To a gambler, there may not be a more tilting word in the English language than the word “tilt” itself.
Just saying the word out loud conjures up bad juju. It is the Beetlejuice of a gambler’s lexicon. Putting a hard and fast definition on it, however, is less easy, mostly because one gambler’s tilt is another gambler’s day at the office.
Perhaps the highest court in the land can help.
In 1964, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was on the bench when Jacobellis vs. Ohio came before him. In deciding the case, he wrote, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.”
To be fair, Stewart was talking about pornography, but his explanation works for tilt as well. For each and every gambler, they know it when they see it.
But what is it, exactly?
“When you take actions that you would not take if you were in your best state of mind,” said Tommy Angelo, a longtime poker player, coach, and author of five books, most notably Elements of Poker.
“We don’t have a great scientific name for going on tilt,” said Dr. Timothy Fong, the co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies program. “In my mind, it’s distress and harm. If your gambling behavior creates repeated patterns of stress and harmful consequence, call it what you want, but I call it a problem.”
“Tilt is any kind of action driven primarily by emotions as opposed to driven by logical calculations of your EV (expected value),” said Dr. Alan Schoonmaker, a psychologist and author who penned the book Your Own Worst Poker Enemy.
Once you have a working definition of tilt, the next challenge is countering it. Obviously, the professional gamblers in our midst, the people doing this for a living, have mastered this. Tilt is not a problem for them. They are the perfect people to ask.
“I’m not immune to it,” said Captain Jack Andrews, a professional gambler and co-founder of Unabated. “It’s not like I’m constantly chasing losses or I’m constantly feeling this way, but every once in a while it creeps in. It’s something I wish I didn’t have to deal with.”
Professional gamblers: They’re just like us!
For Angelo, tilt is a problem that has only one solution: the mind.
“The effort required to actually improve in this area is enormous,” said Angelo, who played pro poker on and off for 20 years and has spent the last 20 as a coach. “That’s the part no one wants to talk about. You can read a million books, get coaching, whatever. At some point it comes down to self-discipline, self-love, self-compassion, and witnessing each mistake, figuring out what the cause was. Ultimately, it’s about being mentally stable.”
Angelo said most cases of tilt come down to bad luck or bad mistakes, and he splits combating them into what he labels “Band-Aids” and “cures.” Only one of those two works.
“Band-Aids are things like, ‘I’m going to put obstacles in the way to protect myself from myself.’ Or coming up with big willpower moments,” Angelo said. “It’s all beautiful, but utterly unsustainable.”
Angelo believes the only way to dissolve a recurring tilt cycle is to deal directly with the mind and develop meditative techniques to combat it. And Angelo believes meditation is within everyone’s grasp.
“For those of you who say they can’t do it, you’d do it if I offered you $1,000, right? So it’s only a matter of priority,” he said. “It’s like learning a musical instrument. You learn this chord, learn that chord, eventually you can play. It’s not like, ‘Here, play this guitar.’ No one can do that. It’s a long, slow, patient, but extremely satisfying path.”
And when it comes to online gambling, where the action is very literally 24/7, Angelo again shows the way, both with Band-Aids and a more meditative approach.
“Band-Aids: Set an alarm, stand up, walk around, do some twists, do some squats, move around for 15 seconds. Anything that moves you around and gets you out of the chair breaks the spell,” Angelo said.
But Angelo believes there a more sustainable way to short-circuit this cycle.
“Mindful breathing and mindful sitting are the two best things you can do when you’re playing with money at the computer,” he said. “Mindful sitting means you’re sitting on the edge of your chair, back very straight, feet on the floor. There’s no way to sit up straight and not be mindful. You can’t do it. It requires it. And mindful breathing is the biggest thing there is. It’s literally the awareness of whether you are breathing in or out. And you can do that while you’re betting. Instantly clears your mind, calms your nervous system.”
“The dumbest words in poker: I’ve got to get even.”
That’s from the mouth of Schoonmaker, who isn’t exactly into the whole meditation thing. But he does recommend — strongly — that in order to defeat tilt, a gambler needs to look within.
“When I feel something like that happening, I just get up and go,” he said. “The real problem gamblers have is that they’re not introspective. They really don’t want to look at themselves. I wrote a book called Your Worst Poker Enemy, and your worst poker enemy is you. Some loved it, some absolutely hated it. And the people that hated it said things like, ‘This guy thinks I should spend more time looking at my own mistakes.’ Well, of course you should — you’re in every hand you play.”
Willpower is also a dirty word to Schoonmaker. He simply advises people to understand what triggers tilt within themselves, and then avoid it.
“Trigger points are very, very different, depending on who you are,” he said. “I know that babblers, people who talk too much at the table, bother me. So I keep away from them. I’ll move to the other end of the table. I know if someone is babbling constantly and loudly, I won’t play my best. So I get away from it.”
In the end, it’s a simple question Schoonmaker advises every gambler to ask themselves: What sorts of things force me to act irrationally, either positively or negatively?
“You need to understand how emotions impact your decisions,” he said. “And I mean literally any emotion. I recognize I overreact to babblers. I just don’t like them, so I don’t act as smart as I should.”
Schoonmaker also points out that not all tilt is of the “I’m losing my shirt, I need to get even” variety.
“Happy tilt is extremely common,” he said. “‘I’m on a rush, I’m winning, I won three in a row, I made a runner-runner flush, so I’m hot, so I’m going to play these two cards which I wouldn’t normally play.’”
Here, Schoonmaker paused.
“No, no, no. Absolutely not,” he continued. “You have to constantly be asking, ‘Why did I do that?’ And if the answer is emotional reasons — anger, happiness, doesn’t matter what — don’t do it.”
Know thyself, in other words.
“Absolutely. This young guy, this Greek gambler, Socrates, he said that, if I remember correctly,” Schoonmaker said. “It was a little while ago.”
How do you feel?
In regard to Schoonmaker’s “happy tilt,” Dr. Fong points out something you may not expect from a Ph.D who studies gambling, particularly gambling disorders: Not all tilt is bad.
“Is it a sign of gambling addiction? No, it comes with the gambling experience,” Fong said. “The problem is when someone is either always on tilt, or, despite going on tilt and having bad outcomes, they continue to gamble and see gambling as the answer.”
As for the not-terrible tilt, Fong compares it to fans of horror movies.
“Some patients of mine say that’s when it gets really exciting, that’s when I finally feel alive,” he said. “Everything is on the line, you’re chasing losses, trying to get out of a really bad run. If you don’t make it back, you’ll have to face the music. It’s a desperate sensation. Why do people like horror movies? They like that fear and danger and adrenaline rush. You want to be in a little bit of pain, but the difference with horror movies is you know it will work out. Not necessarily the case for gambling.”
But for people for whom that line is where the joy lies?
“If you go on tilt and it doesn’t really damage your life and it’s part of your gambling experience, then you know what? You’re just someone who likes horror movies and likes to live on the razor’s edge,” Fong said.
Fong also points to a particularly American ideal that lends itself to tilt: the lone wolf.
“We’ve kind of romanticized being on tilt,” he said. “The gambling mentality, the person who came back after being down to their last penny, or the person who persevered despite adverse conditions — that’s what we celebrate in American culture: the cowboy, the brave, the one who fights up and wins.
“It’s a weird combo in my mind,” Fong continued. “For too long we’ve kind of celebrated this stressful and difficult position that comes from gambling. But, unfortunately for those who do develop addiction, it’s how they live all the time, and ultimately it’s just not sustainable and certainly not pleasant.”
So while Angelo prioritizes meditation, and Schoonmaker preaches knowledge, Fong more or less rides with his gut.
“Rule of thumb: When you go on tilt, what does that do to your overall quality of life? If it doesn’t hurt it long term, you’re just someone who experiences a wide range of emotions,” he said. “If it’s harmful and creates problems you have to try and fix, that’s not entertainment. That’s harm.”
Captain Jack is a 25-year veteran of the pro gambling world. If he still battles tilt, what hope is there for the rest of us?
“Sometimes losing feels like a release,” he said. “It’s weird to say that, but if you’ve gambled and it’s not a +EV gamble and you lose, it’s almost like, ‘There, you got what you deserved.’ It’s almost like some sort of penance that you paid. You’ve paid to the gambling gods, you’ve taken your loss for making bad wagers, and you can move on from there.
“I don’t want to get too psychological about it, because in the end it’s almost primal: ‘Look, you were greedy, and this is what happens when you’re greedy.’”
Andrews said his main defense against tilt is math.
“The thing that helps me the most is to look at everything in terms of your expected value. It’s a boring way to gamble, but if you view every spin of the roulette wheel at minus-5% — because it is, for every $1 spin is a loss of a nickel — gambling starts to be less fun,” he said. “It’s what pushes advantage gamblers to only play in advantage gambling situations. It’s tough to do that in the emotion of it all, and chasing a loss. But if you can keep it in your mind, all the better.”
One last note from Andrews (and, again, Socrates): Know thyself. For Andrews, he knows thyself needs to watch it when it comes to video poker.
“It’s been called the crack cocaine of gambling, and I really believe that’s from people who have never tried crack cocaine,” he quipped. “When it comes to negative-EV gambling, video poker is my drug of choice. I try to play less and less.”
Photo: Getty Images