There’s a weird behavioural phenomenon that poker players often talk about. It’s called tilt; and it happens when a player takes a bad beating during one hand, and then slips into a downward spiral – abandoning their experience, skill and instinct, and instead playing chaotic (and stupid) poker until they’ve lost everything. As Mike McD from one of my all-time fave movies Rounders put it: “A brilliant player can get a strong hand cracked, go on tilt, and lose his mind along with every single chip in front of him.”
I think about the tilt phenomenon often. When I was younger – and marginally dumber than I am now – I had a gambling problem; fortunately I out-grew it before it became an actual financial issue, but I can still feel the gut-wrench from that empty-pocketed walk of shame towards the casino exit. Going On Tilt is very much a thing; and lately, I’ve realised that it doesn’t just happen in the context of gambling.
Anyone who has read my ramblings knows that I’m a passionate advocate for our wee corner of the booze industry. I fervently believe that Paying More And Drinking Less is the only way our species can hope to co-exist with alcohol in a minimally-harmful way. But here’s the problem: it’s easy to say that on a Thursday morning when you’re as sober as a judge at a teetotaller’s convention. It’s much harder to do that at 6pm on a Friday night after two pints of a strong IPA.
Let me tell a (not-so) hypothetical story, which you may be able to relate to: it’s Friday, and I’ve arrived home from work. After a long week, my 5pm pint barely touches the sides; the second follows close behind. Now it’s 6pm, and because I love flavour I’ve got five standard drinks swirling through my body. As we’ve talked about before, my digestive system simply can’t process that much booze in such a short period of time – so my brain is now bathing in it, and my decision-making ability has been substantially compromised. That third pint sure seems like an extremely good idea; and in a soft fuzz, it’s eventually followed by a fourth. Deep-down I know this is a bad idea, for multiple reasons; but f*ck it, I worked hard this week. I deserve this. So I abandon my experience and instinct for moderation, and pursue the chaos.
I’m on tilt.
Three hours later, I’ve had 16 standard drinks – the ABV gradient really only works in one direction – and am now snoring in front of the TV, completely useless to anyone who actually wants to spend time with me. I wake-up at 1am with a pounding head and heart; and hope of a fun Saturday morning with my family has gone, along with my self-esteem.
(Some hypothetical situations just write themselves, don’t they?)
Going on tilt is a nasty part of the dark side of our wicked-awesome hobby; and avoiding it is a necessary skill that we all need to develop, and polish. I’m definitely the guy in the above story, but I’m also the guy who believes that it’s not an inevitability. Just like any obstacle, the key to moving it is leverage; all we need is a big enough stick.
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For the rest of this piece I’m going to share some of my own strategies for avoiding tilt – but please remember that this is more a note-to-self than high-horse preachery. If, like me, you’d like to avoid the crush of 1am regret, then you may like to play along at home and ponder your own strategies; but if not, that’s fine too. To each, their own.
Let’s start by thinking about the qualities of a good lever. First, it needs to be long enough to overcome the inertia of the obstacle; the longer the lever, the more amplified its force will be. In the context of avoiding tilt, our lever needs to have sufficient detail so that the reason for putting away the pint glass is more than a superficial nicety. For me, an example of a shallow lever that never works is my never-ending battle to fit the Levis that I wore when I was 18 (yes, I’ve still got them); it ain’t ever gonna happen, Love Handles. And guess what? Mr Four-Pint fu*king-well knows it, too. Our levers need a good story, with plenty of detail that we can wrap our brains around: a favourite strategy of mine is to plan plenty of super-fun things to do first-thing on a Saturday morning, like an early surf or a hike with my kids. I’ll think through the details, and then get excited about it; so when Mr Four-Pint comes around, I’ve got a long list of detailed reasons not to submit to the chaos.
Second, a lever needs to be strong enough so that it doesn’t crack under the weight of the obstacle. It’s no good having a long-arse lever that is made of balsa wood. You need to find a lever that you actually care about: your lever needs to evoke a visceral emotional response, one that more-often-than-not drowns-out the voice that is telling you to pour that pint. We need to make the lever so compelling that we can’t possibly ignore it; and for me, that means Kid A and Kid B. The thought of leaving my kids with the impression that their Dad is a pisshead – and that Saturday morning hangovers are normal – is abhorrent to me. I’ve had lots of good success with this lever.
The final strategy I’d like to share is probably the most important one: forgiveness. Let’s just say – hypothetically – that despite your best-efforts to find strong levers and tune them to your individual tone, you still find yourself under the crush of 1am regret. You’ll inevitably feel like a failure, and try to disentangle where you went wrong. Let me save you the trouble: you just didn’t have long and/or strong enough levers. It isn’t rocket surgery; the reasons for drinking too much were more compelling than your reasons for not doing so. But let me also save you hours of crushing regret: the best thing you can do for yourself is spend a half-dozen minutes pondering some longer and stronger levers to use next time, and then quickly forgive yourself. There are all sorts of horrid things to be found in the witching hour for those who dwell too long; build the mental crush into a new lever, stuff it in your quiver, and move on.
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