Why do poker players go on tilt?

September 27, 2010, Chris  

By Michael A. DeDonno Ph. D

As a part-time day trader, I was finding reasonable success in the current market. However, on May 6 the Dow Jones Industrial Average posted its biggest intraday loss in 20 years. This sudden decline put me on an emotional rollercoaster causing me to make poor buying and selling decisions for the remainder of that day. In effect I was on tilt.

In 2006, a French soccer player head-butted his opponent in response to extended taunting. The French player was subsequently ejected from the game and soon after the French team lost the World Cup title to Italy. As poker players, we have all experienced bad beats and sometimes even unexpected big wins. In reality, going on tilt can happen in any competitive situation. It’s virtually impossible to eliminate the emotional responses caused by a tilt event. Therefore we must take the time to better understand what’s happening within our bodies and develop specific techniques to minimize the emotional effects of the tilt event.

The Mayo Clinic highlights various physiological responses to stress, including increased heart rate, loss of focus, restlessness and irritability. In any competitive situation these factors can have a negative effect on performance. When we think about stress, it’s generally thought of as a result of a negative event. For example, stress certainly is felt when we lose a job, struggle with our finances, argue with a loved one or lose a monster hand in a poker game. The latter event is synonymous with “going on tilt.” However, research has shown the physiological feelings of stress can be felt during positive events. It’s not uncommon to experience increased heart rate and a loss of focus when we get offered a big promotion at work, are welcomed at our own surprise birthday party, or win a monster hand at a poker table. Researchers have demonstrated this change in physiology alters our decision-making strategies. In most competitive situations, a deviation from a planned strategy can have negative consequences.

Tilt is generally limited to poker, and despite its definition consistently being aligned with the game it’s never been accepted into mainstream dictionaries or other competitive activities. In Super System, Doyle Brunson said tilt is “When a player starts playing bad (loses his composure), usually after losing one or more big pots, he’s said to be on tilt.” However, tilt can be more generally defined for competitive activity as any unexpected event that causes a significant change in our physiology. This definition also allows tilt to serve as the opposing effect of being “in the zone.” Athletes often use the phrase “in the zone” as a mental state whereby they’re fully immersed in a zone of focus resulting in optimum performance.

It’s no surprise to any poker player that researchers have found negative events cause a change in behavior. After a big loss (or series of losses), individuals have a tendency to become more risk-seeking. This behavior is thought to be due in part to the break-even effect. Individuals who experience a big loss quickly try to regain the lost money hoping to get back to at least a break-even point. Researchers also have found behavior changes after a positive event, such as a big win (or a series of wins). In some instances individuals become more risk-seeking (e.g., more loose or aggressive).

This behavior has been termed the “house-money effect.” Fundamentally, this effect occurs as the individual views the winnings as house money and becomes looser with the money. Conversely during a big win, individuals may become more conservative. This is due to what A.M. Isen called the “mood maintenance hypothesis” in 1987’s Advances in Experimental Social Psychology.

Essentially, individuals become more conservative to maintain the positive feelings from the win. In each of these scenarios, the underlying factor is a change in decision-making. So why does this change occur? The answer in part comes from our physiology.

During a moment of stress, your body signals the adrenal glands, small glands located above each kidney, to release cortisol. Initially, the release of cortisol prepares the body for the stressful event. It dilates your pupils, increases blood flow in the muscles of our limbs and liberates sugar and fat in our body to be used as fuel, to fight an enemy or run from a predator. This is commonly termed the “fight or flight” response. Unfortunately research has shown cortisol to have negative effects on such things as cognitive performance and digestion.

As a result of these negative consequences, cortisol has been popularized as the stress hormone. The feelings felt upon the release of cortisol include a heightened state of arousal, anxiety and altered awareness. These feelings are common during a tilt event.

So, after the release of cortisol, how do we bring ourselves back to a comfortable state of mind? There are several techniques that can be performed at the poker table. The first activity is to breathe. We have a tendency to stop breathing during stressful moments. Oxygen aids in blood circulation, which aids in bringing cortisol levels back to normal.

Another effective technique is a form of cognitive therapy. Remind yourself poker’s a game of probabilities and any outcome can occur at any time. If you made a bad decision, remind yourself that mistakes will occur and accept it as a lesson learned. This aids in accepting the event and moving forward. Another technique is expressing your immediate emotions.

Research has shown suppressing emotions can impair cognitive performance. Expressing your emotions does not mean having a temper tantrum at the table, but a quick release of emotional feelings. This may include a verbal “sigh” or some other action that expels the emotional energy. If these actions do not bring you back to a normalized state, it may be necessary to take a break from the table. Taking a brisk walk will increase circulation and help bring cortisol levels back to normal. Another technique that can help is throwing cold water on your face. The mammalian diving reflex has shown that cold water on the face optimizes respiration and reduces heart rate 10-25 percent, which can lower anxiety and blood pressure.

In addition to immediate actions, it’s important to maintain a stress management program. This ongoing program should include exercise, a healthy diet, reducing caffeine and sugar, avoiding alcohol, cigarettes and drugs and getting enough sleep. Always remember poker players are competitors and as a result need to take a holistic view of their abilities, including mind and body.

— Lisa C. Elias, DMD, contributed to this story. Michael A. DeDonno is an assistant professor in the psychology department at Barry University in Florida.