If Only It Were a Ra Tilt Instead

A few months ago, after many hours of intense not-actually-gambling gambling action, I managed to graduate to the next level in the online mahjong client Tenhou. Then, two weeks ago, I squandered all of that and lost so much that I got demoted. From this experience I have learned many things.

When I was telling esteemed Anime News Network columnist and mahjong co-panelist Dave about it, he said that I must be “going tilt,” which I learned was poker lingo for someone whose emotions are clouding his or her ability to play well. At first I denied that this could possibly be happening to me, but in hindsight that was exactly the problem.

It all began when I actually became aware of the points system on Tenhou. On Tenhou, in addition to the scoring in the game itself, between matches you gain or lose what are essentially experience points. The better you do, the more points you receive, until you manage to break into the next level. Lose, however, and points are deducted from you. In my situation, I was just one point away from reaching the next rank, where even barely placing 2nd in a game would have been enough. Conversely, I lost the match hard and then proceeded to lose pretty much every other match following. I kept thinking to myself, “You were so close to moving forward! Just keep at it!” This eventually turned into desperation where I was trying to just win something, which pretty much had the opposite effect. And all that while, I was constantly looking back at my points. I became too obsessed with seeing those numbers go up and it completely affected my skill and it cost me.

While my life was not on the line, from this experience I can relate to Nangou in the first episode of Akagi. Nangou is in deep, deep debt to the yakuza, and in his mahjong game against said gangsters he is desperate for any sort of win, but this desperation also prevents him from accomplishing anything. He is too afraid to take risks when he should, and so behind that even a glimmer of hope for a high-scoring hand means he’ll go for it even when he has almost no chance of accomplishing it. It is not until Akagi himself arrives that Nangou is able to break the self-induced spell and play as he should, foregoing his frantic scurryings for a confident charge forward. For me, the realization hit when I ended up dropping down a rank.

From that, I looked at myself and figured out some of the tendencies that arise in me when I’m desperate. The first is to be bothered when someone declares riichi very early in the game. When one goes into riichi, it appears a bold declaration that they are about to win. Under normal circumstances I welcome the challenge, but when I’m going tilt it becomes almost nerve-wracking, and I get so eager to finish a hand that I easily throw away tiles I shouldn’t, as opposed to when I’m right of mind and am able to alter my hand much more readily. That leads me into the second sign, which is that I get too attached to achieving certain hands, and become too unwilling to deviate. This is more than just a matter of going for high-risk hands when I shouldn’t, because even the cheaper, easier to assemble hands can result in the same trap. When you’re aiming for pinfu (a hand that is special because there is absolutely nothing special about it) no matter what, pinfu starts to feel surprisingly distant. Even my favored ikkitsuukan (full straight) does its best when my hand gradually morphs into it, as opposed to when I am consciously aiming for it.

Although this can be attributed to simple probability, I have a rather occult feeling about it, which is that fear is a big problem in mahjong. Without the ability to overcome fear, the hand is often unable to progress and transform. Sometimes I have to be able to abandon a seemingly grand potential because in reality it is a stifling noose that keeps me and my hand from growing within the game.

3 thoughts on “If Only It Were a Ra Tilt Instead

  1. Tilt is a universal game lesson. We’re irrational beings, and for some reason when we do badly we lose composure and are compelled to do things that make us even worse. If you worry about the numbers (and Tenhou’s statistics are extensive) from game to game, think “I’m down today!” (it’s gambling, ups and downs come and go) and start playing in the short-term, it’s going to kill you.

    Back when I was playing Virtua Fighter 4 FT really hard, we were able to use the VF.net online system. (Today, a VF5 machine can’t even be turned on outside of Japan due to region lockout.) We had cards, and the game tracked wins and losses. It was really vicious because we only had one machine, and since the winner stayed you were always up against the strongest guy in the room, over and over again. I had a 33% winrate or so. This would be absolutely pathetic if I were a regular arcade player playing against a normal pool of players, but that wasn’t the situation. Among the average guys, I had one of the better winrates. It still killed me, and more than once the thought of another loss piling onto my plate made me throw caution to the wind and play poorly.

    One of the stronger guys used a VF.net option favored by some high-level players: his win/loss record was not displayed in-game at all. He won consistently, but he didn’t let the exact number get to him. I’m not gonna say this single move left him perfectly composed, but it was a small precaution taken against even the possibility of tilting over a number like I used to do.

    These days, Tenhou is very happy to exhaustively remind me of my stats, and between matches I will stare, but I try and keep it out of the game and play solidly and consistently. And then every so often I discard a tile despite knowing that it was extremely dangerous. Often this single mistake proves to cost me the rest of the match. Rather than let that failure– one born completely of your own foolishness and greed– sink you, you have to take it as a wakeup call and remember it so that it won’t happen again.

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  2. Pingback: Aokimura Would Be Proud of My Mahjong « OGIUE MANIAX

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