genuinely creative, then I would say—keep on. Don’t let the label deter you. As long as you are learning from your experiments, and consistently trying new and challenging things, then wherever you are in your poker career, you are going to evolve. Of course, chances are good that getting a good coach to help temper your experimentation would be a good idea. But if you choose to go it without a coach—simply do your best to learn as much as possible from your experimentation, and not to let failed attempts go to waste.
If, in the midst of small-talk, you ever tell a stranger that you’re a professional poker player, you’ll probably experience a familiar routine. Someone might talk to you about their friend’s sister’s ex-tennis coach who plays poker, or that-one-time-they-were-in-Vegas; they might ask you if you’ve ever been on TV, what your parents think about your career, or if you are really good at math. But the one that always arrests me is when people say, “oh, you must have a really good poker face.”
The “poker face” trope is so widely recognizable in our culture that it has become practically wedded to the game. If you know what poker is, you know what a poker face is. But the poker face represents more than what is commanded in poker. What we call a poker face would be familiar to the Roman stoic philosophers, to Zen samurais, to warriors and mystics and gamblers and thieves throughout all of human history.
The poker face is the mask of emotionlessness, worn over one’s normal face. The poker face is to give away nothing of the trembling emotion that lies behind it. And perhaps eventually, like all masks, it will fuse to the face underneath—perhaps if you stop showing your emotions, you will stop feeling them as well. This is the mystique of the poker face.
The poker face is an inimitable human symbol. It represents rising above our animal selves. The poker face floats somewhere far above the game, detached from the fear, the anger, and the elation that the rest of us mortals seem to feel. It is part of the reason why “poker player” is such a fascinating, almost superhuman vocation to so many.
So when people ask me, “how can I have a better poker face?” I feel like I should have an answer. But what can I say to that?
The truth is, there is no way to have a better poker face—or, that is, no special way. Sure, mental frames help, and there are many little tips and tricks that one can use to mediate tilt and emotional potency and so on. Sure, you can practice in a mirror, visualize stuff, whatever. And yes, you should close your mouth, relax your muscles, stare straight ahead, breathe consciously, and all the rest. But really, these are small things. If you are somebody who has a lot of emotional weaknesses, then these morsels of advice aren’t going to transform you any time soon.
Emotions are the jagged cliff-face of your mind, formed by years and years of erosion by the world. Some players, before they come to poker, have smoothed out their emotional edges, and have good poker faces, whereas others are still jagged and coarse, and seem to show everything. This is simply part of the genetic and environmental lottery. You have no say in it.
But once you have come to poker, the only way to smooth the texture of your mind is by the force of nature. The wind, the water, the passage of time, the thousands of hands beating slowly against you will sand down your emotions. That’s it. So, yes, be conscious, be self-aware—learn how to mentally frame, co-opt environments, and other various techniques to try to ameliorate the effects of tilt and control your countenance—but, in the end, all you can do is wait. Keep playing, keep feeling, and keep hurting. If you stay here long enough, eventually your features, too, will get sanded away. It just takes time. Be patient.
But how can I teach you to be patient?
In the end, this is the only virtue that is fully in your domain. Be calm, let be what will be; but keep coming back. If you are emotionally weak, that’s okay. Be emotionally weak, but keep playing. Keep trying, keep messing up. If you return again tomorrow, and again the next day, then this too shall pass.
You who feels he has no control, you who feels he is hopeless—I speak to you! You have no control whether you will tilt. You may be helpless as to whether you laugh, or curse, or storm away in dejection. But what you do control is whether you come back, and try it again.
Wait it out, my friend. Keep coming back. Because we were all once where you now are.
So we’ve made a pretty thorough examination of emotion, tilt, creativity and fear—but we haven’t yet looked at the actual experience of playing poker. Let’s lift up the hood during a real session and think about what we really experience, and how to regulate ourselves while we are playing poker. Here I will offer some practical and straightforward advice.
A session begins before you ever sit down to play. Before you play your first hand or load up a table, you have already tacitly agreed to two things: that you will play at the time of day you are playing at, and that you will play with the mental state you are in. Those two factors have significant bearing on your expected EV over a session (and you should experiment with each, to see at what time/mental state you tend to play best).
The other aspect of beginning a session is the schedule that you have in place. Consider what activity you have just engaged in before beginning your session. Exercising, eating, stretching, meditation—these all tend to be very positively correlated with a good state of mind and brain chemistry, and are likely to be good times to start playing poker. Consider your daily routine, and how you can optimize it so that your poker sessions are optimally timed (and are followed up by similarly de-stressing activities to cool you down afterward).
Next, consider pre-session rituals. These are things you do immediately before a session begins, to get yourself into the right state of mind. They can include light stretching, breathing exercises, visualization, hand review, repeating a mantra to yourself, reviewing your goals, and similar things. It is not especially important that you do all or any of these things in particular, but I would advise experimenting with each to see what you find particularly effective, and to implement at least one. If you continually use these pre-session rituals before you play, a state of concentration will become a conditioned response (à la classical conditioning), so that even when you are naturally in a distracted state of mind, this ritual will nudge you toward concentration (like Pavlov’s bell nudged his dogs toward salivating).
Now, let’s look at the middle of the session.
Generally speaking, most of your sessions will begin near or on your A game. Being on your A game means a few things: one, that you’re highly conscious and actively using your conscious mind; two, that you’re fairly resilient to tilt, and are staying on your normal game; three, that you’re capable of quitting when the time is right. The latter two are linked to the first, so let’s examine this in detail.
First, what do I mean that we’re using our conscious mind? Recall the distinction between the conscious and unconscious mind that we talked about before. Conscious thought processes are discursive, mediated through language, and tend to be slow. They are also somewhat synonymous with poker-theory analysis.
However, it is a fallacy to think that when you are playing well and are on your A game, that you are only using your conscious mind. Even when you are playing your best, you are always employing your unconscious mind on the majority of plays; your conscious mind is simply too slow and laborious to actually compute all of the hands you get dealt (and to be honest, you would probably find that process excruciatingly boring—imagine having to explain every c-bet or every preflop raise to someone). When your conscious mind is sharp and fully accountable, it is generally doing three things: one, it is processing in the background things like gameflow, reads, and opponent psychology; two, it is “on call,” in case a hand that needs analysis pops up; three, it is keeping tabs on your own mental state, and how the match is going. There are a few little odds and ends that your conscious mind might attend to, but these are the main things. When you are playing your A game, your conscious mind is maintaining this juggling act with finesse.
But what happens when we’re playing our B game, or C game? The conscious mind doesn’t simply get thrown out at this stage. It’s still there; it’s simply more tired, less sharp, and is doing less work—it might slow the juggling down to only three balls, rather than four. Perhaps it doesn’t pay as consistent attention to gameflow and psychological profiles; perhaps it stops checking up on your mental state and lets you play a longer session because you’re down; or, perhaps the threshold for hands that it’s willing to analyze has gone higher. Of course, it’s not as though it won’t analyze any hands—when your unconscious mind doesn’t know how to deal with something, it’s going to hand it off to your conscious mind no matter what, but slightly or somewhat strange hands won’t get double-checked as often, and you’re more likely to simply use your unconscious mind’s intuitive answer to a hand.
And what happens when our game degrades to our D game? At this point, our conscious mind has probably checked out—it’s no longer checking up on our mental states, it’s not trying to model our opponents, and it’s certainly not trying to double-check our hands. Occasionally when we try to feed it a hand that needs solving, which is such a big or strange pot that we can’t figure it out, it will offer us an answer—but chances are, that answer is going to be biased, since our unconscious motivations will bleed over into our discursive thinking: motivations such as wanting to get even, or wanting to avoid risk, or not wanting to be embarrassed. It is no longer easy to quit at this stage. Usually, it is only when our unconscious mind wants to quit that we will be able to, often when we feel so bad that we don’t want to play any longer, or when we have given up hope of getting even.
Notice how there is a continuum here. In poker, we often speak of “going on autopilot,” but there is no single autopilot point, or on-off switch. The sharpness of your conscious mind will wax and wane over a session, and this process tends to be gradual. So instead of speaking in binary terms like “on your game” vs. “autopilot,” we should instead consider this a process of conscious decay; the natural deterioration over a session of your conscious acuity.
As I mentioned before, your conscious mind is also a defense against tilt. But you probably know by now that most people are notoriously bad at detecting when they’re on tilt. You can call it a cognitive bias (though I don’t know of one specifically stated as such): most people tend to think that they’re more immune to tilt than they really are. This includes you and me, no matter how smart or special we think we are. Being on your A game will help tilt-inducing phenomena to affect you less, but it does little to help you recognize once you’ve reached your tilt threshold—it’s a bit of a catch-22, since hitting your tilt threshold is going to make your unconscious mind overpower your conscious mind anyway, preventing you from objectively realizing it. In other words, the point at which our conscious mind will conclude we are on tilt is usually a while after we’ve already reached it.
That doesn’t seem to bode well for us. How can we improve our likelihood of recognizing and avoiding tilt?
First of all, there is a mental frame that comes in handy: if you are a habitual tilter, it is helpful to note to yourself before a session begins, “I might tilt today, and one of my challenges is to stop myself before I tilt; if today is one of the days I will tilt, then if I quit before that, I will have accomplished one of my goals.”
If you think about it, when you’re tilting and your unconscious mind doesn’t want to quit, your unconscious mind has two choices: quitting and feeling bad about your loss, or continuing to play and possibly feeling good by getting even. Again, let us not dismiss this behavior by calling it “irrational,” but instead let us assume that the behavior is rational, but simply responding to a different incentive structure than we’d like. By instituting the frame that quitting before you tilt is an inherently valuable goal that you can feel good about, you are adding more value to the payoff for quitting. You are creating the possibility that quitting feels good, which will make it more likely that your unconscious mind will naturally choose it.
The second way to ameliorate tilt is to use the environmental method (which tends to be stronger). By this method, instead of hoping your conscious mind will catch your tilt, you attempt an external override: essentially, you force yourself to quit after being down a certain number of buyins, or after a certain kind of event (such as being soul-read, if that is a tilt trigger for you). By co-opting an external mechanism to determine when we quit, rather than our internal overseer, we avoid the inevitable lag before the conscious mind admits we’re tilting—but, of course, we must be able to obey the external rules we create. Programs such as Tiltbuster go a long way in helping to enforce stop losses beyond our control. These mechanisms are good—but I would say they should be paired with the former. Although they are good at restraining us when it comes to tilting, they do not address the underlying emotional weakness, and there is a lot of value to be gained, not just in poker, but in life in general, by improving our emotional skills.
To summarize, we have have seen that there are three domains of skill to cultivate in poker. We have already considered theory skills (conscious mind), play skills (unconscious mind), and in this section we have examined emotional skills (which draw upon both our conscious and unconscious mind). In the next chapter, we will go into more detail into how to best cultivate these skills—that is, we will explore the unexpected and complex processes of learning.
[For further reading into tilt and emotional self-regulation, I strongly recommend Jared Tendler’s The Mental Game of Poker, as well as Tommy Angelo’s Elements of Poker, and Larry Philips’ Zen and the Art of Poker, which have informed much of my thinking on tilt and its antidotes.]
Thanks for reading, and be sure to leave a comment if you have any questions or criticisms. :)
[Note: this is from the rough draft of my first book, How to Be a Poker Player: The Philosophy of Poker. If you like what you read, consider buying the completed book—it’s tightly edited and contains new material! Hope you enjoyed. :) ]