The Three Primary Categories of Tilt

Putting Labels On Six Common Poker Problems

“Everyone tilts. It’s just a matter of how often, how long, and how bad.” —Tommy Angelo, Elements of Poker.

In 2011, sports psychologist Jared Tendler changed poker forever with his groundbreaking book The Mental Game of Poker. Like Doyle Brunson’s Super System, David Sklansky’s The Theory of Poker, and Mike Caro’s Caro’s Book of Tells that came before it, Tendler’s work on the psychological aspects of poker revolutionized how us mere mortals should approach emotional control and tilt during play.

Tendler’s book absolutely changed me for the better, and if you’ve read it, it probably changed you, too. This is a great read and an invaluable resource for any poker enthusiasts.

Ah, but it’s not a perfect book. While Tendler clearly does a fantastic job describing both the causes and symptoms of classic tilt, as well as offering sound advice for battling the tilt monster, he limits his coverage primarily to so-called “anger” related tilts. In fact, he goes so far as to define tilt solely in terms of anger:

Tilt = Anger + Bad Play”

This is fine, and, in fact, it directly addresses the classic definition of poker tilt, which revolves around “steaming” at the table. I.e. something negative happens at the table to you, and this then causes to you to play badly in subsequent hands. Said simply, you get angry at a result and react by playing badly, steaming off your chips like so much water vapor from a boiling teapot.

Indeed, “steaming” is one of the most common forms of tilt we poker players experience at the tables—but it’s not the whole story. In fact, there are a handful of other, equally important forms of tilt that you need to be on the look out for in your own game if you want to safeguard your chips. These other tilt types fall under the broader, more progressive definition of tilt that was first propagated by Tommy Angelo in his own seminal book The Elements of Poker, when he wrote:

Tilt has many causes and kinds, but it has only one effect. It makes us play bad. It makes us do things we wouldn’t do if we were at our very best. And that’s how I want to define it, exactly like that. Tilt is any deviation from your A-game and your A-mindset, however slight or fleeting.”

This broader definition of the term by Angelo resonates with this particular Pokerbug, as I’ve coached many a student who came to me with tilt issues that were of the non-steaming ilk. These have included everything from recurrent lack of focus at the tables, to fear and self-doubt, to over-confidence, to… well, the point is there are many forms of tilt beyond simple reactionary, anger-related steaming.

The Three Categories of Tilt

As I am often wont to do, I spent far too much time classifying and sorting and triaging these different types of tilt into various silos. I’ve read just about everything printed on the subject of emotional control at the poker tables, and have made a half dozen lists and nearly that many mind maps. Don’t worry– I won’t bore you further with my obssesive-compulsive tendencies research; instead, to make this long story short, I simply propose that there are, fundamentally, six primary types of tilt:

Further, I believe these six can be paired up into three basic categories that cover most players and the tilt issues they experience at the tables. These three pairings are:

  • Stimulus-Response Tilts. This is the classic “steaming” form of tilt that Tendler focuses on in his book. Something negative happens and the player reacts in a negative, harmful way. Stimulus leads to response. We suffer a bad beat by a clueless newbie, so we get angry and “go after them” with revenge on our mind. Or, we get coolered three times in a row and fall into a form of “injustice tilt,” deviating from sound play into loose-aggressive maniac play because everyone else seems to be winning by playing crap hands, so–dammit!–we’re going to do the same. Or maybe somebody simply outplays us, and we get angry at ourselves, kicking ourselves and fixating for the next thirty minutes on our bad play in that previous hand–instead of the cards in front of us right now. All of these are instances in which negative stimuli (i.e., losing) cause us to steam, or play badly as a result.
  • Ego-Related Tilts. These kinds of tilts aren’t so much stim-response in nature as they are general states of mind—that in turn result in poor play. At one end of the extreme is that of fear and self-doubt and low self-esteem; playing tight and scared are the hallmarks of this type of player. At the other end of the spectrum are the overly-confident, the players filled with arrogance and a sense of entitlement; these players often play too loose, too aggressive, and push their hands too far in a form of “winner’s tilt.” I see both of these extremes a lot, especially with intermediate-level players.
  • Discipline Tilts. These types of tilt are centered around things like not focusing, playing distracted, being too lazy to make reads and do the math, and so on. They also include states of mind like desperation and a sense you have to immediately win back the money you’ve lost during the session—and you’re willing to abandon things like basic bankroll management and patience to try to force a quick score.

In upcoming blog posts, I will be expanding more on each of these types of tilts, including how to minimize their effects in your game. In the meantime, take a look at these categories and ask yourself in which direction do you fall off your A-game? The chances are good it’s in at least one of these six tilt directions.

The bottom line is this: when it comes to tilting in poker, identifying the problem is the first step to solving it. The second step? Read this.


Exceptional Poker — Learn. Master. Crush.

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