Understanding Mistakes in Poker

The aspiring player’s mental game starts off as very fragile. It takes little to rattle confidence, instill doubt and spread fear or anger. One of the most common forms of tilt I see in my students is unquestionably Mistake Tilt.

Mistake Tilt occurs when a poker player makes a play that they interpret with hindsight to be a certain error, likely error, or even just a possible error. Anger and self-resentment arise from the conception of failure fuelled by the burn of very recent monetary loss. Needless to say, Mistake Tilt very rarely occurs after a winning hand and is therefore extremely subject to results orientation and biased analysis. The kind of analysis that follows a mistake after winning a huge pot is usually nothing more than a relaxed pondering and indeed mistakes made in winning hands often lead to more fixing being done with the distraction of negative emotion firmly suppressed by the ecstasy of monetary success.

Like almost every kind of tilt the roots of mistake tilt dwell in the severe disconnect between the world of poker and the world we evolved in. In the former, terrible monetary short-term outcomes occur from good decisions on a regular basis. In the latter, good choices produce positive outcomes with a much higher degree of reliability. When you get your exam results back and score an F, it’s reasonable to assume that you performed badly. When you get your poker session results back and find that you’ve lost 4 buy-ins, such an assumption is completely unjustified.

Mistake tilt leads to a very unhealthy conception of mistakes. It causes anger and confusion and trains us that mistakes are something to be avoided at all costs and treated with distain. An unconfident poker player is an unsuccessful poker player. We need to transform the way we view mistakes.

This article is not actually about Mistake Tilt. It’s about the different kinds of mistakes that exist in poker – which of these are desirable to make and which are harmful and avoidable. Hopefully by understanding the five different types of poker mistake we can rewire our unhelpful human instinct to react in a negative way when we suspect an error has been made. As a result Mistake Tilt can be massively reduced, but as of now I’ll say no more about it.

The following chart shows five different types of poker mistake. Have a glance at it and see if you can form a guess at to what each might entail.

Mistakes Chart.png

  1. Unknown MistakesAn unknown mistake is one that the player is not yet aware of. It may be that he justifies a certain bad play that he makes habitually as fine, or that these mistakes simply slip under the radar of his introspective poker analysis. We should not worry about unknown unknowns in poker any more than we should in life, but just as in life, we should slowly try to reduce the quantity of them. These are not the kind of mistakes that hurt poker development as long as we make regular efforts to discover some of them and set to work on fixing them. These mistakes are by far the most common type of error we make every day.


  1. Confused Mistakes

    A confused mistake is a much more worrying plague than an unknown mistake. The confused mistake is one that would not ordinarily have happened had the student not bitten off more theory than he could chew. There exists a very definite and profound gap between the in-game and out-of-game abilities of aspiring poker players. If the student overloads his vat of freshly discovered concepts, the result is a spillage of confusion that not only affects the freshly discovered material, but spills over onto parts of his game he once considered solid or fully learned. Every newly assimilated concept makes perfect sense during the first digestion, but take too many of these new ideas to the tables before reinforcing them and the result is a mess. Confused mistakes are cloudy, frustrating errors that might not even be errors. You simply don’t know any more. Reduce the amount of these errors by learning at a pace your in-game thought process can keep up with.


  1. Tilting Mistakes

    Tilting, not tilted. Mistakes that are actually a result of and not just a cause of tilt will be ignored for our purposes. The reason for this is that mistakes caused by emotional interference cannot be rectified simply by understanding the different kinds of errors we are likely to make. Instead, fixing tilted mistakes requires work on the mental game and this is a subject that we do not have the space to touch on here.Tilting mistakes cause tilt; they are not a result of tilt. They are in fact usually completely fine and naturally occurring. Why is a tilting mistake so infuriating to make? Because the student thinks he ought to know better than to make it. This is the culprit belief that leads to unnecessary anger and self-loathing.Professional sports people make mistakes all the time. How often do you witness world class tennis players hit double faults or golfers land in the water? It’s not that they haven’t learned how to avoid hitting a ball into the lake. It’s just that every skill comes with a certain degree of failure. As poker is such a complex game, mastering the right thoughts that lead to the right actions in the small amount of time available is a lot more cognitively similar to golfing than to learning a simple mental skill like multiplying small numbers together.You might know how to play a balanced floating game vs. a c-bet but still end up making the odd suspect float. You might know that you should first work out your required equity to call a river bet before pressing any button but still finding yourself hitting the call button immediately. These mistakes are just natural building blocks in the learning model. As long as they gradually decrease as you learn something then you’re doing just fine.Anger arises from the fact that the concept in question is obviously not learned as well as the student would like to believe. It takes time to apply things perfectly in-game. Let the anger go. You are supposed to mess up, even when you know something.


  1. Investigated Mistakes

    Now we come to the type of error that is very beneficial. An investigated mistake is one that is well known, unconfused and not reacted to angrily. This cocktail of goodness leads to an inquisitive reflective reaction. The student files the mistake away until he has the adequate time to address it properly, tossing it away from the forefront of his decision-making. He is still engaged in a poker session and that demands full focus to maximise EV. When the student comes to review this mistake he may reason:“I know this is bad, but I need to find out why it occurred”I call this ‘culprit thought analysis’ and I practice it every day with my students. X is bad and X is known to be bad and you try to make good choices, therefore X was caused by some other thought that you are not aware of in hindsight.Instead of angrily ranting about how stupid X is and that you have no idea why you keep doing it, try to determine X’s causal thought. Perhaps your ill-timed river bluff against the fish was caused by a thought like “I need to take a stand” Look for thoughts that seem detached from EV and you can investigate why this kind of mistake occurs and eliminate it massively in future.The more of these mistakes we make the better. They are the ones that make us great players in the long run.


  1. Quick Fix Mistakes

    These are the end result of making lots of investigated mistakes. Even after we’ve fully and calmly examined why we make mistakes and understand the various culprit thoughts in play, we still mess up! Only now we can spot the culprit thought immediately and defuse it. We might even catch ourselves while the mistake is still internal to our thoughts and hasn’t yet resulted in a click of the wrong button. If you’re making lots of these mistakes you’re doing a very good job of learning, but note if you hadn’t understood the nature of the different poker mistakes, you could easily have turned a quick fix mistake into a tilting mistake.That’s all I’ve got to say on poker mistakes. Mistake Tilt should now appear an absurd reaction to a very normal phenomenon. I’ll refer once more to my favourite analogy of getting enraged by it raining in Scotland. Tilt caused by errors is very avoidable even if the errors themselves are not.

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