A Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Approach to Tilt

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Tilt

If you sought professional counseling with the expressed intent to better control poker tilt, and your therapist’s focus happened to be Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), you would have been exposed to much of the following. CBT argues that our thoughts cause our feelings and behaviors; not external things, like people, situations and events. It’s our interpretations of a happening, or our reactions to an event that make us angry, happy, or sad; not the event itself.

Negative Thoughts Lead to Emotional Reactions

Let’s say one of your common tilt triggers is to get angry when someone sucks out on you twice in 10 hands. You instinctively think to yourself  ”That’s [expletive] unfair; I should have won that pot”, which makes you feel anger or frustration. However when you think about it, it is not the actual turn or river card that made you angry; it is the thought itself, “That’s unfair!” that actually triggered your anger. Before you can feel anger, you must make the interpretation that you’re entitled to get what you want in each situation. It’s an illusion of absolute fairness. You know your hand can’t hold every time, and you also know that is the crux of why the game is profitable. So what if instead you thought something more positive like, “He hit his flush…well it does happen 1 in 5 times.” That’s a neutral, matter of fact statement. You saw and interpreted the result for what it was, without attaching distortions to the event or thinking that the event was unfair. You’re much more likely in this case to move on to the next hand.

You can train yourself to think more rational. You can also train yourself to identify negative thoughts when they pop to the forefront of your mind. In doing so, you can choose to 1) ignore them or 2) dispute their validity. You are not limited to your automatic initial thoughts, you can choose to relate or not relate to thoughts in a variety of ways. People get mad when they don’t get their way. Perhaps all anger boils down to this: unmet expectations. Poker players generally expect one thing when they sit down to play, that is, to WIN!!! They expect to win every session, every day, every week, etc. This thinking is obviously irrational. This is not the inherent nature of poker.


This is my mantra in regard to online no-limit hold ‘em. I like to remind myself of this before every session and have it written on a 3×5 notecard. You just can’t predict how a session will go. Every session is different. A couple things you can control though are 1) your decision making and 2) your emotions. Don’t expect to control other players; you might influence their play, but they’re going to do plenty of things you don’t want them to do. Also, don’t expect to 1) make perfect decisions, because this is impossible and don’t expect to 2) never get upset, because this is also impossible. However You CAN make playing well your #1 priority.

I won’t go into detail in regards to variance here. If you’ve played much online, you know that losing four buy-ins in twenty minutes can easily happen even if you play perfectly. What your reaction is to such an occurrence is what’s important. Quitting is perfectly acceptable and probably recommended for 90%+ of players. However, I contend that it’s possible for nearly all to develop a capability/skill that allows them to maintain the proper mindset/perspective to carry-on even in the face of such adversity. You CAN learn to let anger pass and refocus in quick time spans. I’ve done it myself. I repeat phrases in my head like, “relax…take it easy,” as I breathe deep and slowly, in and out. I refocus myself on the present in an attempt to let the past go. If that fails after a minute or so, I click “sit out” on all tables and take a break until I’m over it.

There might be countless happenings that instigate tilt during a session. Some of my regular tilt triggers are: my own bad decisions, opponents who min check-raise my cbets, neck/shoulder pain, noise distractions, and even the room temperature. People react differently to various happenings. Some of you might be surprised to see environmental concerns listed here. I struggle to maintain composure if I notice myself sweating, even a little, while playing. However, I’ve seen soooooo many players tilt after getting sucked out on by a fish, and I just can’t understand why. If I lose a hand to a fishy/whale type, say a 50/5, I almost never tilt. I like to keep them happy and almost always will “sincerely” congratulate them. I love fish and get along happily with them.

It’s important to identify exactly what regularly spurs your automatic negative thoughts, but more important is to clearly identify these thoughts, because they are the root cause of your tilt. Your automatic negative thoughts will fall into categories of cognitive distortions*. There are several cognitive distortions I’ve found directly applicable to poker:

  1. Should/must statements- ex. “I was robbed in that hand” (thinking you should have won)
  2. Labeling- ex. “This sucks” (you label the hand, session, or online poker altogether as something bad)
  3. All or nothing thinking- ex. “I’m terrible” (you make a couple bad decisions in a session and hereby discount all the good decisions you’ve made over your career)
  4. Overgeneralization- ex. “Of course, he raises my cbet” (you act as if your cbet gets raised “all the time”)
  5. Mental Filter- ex. “I’m playing like crap” (perhaps you made one bad decision, and so you focus solely on that decision, filtering out the many others that were solid)
  6. Magnification/minimization- ex. “This guy owns my soul” (you magnify your fear and minimize your strengths)
  7. Emotional reasoning- ex. “I don’t feel like playing” (how can you really know until you start playing? Often motivation follows action, it’s just an emotion that we can overcome)

I used to write out these negative thoughts while I played. I was astounded at how often they crept into my thought process. I filled an entire notebook within a month. For me, should/must statements and labeling were ever-present. After a session, I’d go over the thoughts and write out a rational response to each. In response to “This sucks,” I would write something like, “Actually, online poker has been very good to me. It’s allowed me much more freedom than another job would”. That’s the basic process. The more you can identify your negative automatic thoughts, seeing them as distortions, and then either 1) ignore them or 2) rationally reply to them, the better equipped you will be to move on to the next hand and thus tilt less.

Meditation Helps Tremendously

In meditation, recognize a thought when it arises, register its content and determine the strength of its hold and accuracy; then come back to breathing, in order to strengthen mindfulness. Some other things to keep in mind that may help:

  • Evaluate your work based on the process, not the product. In other words, try not to be results oriented. In the long run the time you put in studying, hand reviewing, and playing in any given month is much more valuable than the money you made.
  • Treat yourself as you would a loved one; respect self even in failure. In order to move on to the next hand, you must be capable of forgiving mistakes. If u goof up: recognition, learning, change. Yes, but in order to learn from your mistake, you must also be able to forgive yourself of that mistake and let go, not beat yourself up over it.
  • People act “fairly” according to their own set of standards and frame of reference, which differs from yours. This is a good thing in poker. Do you really want everyone to play the same as you? I know I don’t. When someone acts “out of line” or does something that “makes no sense,” take a note and drive on. Don’t let it upset you. You get information from it; it’s a good thing.
  • You can bear the “unbearable” and tolerate temporary discomfort. When you look at the big picture your life as a poker player isn’t so bad. The stuff that makes you tilt is petty. You can work through this temporary emotional reaction. Next time you’re on tilt go outside and look straight up at the stars in the night sky . Realize in that moment just how absolutely minuscule that losing session was; not just in the frame of your life, but in the eye of the universe. It couldn’t even be considered a blink of an eye.

*Cognitive distortions are exaggerated and irrational thoughts identified in cognitive therapy and its variants, which in theory perpetuate certain psychological disorders.

References: Two books I used heavily in my CBT approach towards tilt were “Feeling Good” by Burns and “Full Catastrophe Living” by Kabat-Zinn.

This article was re-posted (with consent) from 2+2 member negtv capability’s 1000th post

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