Away from the poker table, help your mind relax

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This column first appeared in Ante Up Magazine in December 2008.

You’re in the zone. You have a great read on the table bully and he falls head first into your subtle trap. He looks confused and stunned when you take down the hand. As the dealer passes you the sugar, deep within the pleasure center of your brain, thousands of neurons squirt out little jets of dopamine. You sigh with contentment. Your heart rate and blood pressure go up just a little. All is right with the world.

Except the hand occurred more than three hours ago and you’re actually in your bed trying to get some sleep while that hand keeps playing over and over again in your head. Each time you spring your trap in your imagination the dopamine surge makes it feel good all over again. You smile with satisfaction against the pillow but still can’t sleep. So, because it feels good, you set it up in your head and play it again. What’s going on here and how do you stop it?

Unless you make your living playing poker, it’s probably those little surges of dopamine pleasure that keep you constantly coming back to the game. The feeling is a bit like launching a 3-pointer from NBA range, or chipping out of a deep bunker and stopping inches from the cup. The feeling is exhilarating, addicting. The problem is you don’t want exhilaration. You want sleep. Here’s how you can get it.

It’s tempting, of course, to play out satisfying hands in your head because that little burst of pleasure feels great even hours later. Resist for two reasons. First, the degree of mental alertness required to set up the trap in your head interferes with the neuronal “power-down” needed for sleep. And second, the dopamine pleasure surge is a neuro-stimulant. Its effect is similar to a tiny snort of cocaine or crystal meth. … not exactly a state of mind that’s conducive to sleep. Just so that there’s no confusion on this point, let me be clear: cocaine/crystal meth = bad thing; squirt of dopamine = not a bad thing.

Instead, if you really want to think about poker as you drift off, think of a simple repetitive action that requires little or no brainpower on your part, like dealing cards or shuffling chips. Even if you’re not a dealer or a chip-shuffler, imagine you are and visualize the action over and over, again and again.

It’s a rhythmic action that requires no mental setup and has no dopamine payoff in your brain. There’s a reason insomniacs have traditionally counted sheep and not Hooters girls. As you begin to get sleepy, it’s much easier to eventually let go of the visualization (of the chip shuffling, not the girls) and drift off to sleep.

A similar situation occurs when you’ve been running bad. You punish yourself at the poker table for bad decisions, and continue in bed by releasing neurotransmitters, this time a different chemical in a different area of the brain, but the effect is the same. In bed you replay the hand in your head and then chastise yourself with a sensation of regret. No sleep for you, bad boy.

There are a few other strategies you can use. First, try better to control your emotional investment at the table. Good beats and bad beats happen and you should just focus on making the best decision every time, not the outcome. In other words, don’t tilt, good or bad. Most of us who aren’t Bobby’s Room regulars may still have some work to do to control that particular aspect of our game.

Second, watch what you consume at the table. Where I play the coffee is strong, bitter and loaded with caffeine (up to 200 mg – the same as NoDoz). And it’s not just the coffee. All manner of super-caffeinated “energy drinks” (100-300 mg) are available that will irritate your stomach, speed up your heart and cause your brain to ruminate for hours. Even colas can have 55 mg. Stick with decaffeinated drinks, or just plain water.

So, unless you’re playing poker to pay your rent, relax. Enjoy the game. Try to remember what you did well and poorly at the table so your game can improve, but leave the exhilaration or regret behind when you leave. Avoid the many forms of caffeine available in your poker room. And when you hit the bed, forget about the perfect (or terrible) hand you played. Shuffle some chips and get some sleep.


— An avid poker player, Frank Toscano, M.D. is a board-certified emergency physician with more than 28 years of front-line experience. He’s medical director for Red Bamboo Medi Spa in Clearwater. Email your poker-health questions to ftoscano@redbamboomedispa.com