Saturday, April 19, 2014

Sweet and Sour Emotions

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the right side of my Pyramid of Poker Skills. This is the "Emotional Control" category of skills a poker player needs to master if they want to find their way to the top of the poker dominance heap. You literally can have the best, most refined technical skills and abilities relative to all the players you face in your poker career, and also be the most thoroughly prepared, too, every time you sit down to play, but if you lack the ability to control your emotions once play begins (i.e., tilt) you're almost certainly going to go broke. Probably fast, too.

Poker is a game of people played with cards, and said people are rife with emotions. For the majority of us--and the majority of the time--emotions rule our actions in life, not the other way 'round. The model psychologists often use to describe this is Stimulus -> Response -> Effect.

Said another way, when prodded, we're slaves to our inner response demons, whether we like it or not. Learning to recognize negative stimuli and their corresponding responses in action--and control or short circuit them before they cost us too much--is fundamental to maximizing profit at games of people played with cards, like poker.

I've blogged about this subject off-and-on many times in the past, but have remained somewhat unconvinced I was completely on the right track. Frankly, I'm also unconvinced that the recognized poker psychology experts have fully captured the entire picture of emotions and tilt. Yes, I've read all the standard literature on emotional control in poker, and yes, there are truly excellent books on the subject that are absolutely worth reading. Pretty much anything penned by Jared Tendler, for example, is going to rock your world if you take the time to read it. Tommy Angelo is another unbelievable provoker of thoughts and outside-the-box understandings on the subject of tilt. Schoonmaker, too.

But they all seem to just carve out slices of the overall big picture pie and not a) put it all together into a cohesive whole; and/or b) fully explain how one cognitively attains emotional and psychological control at the table. Angelo, for example, is known for the following insightful statement in his near-legendary Elements of Poker book:

"Tilt has many causes and kinds, but it has only one effect: it makes us play bad. It makes us do things we wouldn’t do if we were at our very best. And that’s how I want to define it, exactly like that. Tilt is any deviation from your A-game and your A-mindset, however slight."

Yes, this is a near perfect definition of Tilt... but it doesn't actually tell us what are all the key types of stimuli that cause this deviation from A-territory-- or more importantly, how we can recognize, master and control each type.

On the other hand, the psychologist Jared Tendler, who has written the two groundbreaking Mental Game books on emotions in poker, does an excellent job dissecting some of the most common forms of tilt. His are really worthwhile books, with very useful descriptions, inputs and techniques to work on, but it seems to me that he leaves out some of the important non-traditional stimuili and tilt responses that are common at the poker tables...

....and on and on. Lots of people have pieces of the puzzle, but no one has fully put it together... I've done a lot of non-poker reading on the subject. A lot. And let me tell you this: there is even more confusion and incompleteness abounding in the academic psychology world on controlling emotions. Lots of theories, lots of pieces of the puzzle, and so on, but very little that is all-encompassing and available that laymen like this Bug can wrap their arms around....

...but then I stumbled on the writings of a non-poker academic by the name of Robert Plutchik, who was Professor Emeritus at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Plutchik (now deceased) was known for his work in understanding our human psychology, including something he developed called the "wheel of emotions," which is still used by many researchers to "map" a person's emotional state:

Plutchik's wheel of emotions is used to illustrate and map the majority of different emotions we humans experience. In his wheel, Plutchik claims that there are eight primary bipolar emotions: joy versus sadness; anger versus fear; trust versus disgust; and surprise versus anticipation. Additionally, his model makes connections between the idea of this emotion circle and a color wheel. Like colors, primary emotions can be expressed at different intensities, and can mix with one another to form different, nuanced sub-emotions.

Now, Plutchik's model doesn't seem fully complete, either, at least from a poker emotions point of view. For example, where is "pride" on the chart? Clearly this is an emotion that can can lead to a serious type of tilt (often called "winner's tilt"). And there are other missing items, too...

...but, that said, I think Plutchik's emotion wheel, combined with the ideas of folks like Tendler and Angelo, can lead to a relatively complete and easily digestible approach to recognizing the type of tilt we are on-- and therefore lead to discrete, tangible ways of short-circuiting the stimuli-response tilt process.

Or so I think.

Anyway, this all might sound a little confusing at first, but I'm going to try to tackle the topic in more detail in coming installments. The ultimate goal is a Plutchik-like spoked poker "emotion wheel" of tilt that we can then use as the framework to help recognize negative stimuli and/or responses-- and minimize money lost to tilt.

All-in for now...


  1. "I'm going to try to tackle the topic in more detail in coming installments"

    Looking forward to it.

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