Donkin's Blog

The Progression of Tilt

I was chatting with another player about his “particularly bad run” over the last two days. I suggested that he take a break and do something else and he answered that he “plays through” his bad runs and that it “doesn’t affect his play.”

I’ve heard the same thing for two decades of playing poker and it’s as much bullshit today as it was in 2000.

Do I fall into the same trap as him? Absolutely. But as my career has progressed, I no longer claim that my play is not affected. In fact, I believe my play is negatively affected the moment I lose a hand, and as losses mount, my play becomes even more affected. The only way out is to take a break or win.

My biggest leak is tilt. If I could ever get a firm handle on it, I’d be far more successful than I am now. Once my emotional state is overcome by it, my bankroll suffers. Here I’ve identified a sort of progression that can occur.

graph of tilt progression

The Progression of Tilt


So, you’re playing poker and generally in a good state. Maybe you’re making conscience decisions, maybe you’re on autopilot, but either way, you’re playing close to your A-game.

Then a couple bad hands come along and you lose two buy-ins. These hands are nothing crazy, maybe you flop a set and someone shoves their flush draw, or maybe just a preflop 50-50.

The difference here is that they happen back-to-back and suddenly you go from normal to seriously stuck.

A Way Out

I’ve never met a poker player that could lose two buy-ins and it not affect them. Many who claim it has no effect on them, likely aren’t aware of the microscopic mistakes they make. Missing a 3bet because you’re a little gun-shy, or making one with AX offsuit in the small blind because you haven’t 3bet enough.

You can get out of this, still. Catch some lucky hands, maybe. But even better, take a break. Go do something fun, come back later and start all over with your A-game. If you don’t, you might end up in the prison.

The Prison

An excruciating place. I’ve spent weeks in this hell-hole. Nothing else matters, you just want to win. Something, anything. Just win a goddamn hand.

You’re not playing your A-game and your decisions are deteriorating as you stay in this state, becoming less patient and more exhausted.

And nothing seems to be happening, you CAN’T CATCH A HAND! It’s really not unusual. If you were in your A-game, you simply sigh and comment at what a boring day it was, as you lock up a small win. But in prison, your bankroll is bleeding because of those small mistakes you don’t realize you’re making, and your mood gets worse and worse as your funds dwindle and your opponents keep 4-betting you.

Not to mention, you feel like shit. This is not a place to live your life. Don’t you have something better to do?


Eventually, sitting in prison, a hand will come up that in your A-game, you’d simply stay out of, but in prison, you justify doing something crazy. In fact, you may not even be that far behind, but you’re definitely gambling, probably jamming a draw against an opponent you’d normally know is never folding.

Then you find another place to gamble, and another.

If you’re seriously lucky, you may even escape prison, but you probably won’t.


Demolition tilt, I believe coined by Tommy Angelo in his acclaimed book, Elements of Poker. This is when you’re done, you’ve stopped caring. If you even bother to think about it, you know you’re not playing poker any more. You’re just gambling. You’re now a degenerate, seeking relief.

There’s usually not a way out of this state, besides pure exhaustion or being unable to play due to loss of funds.

When you look back on this, you’ll recognize a deep pain, a depression. It’s the same as gamblers feel sitting on a machine giving away all their money to a casino. Being honest with yourself, it’s the exact characteristic you brag to all your family and friends that you don’t possess.


So, you’re here. You’ve finally slept, you look back on what happened and can’t believe it. How did that happen again?

The good news, if there’s any, is that you’re likely broken and humbled, so you tread back in carefully and probably at lower limits.

This is the time to purchase that poker training, read a poker book, read a meditation book, and work on a way to keep it from happening again.

Above all, don’t hate yourself, you’re only human.

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