5 simple ways to recognise tilt


Emotional control is one of the most underrated disciplines in sports. If anything, in “mind sports” such as chess, poker, bridge and, by extension, other cerebral disciplines such as sports betting and stocks trading, it’s even more important.

Bankrolls in business, gambling and the stock market are like materials in chemistry: far harder to create than they are to destroy. Emotional control has exactly that problem. By maintaining equanimity, pressing on despite the pressure and vicissitudes of fate, you will build your empire, brick by brick.


But lose that control – even for a short while – and your creation can crumble.


The best term I know for losing emotional control is used by poker players: they call it “tilt”. The term actually originates from pinball. When players were certain they’d lose their ball, they would lift the machine, attempting to tilt the ball away from its fatal course. Pinball machines had mercury sensors in them, and if moved too much, a “tilt” light would come on and it would instantly be game over.

Emotional control is important primarily in disciplines where amount invested or staked is much larger than profit – otherwise known as high leverage. Poker players need to have bankrolls dozens, if not hundreds of times larger than the amount they make per hour. To ensure a return of 5%, a financial trader is risking twenty times their return in exposure. The same is true, for example, with profit margins in business.

Emotional control

By maintaining equanimity you will build your empire, brick by brick.

So the more highly leveraged you are, the more costly a mistake becomes. This is, understandably, reflected in the stress levels of high risk pursuits. The more stressed you are, the more likely you are to tilt.

Tilt can take a number of forms. In its most extreme form, it’s like the “red mist” descending: anger takes over and there’s very little one can do until the body naturally calms down. Under these conditions, you should get as far away from clicking buttons or interacting with customers as possible. Let’s assume that most mature adults already have their own personal ways of dealing with red mist!

Tilt in its milder form is a much more insidious and therefore potentially bankroll-wrecking phenomenon. The biggest problem is that you may not even be aware that you are on tilt. Here, I’d like to give a few pointers on how to recognise and deal with it. Ultimately, improving your emotional intelligence is a lifelong pursuit, a kind of therapy, but even starting by following these simple actions may save you a great deal.


Recognising tilt


The first step is to know it is happening, to recognise how tilt manifests itself in you. Mild tilt can be almost invisible at times. It usually comprises some or all of the following:

1. Reacting too quickly and thoughtlessly to stimuli.
2. Imploring yourself that you are fine.
3. Going with one’s “gut” more often than usual in decision-making.
4. Finding it hard to give up (“just one more go”).
5. Chasing losses (remember: life is just one long session).

The key here is practice. The more you monitor yourself emotionally, the more quickly and frequently you will recognise tilt. As the Oracle said, know thyself.


Combatting tilt


For however long you are in a process – be it gambling or trading online, in complicated business negotiations, or having an argument with your other half – make sure you have an interrupt to the process so you can check your emotional wellbeing.


The term “tilt” actually originates from pinball

The interruption can be anything which stops the “flow” of what you’re doing and allows you to take stock emotionally. Set an alarm or reminder to go off every hour. Put post-it notes on your computer screen. Have an elastic band around the wrist and ping it periodically. The key here is to program yourself in advance to associate the stimulus with a set of checks. Let’s imagine you chose the elastic band method:

First, in practice, ping your inner wrist with the band and then go through a series of exercises which take stock emotionally: How are you feeling? Are you thinking clearly? Have you reacted badly to a run of bad luck?. . . and so on.

Repeat this exercise until the association seems to be happening naturally. Having now primed yourself, when “in the battle field” the ping of the wristband should invoke the same emotional checks.

If you feel you’re losing control, the easiest option is to stop what you’re doing. That might not be possible in certain circumstances (e.g. a business negotiation) so invent your own longer interrupt. Here are few suggestions:

1. Go to the bathroom and wash your face.
2. Stop talking for a few minutes and listen.
3. Talk to a (non-judgemental) friend who is uninvolved.
4. Stop staring at the computer screen and fix on somewhere far away – preferably out of the window.
5. Concentrate on your breathing. Count breaths and deliberately try to breathe more slowly.
6. Fix your mind on your shoulder muscles and relax them. If you are sitting down, let yourself sink into the chair. Concentrate on the feeling of the chair pushing against you.

These may seem basic, but they will help. You are essentially tricking your mind and body into being less wound up. As I say, it takes proper therapy to deal with emotional problems which are so deep-seated that tilt keeps surfacing over and over. But in its mild form, tilt attacks everyone, and these simple steps will head it off.

Further reading

Jared Tendler and Barry Carter: The Mental Game of Poker (vols 1 and 2)
Sun Tzu: The Art of War
Larry W. Phillips: Zen and the Art of Poker

Image credit: Shutterstock




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