Managing Partner at Dragonfly Capital. Effective Altruist. Airbnb, Earn.com (acquired by Coinbase) alum. Instructor @ Bradfield. Writer. Former poker pro. Donate 33% of my income to charity.
We concluded the first part of this article series with a discussion on structuring your poker life and career. But being a poker player is about more than merely playing poker—it is also in how you conduct your life around it.
It is no secret that poker is an unwieldy horse. It is stubborn, unpredictable, and will happily buck anyone who can’t hold on. Most can’t. You likely know someone who couldn’t, and was trampled underneath the weight of poker.
I know many.
I want you to hold on. But it isn’t easy. It requires attentiveness, hard work, and living well. It requires honoring your life and your health. In part two of this article series, we will discuss the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle as a poker player, including practical advice on sleep, nutrition, and exercise. We will then go on to discuss motivation, and the role that need and ego play in the development of a poker player.
Poker is a demanding existence. It drains us. It muddies our sleep, health, and diet. Many poker players have trouble balancing their lives; some never do. One of the greatest challenges to you as a poker player is to restore that balance. Not only for the sake of your game, but for the sake of your overall well-being.
The bedrock of your constitution comes from diet and nutrition. Even if the other pieces are missing—if you’re sleeping poorly or not exercising—learning healthy eating habits is perhaps the most valuable thing you can do to immediately improve your well-being.
Stop eating processed foods. Throw them out completely. Cut out as much sugar as you can. Ideally, limit your diet to fruits, vegetables, nuts, meat, and unrefined grains (if you’re ambitious, you may want to try cutting out grains entirely). Eat multiple meals a day—4 or 5 is ideal, but if you’re not already, at least 3 meals a day is a good start. Eat to satiety, not fullness. When shopping, stay on the periphery of the supermarket—almost everything in the aisles is processed, or otherwise bad for you. Eat real food, as close to fresh and from the farm as you can. Take a multivitamin and fish oil to supplement any nutritional deficiencies. Eat slowly. Savor your food. Be consistent in your meals. Cook if you can, or hire a personal chef if you can afford it. Pre-made meals are also a reasonable option. Don’t eat fast food, even when you’re feeling lazy. Be consistent, push through for a while, and you’ll build up habits that will sustain you.
Cut out sodas and soft-drinks completely—they are essentially liquid candy. Energy drinks are especially sugary and come loaded with dangerous amounts of caffeine, so avoid them. Caffeine itself is a tolerable vice, so if you must have caffeine, ingest it from tea or coffee (Google “bulletproof coffee” for a healthy and delicious coffee recipe). Drink as little alcohol as possible (and always lock yourself out of your poker accounts when you plan to drink). If you must consume alcohol, give preference to wine (especially red), light beers, and wood-aged spirits (whiskey, brandy, scotch, cognac).
Eating multiple, smaller meals a day, consisting of foods that have lower glycemic loads (that is, foods that don’t have as much sugar and don’t spike your insulin levels as strongly) will make your blood sugar more consistent throughout the day. More consistency means that you won’t have the ups and downs of sluggishness and depression that often comes from a poor diet. You will feel more rounded and energetic throughout the day.
In a lifestyle as sedentary and chaotic as poker, regular exercise can feel like it’s difficult to maintain. But the benefits of exercise are numerous and powerful—it’s truly one of the most valuable investments you can make in your life.
Regular vigorous exercise triggers rushes of endorphins (which not only make us feel good, but also increase our mental clarity and stimulate learning). It also helps to keep our energy levels stable throughout the day. It’s been proven time and time again that exercise is the most effective treatment for depression (individually more effective than either antidepressants or therapy), and this has a dose response, meaning the more exercise you do, the more improvement to your overall affect. Plus, this is not to mention that it dramatically increases your life span, your immune system, makes you look better, burns fat, and allows you to eat more (who doesn’t love eating?). Exercise is as close to a panacea as it gets.
If you’re not exercising at all, start. Find something easy and doable. It may be something like powerwalking, a small regimen of pushups and situps, jogging, even some mild yoga. For poker players who travel often, it is important to remember that you can get in very intense body-weight workouts anywhere. There are no excuses. When I was traveling through Europe, I would often do my workouts in a hotel room, out in a park, or on a secluded street corner.
A word of advice: don’t just get a gym membership and think you’ve got it taken care of. Statistically, paying for a gym membership in and of itself doesn’t make it very likely you’ll actually go consistently, or get in good workouts. Instead, sign up for exercise classes, hire a personal trainer, or find a motivated workout buddy to train with you. The latter three, because they involve structure and social pressure, make it much more likely that you will end up exercising and being consistent with your workouts. They will also make your average workout intensity much higher.
It may help to emphasize skill development rather than just “working out.” Focus on building strength, or improving your yoga/flexibility, or improving your kickboxing skills. The more motivating and goal-oriented you are, the easier it will be to exercise continually. It goes back to as we discussed in an earlier chapter—co-opt your environment. Assume your unconscious self will generally take the path of least resistance, so stack the odds in favor of exercising. It will pay off in the end.
And lastly, don’t fear overtraining. The odds of overtraining for someone who’s just beginning or has an intermediate workout regimen is so low as to be negligible. Workout as much and often as you possibly can—it will hurt at first, and be cumbersome. But eventually, you will mentally associate it with the feeling of efficacy and the proceeding endorphin rush that comes after a good workout. Eventually, you’ll start to like it (I promise). It takes time to get over the initial hump, but the fruits of good exercise are invaluable for your body and mind.
Finally, we come to sleep. Sleep is one of the most notoriously chaotic elements in a poker player’s life. The poker player who goes to bed at sunrise and wakes up at 3PM has become almost a cliché. But sleep is essential to not only physical recovery and health, but it is vital to the consolidation of learning and memories. Sleep is when your brain is reorganizing itself, processing everything it’s learned from the previous day, and replenishing its energy stores. Getting good and adequate sleep, therefore, is essential to learning poker.
Studies show that aligning with your natural Circadian rhythms (being awake during times of light and sleeping during dark) minimizes fatigue. Your body has been acclimated over hundreds of thousands of years to be awake during the day and asleep at night, so inverting that rhythm is suboptimal for your mental and physical functioning. For some, inverted sleep may be unavoidable, especially those who play live poker.
But for the rest of us who have more freedom over where and when we can play, we should try to adjust our sleep to be awake during the day and asleep at night. Being aligned with the cycle of sunlight will increase your energy levels, your overall health, and perhaps just as importantly, will keep you more connected to the rest of the waking world. Being a citizen of the night is very isolating, and is probably one of the reasons why depression is so rampant among poker players. An inverted sleep cycle disconnects you from the rest of the world.
Be wary of your sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene is the term psychologists use to describe healthy, consistent sleeping habits. The basis of good sleep hygiene is going to sleep at the same time every night, and making sure you get continuous 7-9 hours of sleep every night. In fact, studies show that the most important element of sleep hygiene is sleeping at a consistent time. Inconsistent sleep is far worse for your body and mental functioning than inverted sleep. So treat your sleep as sacred, and take extra lengths to try to sleep at the same time (or close to it) every day.
Other important elements of sleep hygiene are simple recommendations: don’t eat heavy meals before sleeping, avoid any stimulants such as caffeine or nicotine, and avoid alcohol. Don’t do anything in your bed except sleep and have sex—no reading, laptop use, or TV watching. Associate your bed solely with sleep, and it will become easier for you to fall asleep.
A good way to structure good sleep habits is by having a pre-sleep ritual. Brushing your teeth, changing into pajamas, reading before bed, or whatever you do—having pre-established rituals that signal your body and mind to get ready for sleep will ease the nighttime transition, and relax you so that falling asleep becomes easier.
But as poker players, our sleep hygiene is constantly assailed by the vagaries of poker. Most commonly, sleep patterns tend to be disrupted by big downswing days, or after marathon sessions. It is vital that you don’t allow this to happen. Letting bad poker days affect your sleep will only magnify the loss’ effects, and make it that much harder to mentally and emotionally recover the next day. If it is time to sleep and you have just quit a losing session, or are still stewing over one, you must first find a way to relax yourself. If the loss still stings, practice some relaxation techniques, take a warm bath, call a friend, watch funny Youtube clips—whatever will calm you down so that you can sleep properly. Writing about the session immediately afterward may help to divest you of the feelings and thoughts you’re experiencing, so you can leave them behind when you go to sleep.
Remember, when you get up from a bad session, you have not absolved yourself of responsibility. A challenge still remains from the moment you leave the table—the challenge of resuming your normal day-to-day habits with minimal disruption. If you want to live well as a poker player, you must strive to live well in spite of poker. Being able to get a good night’s sleep after a bad day, eat a good breakfast in the morning and have a vigorous workout is in and of itself a victory. Your normal routine in and of itself will abate much of the negativity that usually settles after a bad downswing. Think of your lifestyle as your frame—the frame of “despite this, my life moves forward.” Fight for that frame. Your lifestyle is the vehicle which will carry you forward.
If it needs fixing, fix it now. Move your sleep slowly toward nighttime. Start cutting out bad foods, little by little. Go on a jog, or sign up for a jiu jitsu class. Fortify yourself step-by-step, and always feel like you’re moving forward. Take care to nourish your body and mind, and they will excel and be of great use to you.
It always struck me as a curiosity that the vast majority of world-class poker players came from the same place—they are almost all mostly young, college-educated Western males from comfortable middle-class backgrounds. Of course, you can attribute a lot of this to cultural factors. College is where middle-class, analytically-minded boys have a lot of free time (and poker is marketed primarily towards males), so that explains some of it. But it doesn’t explain this: why don’t more great players come out of poverty? Why aren’t global poker sites inundated with grinders from China, or India, or other parts of the developing world where people really need the money? To be a bit cynical, it seems all of the money in poker mostly goes to the people who don’t really need it.
What is it that these Western kids are playing for, then? It’s hard to encapsulate it in a word. Perhaps ego. Competition. Validation. Fighting for a dream, or a fantasy. Although you might say that such motivations are minor, somehow they seem to be stronger and more sustaining motivations than need.
In fact, studies in behavioral economics have demonstrated the adverse effects of monetary motivation on creative performance. To put it simply, the more you have physically at stake, the further creative performance plummets. But once you find intrinsic motivations—e.g., ego, competition, self-mastery—your performance at a creative task becomes more steady and robust.
Comparing poker to a video game is a common trope, but it may have a great deal of insight to it. Imagine if you had to play a video game, but every time you lost a life, you lost money. Do you think you’d play better or worse? The pressure would most likely not only make you play worse, but stress you out and lessen your enjoyment of the game. Poker is very much the same way. Those who feel that poker is a safe haven, a playground, an arcade game on their computer—they are most free to be creative, to explore, to play. They are able to learn and experiment uninhibitedly. And, as is common knowledge now, intrinsic motivations tend to be stronger and more sustaining than extrinsic ones. It is more powerful to want to attain mastery at something, or to prove something to yourself, than to want to reach an arbitrary monetary amount or achieve some kind of external goalpost.
This, again, bespeaks the importance of having the right kind of motivation. Embrace a goal of self-mastery, or becoming better than your competition. Don’t play because you need to. Play because you want to.
Most poker player’s relationship with the game begins out of obsession. If you have never spent hours tinkering with excel sheets, PokerStove, your HEM stats, railing the $25/$50 games immersed in a personal fantasy, then you will probably never be a great player. Every great player I have ever known has started with this obsession.
The obsession is not always a healthy one. It usually isn’t. For many, it digs into them, and handful at a time, scoops out the pulp of their life. Before long, through fantasies, through reading forums and poker books, through breakfasts contemplating how to balance their turn overbetting ranges, poker possesses them. It enters them like a ghost, a parasite. And it rallies every resource they have toward poker.
No one else will tell you this, but I will tell you the truth: if you do not have this—if you have never been taken over, if this mania has not hijacked your mind—then you should give up on poker. You should walk away now. You will never be a great player. Chances are, you will only lose money and time. You are liable to only hurt yourself and those around you.
This is the truth. If you are not a little bit crazy, you will never reach the level of excellence and dedication required to master poker.
But let’s say you do. Let’s say you wake up in the middle of the night from dreams of hands you you’d played the day before. Let’s say you fantasize, calculate, strategize, obsess. Then perhaps poker is for you. Perhaps that fire will propel you. Dive into further into its depths. Once you do, poker itself will be the easy part. Even when it’s not easy, it will be easy.
That is where the real work begins—in taming the obsession. When you are developing as a player, poker is constantly pumping through your veins, like a drug, a poison. But after a while, perhaps years, or however long it takes you to reach a place of maturity, or security—after that, you must be ready to retake control of your life. For most poker players, it takes them a long time to take back the reins. Some never do at all.
This retaking is essential. It is the basis upon which we as professional poker players can find peace, happiness, flourishing. There comes a point in the life of every burgeoning professional at which you must steal back your life and make it your own. Perhaps you are at that point now.
\*Storm Trooper image by Kristina Alexanderson.
In the next article, we will conclude our examination of the life of a poker player. We will look into the importance of spiritual health, happiness, balance in life, and resolving your identity as a poker player. These three articles will comprise the final chapter in my book, and so the next article will also be the final one.
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Nobody teaches us how to be poker players. Poker culture teaches us how to slowplay, how to setmine, how to manage our bankroll. It teaches us how to think, how to talk, what is cool and what is not. We absorb these teachings eagerly. But when was it going to teach us how to be poker players? What to think of ourselves? How to thrive in a culture that is...