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A Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Approach to Tilt

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

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.

EXPECT CRAZINESS!!!

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

Stop Loss Strategy

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

In general, there is no telling how any individual session will go, how good or bad you will run, or how juicy the games will be. Therefore your poker playing environment must be very flexible in order to compensate for all the different variables that can impact any given session. With that said, we all have a threshold where our play will significantly drop off if we choose to push past it. That is where a Stop Loss strategy comes into play, in conjunction with Tilt Breaker’s Stop Loss software to back it up. We tend to use “Stop Loss” as an all encompassing term, but in actuality there are several different types of values that fall under the Stop Loss umbrella. These Stop Loss values can be used for specific poker scenarios:

Tilt Control – Stop Loss $

A $ Stop Loss should be set to your personal threshold of pain. The number that makes your stomach turn at the thought of losing it. A number that, if lost, guarantees you most certainly are no longer playing your “A” game and will be mentally impacted by the loss. This type of Stop Loss will prevent those monster losing sessions that can devastate a bankroll. This strategy will still allow for enough flexibility to stay in a good game when running poorly, so as not to miss a good spot, while still ensuring you don’t go on monkey tilt and blow countless hours of hard work when you are mentally impaired.

Taking a Shot – Stop Loss $

Once you get your bankroll up to the point where you have a significant amount of buy-ins for a certain stake, it’s time to take a calculated shot at a higher stake. Good players take shots with proper bankroll management, giving them a low risk of ruin, because their bankrolls are able to sustain a decent loss; even at a higher stake than normal. The key though is to make sure that that decent sized loss doesn’t turn into a nightmare loss, so ideally you would set a $ Stop Loss for the shot. The problem however, as with so much in poker, lies within the discipline to stick to the plan. If there were ever a time to make sure you stick to a Stop Loss, it would be when you are taking a shot. A calculated stop loss with Tilt Breaker at your side is an excellent way to approach shot taking, and ensuring you stick to your original plan and don’t cripple your roll.

The Working Man – Stop Time Played

As a recreational to semi pro player, it is hard to quit a game when you are suppose to, because you never get to put in as much time on the felt as you would like. Unfortunately, the poker/real work balance will fall out of place if you continue to do so, impacting sleep and real work schedules. For casual players that have to stick to work and sleep schedules, Tilt Breaker’s Stop Time Played feature is a great way to make sure you quit when you are suppose to quit, so you don’t hate yourself the next morning.

Zombie Daze – Stop Hands Played

You are in the midst of a poker binge , nearing your ten thousandth hand of the session. Your eyes are totally blood shot, you have at least one bottle of your own urine somewhere around you, and you are on the 2nd viewing of your entire DVR. As a pro player with minimal tilt issues and no schedule to abide by, there are times when you just don’t quit; ever. Your winrate is rapidly declining, and you have turned into a button clicking zombie that needs to be put out of its misery. Having a Stop Hands Played value is perfect way to make sure your session eventually rests in peace.

Conversely, this may also be used for the player trying to hit some volume goals. In a volume scenario, it may be helpful to just play until you hit a lockdown value.

Morale Boost and Winner’s Tilt – Stop Win

A Stop Win really doesn’t have a lot of value to the majority of players, because ideally you should be maximizing your winning sessions and limiting your losing ones. However I can come up with two good reasons for a Stop Win. If you have been on a killer downswing that is really negatively affecting you, and booking a win would be a much needed morale booster. That would be practical, and probably a smart move. Any type of positive outcome could get you back on track to playing with confidence, getting back on your “A” game, and eventually playing out of the negative variance. The second good reason for a Stop Win would be if you get cocky and start playing more aggressively, opening wider, and playing more hands after you are up a good amount of buy-ins; otherwise known as Winner’s Tilt. If you are that type of player, a Stop Win will help you keep more of your profits.

All in all, having a Stop Loss strategy in place is a great way to regulate your sessions, and to keep you playing within your optimal playing conditions. However we all know how difficult it is to stick to a plan when the tilt haze starts infecting our heads. Tilt Breaker is the perfect poker tool to help you stick to your ideal Stop Loss strategies, every single time.

How To Avoid Tilt

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

We polled ourselves here at SteamDonkey to try to get a grasp on the top 10 triggers for tilt. We took those catalysts and turned them in to rules to avoid going on tilt. We think if you can follow these 10 rules, you will drastically reduce your vulnerability to steaming off chips. If you think of a rule that’s not listed, please feel free to add it in the comments section. It would be pretty cool if we could turn this into a comprehensive list. Here’s what we came up with:

1. Know Thy Idiot

Absolutely do not try to bluff an idiot. No matter how much he should fold his hand, he’s not going to. He’s going to make a terrible call, you are going to throw your hands in the air proclaiming “ARE YOU SERIOUS”, and then reward him by steaming right back at him. This guy isn’t a negative 16% ROI on sharkscope because he has the ability to understand your perceived hand range.He’s a fish clicking buttons. Value bet the life out of him.

2. Thou Shall Understand Probability and Variance

In the “enlightened” era of poker, there is no excuse for not knowing the basic stats. Even when you have someone dominated (AK v. AQ), you are only going to win that 2/3 times. Which obviously means you will lose one out of every three times on average. Over the course of a decent session or tournament…that’s going to happen…a lot, so you need to become immune to it. You need to expect it. And I don’t mean expect it with the loser mentality of “Oh I run so bad, I know its coming” and then steam when it does. You need to understand that it has to come, it is a part of the game; you must be able to lose in order to win.

3. Thou Shall Lose Thy Ego

Don’t let your ego get involved in the game. It’s easily offended child like temperaments will cause you to get emotional and start unnecessary grudge matches, probably unbeknown to your opponent, that will cause you to make rash, impatient decisions. “Nobody bluffs me, nobody makes a play on me and gets away with it!” Then the one man grudge match begins. You have entered a mental leveling war with yourself. Simple decisions have become complex, “but he has to know that I would think that he would do……”; now your opponents perceived hand range widens to include bluffs and plays…and you’ve just become your own worst enemy. When the ego blurs perception your opponent simply has to sit back, play a tight aggressive game, and he will destroy you. You will be doing all the mental work for him by outplaying yourself. Your bankroll will dwindle as you keep paying him off expecting to see some elaborate play; but hey he didn’t bluff you again did he! You totally won that mental battle! Your bankroll took a beating, but at least you won all those pride points! Oh wait, you can’t buy in with pride? The only games that take pride points are freerolls? Ego translates to pride, and pride is not very useful at the poker tables.

4. Thou Shall Not Set Short Term Monetary Goals

Settings short term monetary goals is dumb in a game that has significant variance. Its going to end poorly, and cause you to force a lot of situations by trying to meet an arbitrary goal. Poker is one long session, set qualitative goals instead. For example “I will not make a bet today without having a plan for being called or raised by my opponent”, or “Today I will not 3 barrel the calling station with a negative ROI”. Goals like those make you focus on decisions and thought processes; things you can control. You cannot predict your variance, so do not set goals based on something you cannot predict. Focusing on qualitative goals will improve your decision making at the table; then the money will follow.

5. Love Thy Donkey

Do Not Rage Chat. Period. Its bad for the game, bad for your mental state, a really poor display of etiquette, and actually pretty embarrassing. Throw out a “NH” and move on, or just turn chat off in general; especially if you get tilted by someone rage chatting at you.

6. Thou Shall Respect Thy Bankroll

Utilizing proper bankroll management is a great way to counter tilt. When properly rolled for the limits you are playing, losing several buy-ins should only make up a small % of your overall bankroll. Seeing a several buy-in downswing as a small % downswing is a lot easier to swallow than “I just lost $x dollars!”.

7. Thou Shall Not Worship Thy EV Graph

Don’t get addicted to your Ev Graph! Its fine to validate that you are running bad, but be careful of letting it become a prophecy for the future. If you get the “I run sosososo bad, I am the unluckiest person alive” syndrome, you are going to expect negative outcomes, play apathetically, and in the end play poorly as a result since you are expecting to lose.

The same concept is true for players that habitually check their cashier balance during a session. Again this is not a good idea. You will start thinking in terms of “ok, I need to get back up to $x, and then I’ll quit. This is not a good strategy. You will end up playing a hand differently trying to force that arbitrary goal. If you haven’t figured it out by now, even the smallest of mistakes in poker can end in disaster. Luckily enough for the habitual cashier checking players; we added a “Block Cashier” option to Auto-Break that will block the Cashier on any of our supported poker clients during a session.

8. The Devil Comes in Many Forms

Recognize the symptoms of how YOU personally tilt. There are many different ways to tilt, some are blatantly obvious, but others can be very subtle; for example calling a 3-bet with a little wider range than you usually do because you got bluffed by the raiser earlier. You have to know what your enemy is before you can defeat it.

9. Poker Gods Knoweth No Justice

Oh you’ve got that donk all-in completely dominated again, you are definitely going to win this ti…nope. The numbers really don’t care that you’ve had this guy all-in three times, absolutely crushed. They don’t care that you’ve lost the past six coin flips in a row, or that your keep running right into the top of his range. There really is no justice to this game, at least not until the very, very long run of things, but it’s really just a microcosm of life isn’t it? There are very unfair aspects of life, but those that succeed learn to deal with them, and put in the time and effort to get past them. The same is true with poker. You will have horrible, gut-wrenching down swings where nothing goes right; but you must persevere. Create your own justice, continuously push forward until the numbers inevitably yield in your favor.

10. Thou Shall Know When it’s Time to Go

When you know you are on tilt or off your A game, the faster you get off the tables, the more money you will save in the long run. If you have trouble quitting, you’ve come to the right place. With Tilt Breaker’s Rage Quit button and Auto Break features, you will be well equipped to minimize the adverse effects of tilt play. Tilt Breaker is your personal bankroll bodyguard, protecting you from your dark side 24/7.

The EV of Smashing Your Mouse vs The EV of Tilt Breaker

Saturday, August 7th, 2010

In the midst of researching mental coaches to add to the Get Off Tilt page’s Coaching section, I stumbled across this nifty little blog post by Tommy Angelo. That blog post inspired another blog post by Greg (more…)