Strive to reach the stage of 'indifference'
In my last column, I presented the four stages of tilt, where each stage represents a better response (and a better underlying attitude) than the previous one. Here's a recap of the four stages:
Stage 1 - Anger
A player at this stage sees only the monetary value of a pot that he loses. When he loses a big hand, his initial reaction is to be angry.
Stage 2 - Frustration
Players at this stage have learned to remove the more destructive emotions from their reaction when they lose a big pot. Losing big pots will still be painful, but this pain manifests itself more as frustration than anger.
Stage 3 - Acceptance
Players at this stage understand and accept the realities of poker. They understand that the game contains a lot of short-term luck, and as a result, they are destined to lose big pots sometimes.
Stage 4 - Indifference
A player at this stage will not register any mental anguish from losing a big pot. Rather than feeling anger, frustration, or even acceptance of the hand, he will be focused entirely on how his opponents played and what can be learned from the hand. Whether he won or lost is an irrelevant detail.
To further illustrate the difference between the stages, let's look at a limit hold'em hand example from the point of view of a representative player whom we will call Rick.
Rick is dealt the A K in middle position. He open-raises, the player on the button reraises, and the big blind calls, as does Rick.
The flop is A K 8. The big blind checks, as does Rick. The button bets, the big blind calls, and Rick check-raises. Both opponents call.
The turn is the 9. The big blind checks, Rick bets, the button folds, and the big blind calls.
The river is the 6. The big blind now bets, Rick calls, and his opponent shows the 7 5 for a backdoor straight.
How will Rick respond to this hand? It all depends on what stage he is at.
Stage 1: I can't believe it! What was he thinking about, calling all those bets? He had nothing the entire hand and lucked out. What an idiot! This always happens to me; it's so unfair! I'm going to do my best to get back at him and win my chips back.
Stage 2: What a bad beat! Losing an 11-big-bet pot like that really hurts. How can you win at this game when players call down with garbage and then hit? I know in the long term that he will lose all of his money, but I really needed that pot. That has put me in a real hole!
Stage 3: Ouch! Oh well, that's poker, I suppose. If he keeps playing like that, I will take his money in the long term, so I just have to be patient. I'll make sure to remember that he is a calling station, and I'll play accordingly. I wonder if there was any way of winning that pot had I played differently.
Stage 4: OK, I now know that the guy in the big blind will call down with pretty much anything, so I will take that into account from now on. I wonder what the button had. Maybe he had J-J or 10-10. It's worth knowing that he will make a continuation-bet in that situation. Maybe I should have bet out on the flop, hoping that the button would have raised? That might have driven the big blind out, although I'm not sure that I want to drive him out if he's willing to pay off all of those bets with such a weak draw.
As you can see, Rick has two advantages when he is at stage 3 or 4. First, he accepts the result of the hand and therefore is less likely to go on tilt, and second, he is using his time more productively to think about the things that really matter. These are two good reasons why every player should want to move beyond the lower stages to reach these levels of thinking.
Emotional control at the poker table is a difficult thing to master. Sometimes you will take bad beat after bad beat and wonder how anybody could possibly keep his cool in such circumstances. But it all comes down to how you react to individual pots. If you get angry or frustrated after losing a big pot, these emotions can snowball over the course of a session, magnifying the feelings and making you far more likely to go on tilt. However, if you are able to see lost pots, even those resulting from the worst possible luck, as simply part of the game, you will be in a far better position to put the loss behind you. Once you conquer that step, you can focus all of your energies on what is most important - evaluating your opponents and making the best decisions. If you can do that, you will prevent some of your losing sessions from turning into disastrous ones, and you'll be much more likely to "reverse" your bad fortune with good decisions and get back on a winning track.
This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.
Matthew is the owner of Dimat Enterprises, “Publishing Today’s Best Poker Books”. The Math of Hold’em by Collin Moshman and Douglas Zare is available now at pokerbooks.InternetTexasHoldem.com.