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Starting from Scratch

I've not posted on the blog for a long time but I am always fascinated by the mental side of poker, and this seemed an interesting topic to explore. Jared Tendler's excellent thread on the mental game and examining tilt issues also inspired me to write about this. Recently I have seen a few posts on the PSO forums where people have said something like, "don't berate me for this, it's just a personal preference but if I was dealt this strong hand on the bubble of a tournament, I would actually fold it". The implication is that the poster understands they are losing money in the long run by folding such hands. The hands are clearly +EV to play, yet they give themselves permission to go ahead and fold them anyway, for reasons of their own.

Thinking about this for a few moments, I was forced to admit I am not immune to occasionally doing something similar. I mostly play cash games, sometimes switching to sitandgoes. If I play an MTT it is usually just for a change and I am rarely bothering to multitable like I usually do. So when I arrive at the bubble I have probably invested at least a couple of hours in the thing, and the thought of losing out at the bubble is a painful one, even if the monetary stakes are small, which they generally are. If I lose my stack now its all been a waste of time. If I squeeze through to a min cash I may have missed out on the chance of a big payout, but at least I will be one of the winners, not one of the losers. I know I am costing myself money by ducking out of playing a big hand at this point, but I may give myself permission to do it if the emotional pain of busting on the bubble looms larger than my desire to play the best poker.

A question that arises is: Is this a form of Tilt? One definition of tilt might be a situation where our emotional response is so heightened as to interfere with or override our rational decision-making within the game. By that definition, this certainly qualifies as Tilt. Fear of losing out, or an emotional need to bank a small profit at all costs, has overridden calculated rational decision-making.

Now, I think there is a significant distinction to be made here about Tilt. Tilt is agreed to be a bad thing, but there are two distinct negative aspects to it. One is the losses that come about because of it, the other is the experience of the tilt itself. Although a reductionist argument can be made that we must enjoy tilting on some level or we wouldn't do it, by and large the experience is unpleasant, not least because of the self-awareness that allows us to 'see' ourselves tilting and making bad decisions and regretting them even as we are making them. And then there are the potential self-recriminations afterwards to look forward to.

So it is not surprising that some will try to avoid the 'experiencial' aspect of tilt, by incorporating the loss-making aspect of the tilt-based decision into their overall gameplan. This is how I understand what the posters described above are doing. If I decide in advance I will never play any hand worse than AA on the bubble unless I am the shortest stack, I will avoid almost all those painful decisions. I won't actually tilt in-game at all, at least not over this issue, but I will still be losing money the same as if I did. In fact I would be losing money just as much as if I suffered this loss-of-nerve tilt every single time I reached the bubble. Just without the trauma of actually tilting in-game. Surely there must be a better way than this.

Of course there is. First we must acknowledge that the flawed plan is in a sense a rational one. If the potential emotional cost of going bust on the bubble really does outweigh the financial price of folding a profitable hand, then yes, go ahead and take the monetary hit. If you have weighed all the costs and benefits accurately, it is the correct thing to do. But while the financial price of the -EV play is an immovable object, the emotional cost is not an irresistable force. Reduce the emotional investment in the outcome of the bubble play, and making the correct +EV play starts to become a more attractive and playable option. We feel better about ourselves and play better poker too. Win-win.

I think broadening our idea of tilt to include this sort of tilt-avoidance strategy, and separating tilt out into financial and emotional costs is really rather useful, as it leads us directly to the acknowledged best strategy for combatting tilt in our games. Not fighting against it or trying to ignore our emotional responses, and not by devising -EV strategies to evade the issue, but by keeping our emotional temperature down in the first place, by educating ourselves to accept ups and downs or tilt-making triggers more readily and coolly.

But how exactly do we "keep our emotional temperature down"? Obviously, I'm still working on that. I've found in my own game that just identifying it as a key goal has helped in itself. Playing greater volume of games helps, making individual hands feel less important. Key thoughts and mantras focussing the mind on long-term rewards over short-term ups and downs can make a difference. Above all, I recognise I am just starting out on the process of identifying all these sort of mental leaks in my game, let alone fixing them. But I hope my thoughts may at least further the discussion and may prove thought-provoking to others on the same journey.

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