Friday, October 19, 2012

Tilt at the Micro Stakes

Tilt at the Micro Stakes
The 8 million pound elephant in the room when it comes to poker, and especially with less experienced players at the micros, is tilt. It's something that everybody talks about and suffers the effects of to some degree, but hardly anybody really knows how to go about dealing with it in a truly effective way.

I have worked with over 50 people now in the year and a bit since I started coaching. I get every student of mine to fill out a short questionnaire before we get started and one of the questions that I ask is "list your weaknesses as a poker player." After briefly skimming over the answers to that specific question from all past students I would estimate that about 90% of them listed tilt as a weakness. And not just any weakness. Almost invariably they listed it first before anything else!

Now I am not a psychologist. I can teach the technical side of the game and when I work with people "what to do with AK in this spot" type discussions comprise the vast majority of our time. I wrote a 251 page book on the micros but there is a reason that only 6 pages at the very end actually focus specifically on how to combat tilt. I haven't made a single DragTheBar video focused solely on this subject and have scarcely discussed it in detail on this blog.

Tilt is just such a difficult subject to approach. And that is reflected in the amount of literature, training videos, and forum talk on it. So it's not just me. But managing tilt is at least have the battle in this game! In fact it is closer to 100% for many people especially at the micros. So I am going to try and talk about it in a bit more detail over the next little while starting with this article.

Everybody Tilts and Everybody Runs Worse Than Everybody Else

The truth is that nobody is tilt-free in poker. As long you are human you are going to tilt. So the main issue here is controlling the extent to which you tilt. And that is where there is a wide gap between the winners, breakeven players and losers in this game. I have tilted off god knows how many thousands of dollars in my poker career.

I would like to have that money back but my emotions at the time chose to give it away instead. Poker is a game that will drive anybody mad at certain times. Just give it some more time if you haven't seen it yet or even if you think you have. Here is an example of a very experienced, solid winning player going through a 3 month soulcrushing downswing right now at NL50 and NL25. Fun stuff!

I get emails all the time from people complaining about all the bad beats and coolers that they get and that if it would just stop they could finally become the winning player that they know they are. They tell me that they must be the unluckiest person in the history of the game. And they ask me if I have ever heard of a run of cards this bad before.

No, in the 6 million+ hands that I have played it has all been roses and daisies! I have received so many of these types of emails now that I actually just created a canned reply, "bad beats happen, coolers happen, the best players rise above them blah blah blah" so I don't end up wasting so much time responding to them anymore.

I am always reminded of one of my favorite poker quotes of all time from an extremely old post by "Irieguy" on 2+2.
"Everybody will eventually run worse than they thought was possible. The difference between a winner and a loser is that the latter thinks they do not deserve it." 
For the vast majority of newer players who think they run bad one or both of the following two statements is very likely to be true:
  • You haven't run nearly as bad as you think
  • Even if you have, you ain't seen nothing yet!

Predict the Future

The thing is, you just have to accept variance at some point. When you start taking this game seriously you need to look at it as if you signed a contract. You are in it for the long haul. And the long haul in theory is whatever amount of time you continue to play this game for. For many that will be years, decades or even a lifetime. The long term is actually over at that point, not before it.

If you play a reasonable amount of volume you know full well that you are going to get horrifically bad beat and coolered every single day. Back when I used to grind like a maniac I would actually prepare myself mentally for sessions by simply quantifying this. I would assure myself that today I will run KK into AA 3 or 4 times.

I will get stacked by two outers a similar amount of times and fish will nail their flush or straight draws on me at least half a dozen times. Also I will stupidly pay off a nit or two which actually tilts me more than anything!

All of these things are going to happen. Predict the future. You will be right! So why get mad about it when it happens? You knew it was going to happen right?

All Sounds Easy in Theory

Yup, sure does. It is easy in theory but nobody executes it perfectly in real time. I can say all these things to myself before my session begins and even foresee it all. Nostradamusaments. But I still tilt to some degree and throw away some money nearly every time that I play. It is just not possible to not get mad at least a little bit.

But I would say that I have had my tilt under control for the most part for quite some time now. When I tilt, it is more like mini tilt. A bad call here or there. I might play a few more hands than I should, 3bet a little bit more, make a silly 4bet bluff from time to time and double barrel in some bad spots.

In essence I make small mistakes here and there but am able to prevent myself from making the crippling mistakes that hold so many back. Barreling off stacks on wild bluffs is not something that I do. Making desperate hero calls in big pots with marginal hands is really rare. Open shoving, nope. Jumping stakes, definitely no.

Quitting for the day, shutting the computer off and going to do something completely different when I know that I am just banging my head against a wall...yes, most of the time. But I am pretty stubborn as well so sometimes I will just power through 10k hands playing my C+ game trying to break it as well. Usually to no avail but the key thing is that my D, E or F games never see the light of day no matter how tilted I am. I am always at least marginally +EV.

Some Keys to Reducing the Impact of Tilt

Confidence in Your Abilities

Firstly, I know that I am a winning player because I have clear evidence of my success. And let me preface that some more. I know that I am a winning player in the games that I play in which are the micros NL2-NL50, nothing else. I have overwhelming evidence based on millions of hands to support this. So no matter how bad it goes in the short term, I know that I will show a profit in the long run. This creates confidence, the most powerful force on earth in my opinion, no matter what the endeavor.

What if you don't know if you are a winning player though? What if you just started a few months or even a year ago, are a fairly low volume player and your results are no better than breakeven or worse? Well this is a problem of course, a big one in fact. I think this is something that only you can know based off of your experience playing the game.

Do you honestly feel like you are a winner in that game? And don't bullshit yourself by chalking it all up to bad beats. Are you actually a winner in that game? Unfortunately the only way to find out for sure is to put in the hands. I would suggest 100k at a bare minimum. They don't all have to be at the same limit though.

Trust the Process

Secondly, and as a result of the previous point, I trust the process. I know that the fundamentals that I have developed over the years and the tweaks that I continue to make to my game both at the tables and away from them simply work. When a fish sucks out on me I think about how I made money on that play even though I lost in this specific case.

I know that mathematically he is giving me money if we run this exact same scenario 10, 50 or 100 times. And the great thing about the long term in poker is that you get to do exactly that! And maybe not against that specific player but against the collective multitude of bad players, you will. I will have a lot more to say about this next time when I discuss not putting a face to your opponents.

Math (even though I am not very good at it) is a beautiful thing. I remember sitting through philosophy lectures in college and the prof would be rattling on about how 2+2 always equals 4 in any conceivable universe. It is an a priori truth.

That is, it is true regardless of any physical factors. And so it is the same with math as it relates to poker. If the guy got it in bad versus you and happened to win this time so what? No amount of voodoo or wishful thinking can change the fact that he is simply giving you money over the long run. That is the reality of the situation.


A lot of people say that having a big bankroll is key to fighting tilt as well. I am not sure that it matters as much as it used to though. I think proper bankroll management is kind of a given these days. I think at the micros downswings by winning players (6max or FR) above 30 buyins are pretty rare. Most people who play for a living or are serious side income grinders all have more than this and get pumped up by rakeback anyways so it is not that big of an issue. If you have been living under a rock or think that 5 buyins represents a solid bankroll strategy then this will apply to you though.

Rigged? Lifestyle Choices and State of Mind?

Obviously everything that I have discussed above assumes that you are past rigtard theories. Also, I don't really want to discuss lifestyle choices and state of mind when playing either because I have also discussed all of that before. Online poker is not rigged and you should never play drunk, tired, angry etc. Eating right and regular exercise will also go a long way.

I think most professionals and serious side income grinders know this kind of stuff these days. You can't just show up and expect to crush anymore. If you want to have success and make good money at online poker then you have to have a solid commitment to it both away from and at the tables.

Next time I am going to discuss some of the key factors that can lead to tilt such as personal entitlement and ego especially as it relates to your opponents. But for now I just wanted to lay the groundwork for how we should approach tilt in general. First, recognize that it is a problem that everybody faces and a massive one at that. You are not alone. Second, having confidence in your own abilities and trusting the long term process that poker is will be paramount in any tilt reduction strategy.

Over to You

What kinds of strategies do you use to keep yourself in a positive state of mind and reduce your tilt? How big of a factor do you think tilt plays in your game? If you enjoyed this article please "Like" or "Tweet" it below!

Tilt at the Micro Stakes


  1. As a very new player (less than 5k hands played) tilt is a serious threat. At the very beginning, I was constantly gambling whenever a face showed up on a card. Then I'd tilt hard because I thought "I had good cards!"

    What helped me most was reading your book to actually understand the odds and adopting the long view. Now when I get beat I can rationalize my position with the exact arguments you described above.

    One of my greatest weaknesses as a new player is simply not being good yet. I'm still making plenty of rookie mistakes. But now that I've equipped myself with some knowledge and am starting to build actual skills, I take great satisfaction in knowing that my mistakes are quickly becoming less expensive.

    Now when I screw up, I can say to myself "That one only cost me a few BB. That lesson was a bargain!"

    Of course I still make big mistakes or get beats that put me on tilt. What's working for me at the moment is to take a break from grinding and go play a low stakes sit 'n go 50/50. I go into it knowing I'm spending a couple bucks to blow off some steam. But I usually end up top 5 and save my buy-in or even make a couple dollars. I can play a LAG style, which I find is my natural tendency at this point in time and takes less mental energy.

    If I'm still tilting after one or two sit 'n goes I'll shut it down and go do something else. But if I feel like I'm ok, I'll go back to the cash tables and focus back in on developing my TAG persona.

  2. i like the part about the confidence. a lot of the time when i'm going through a downswing its not as hard because i have the confidence in my abilities. also i just knew you we're talking about rosh when you brought up the 3 month downswing

  3. Hey Scott,

    Sounds like you are on the right track. We all started as total fish. I like your idea about playing a totally different game. This is something that I should have included in the article. It is something that I do a lot of too. If cash is killing me I will load up a bunch of those 180 man SnG's on Stars and try and hit the lotto.


    Ya I find that confidence is so key in this game. I know that I play a million times better when I have high confidence. It's like I can just see the game so much more clearly. When in a downswing and my confidence is low every decision can seem confusing.

  4. Poker is dead bro! Cold 4betting, double floating oop to steal on a river scare card at 5NL!!

    You should stop hyping this scam (because poker is now a scam) and start telling people the truth. They will never be the next Ivey, they will probably never make a cent playing poker, and they will waste a whole crapload of money, time, and effort trying to do so.

    And before you say that poker is plenty beatable, maybe it is beatable if you want to devote 10000 hours to learning and getting good at the game, not to mention countless hours and effort fixing tilt and emotional issues that this stupid frickin game brings out in people.

    I got a better idea..MOVE ON. I know it's hard, especially when you see the 1 or 2 out of 1000 people that run so hot that they are crushing mid and high stakes, but the fact is these people are just outliers and their game is probably not significantly better than most people who beat 100NL. They just run hot.

    Tell the truth! Poker is a game of so much luck that you have to run good to win, which means that skill is largely overestimated and overemphasized, and people who work for training sites are the biggest culprit in spreading this hype! Of course they do because they want your monthly payments!!!!

    GL..u know what I'm saying is 100% true, so grab some integrity from the shelf and hop on board the truth train!

  5. Hi Sisyphus,

    I appreciate your comments but I disagree with pretty much everything you say. And your comments (I think directed at me?) that I am hyping a "scam" as you call it are beyond silly. I am about as blunt and straight forward as can be on a regular basis concerning game quality. I often speak about how the games have changed a lot and that it requires a lot of skill, dedication and emotional control to be successful these days even at quite low stakes. I know this first hand because I have been playing online poker for 7 years and have seen the transformation.

    But to write it all off as some impossible venture now that only a handful of lucky people beat is just nonsense. I know tons of people personally who make a good living playing online poker and I still do fine myself. Poker is a game that will always have a pecking order no matter how hard the games are perceived to be and a certain amount of people will have success. A certain amount of people will lose as well. This is the way that it will always be.

    To add further to the absurdity of your claims is that everyone has the same goals in playing poker "to be the next Ivey" as you call it. The reality is far different. Some people, many people in fact, just enjoy playing the game as an end in itself. Sure, winning is high on nearly everyone's list but to say that it is the only goal for most people is just false and shows that you are vastly out of touch with the regular poker player.

    It sounds like you haven't had the success that you would have hoped for in online poker. I am sorry to hear that. But to write it off for everyone else is just ridiculous. And to blame the training industry is equally as absurd. All these people are doing is creating a product which people clearly want by providing information that would have gotten out there somehow anyways. It sounds like moving on might be the best thing for you personally and I wish you all the best in where life takes you

  6. Hi Nathan.

    I'm a huge fan of your work and have read pretty much everything you've ever written. I, do, have a question. When you say you're on a downswing, are you actually losing money or are you making money but just not as much as you expect?

    1. Hey Daniel, glad my posts help you! By downswing I do mean losing money pre-rakeback.