Drug tests at poker tournaments? Why not?

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This column first appeared in Ante Up Magazine in April 2009.

Most poker players dream about sitting at a major-event final table. I have a nightmare.
In my nightmare, I gaze around the brightly lit table trying to assess the chip stacks of my opponents but, oddly enough, it’s not chips that I see in front of each player.

To my left, instead of chips, there are six-packs of Corona stacked in neat piles. Behind them is sitting Scotty Nguyen, cursing at everyone, especially me. Sitting next to him behind a mountain of white powder is a faceless Internet pro hunched underneath a hoodie. He occasionally dips into his pile with a tiny spoon. Next to him, there is a fortress of stacked Red Bulls and from behind it bellows Hevad Khan: “Buuulldozeeeeerrrrr!” In the next two seats, Mike Matusow and Paul Phillips are playing a side game using piles of Adderall and Provigil as chips.

There is a tap on my shoulder and the cocktail waitress offers me my choice from her tray of pills, mounds of powder, energy drinks and beer. “You’ll need something to keep up with this crowd, Sir,” she says.

“WTF,” I mutter and suddenly a bald beefy tournament director appears. “No F-bombs allowed at this table!” he says as he grabs me by my collar and hauls me off to poker jail.
Okay, it’s just a crazy dream. Hevad quit drinking Red Bull a year ago. But maybe the rest of the details of my dream are not so far-fetched at all.

In my last two columns I gave you a brief overview of a few of the various drugs that could be used to enhance performance at the poker table. I dismissed caffeine as ineffective and dissed cocaine and speed as dangerous, addictive and illegal. I named a few pros who have admitted using Adderall, a form of legalized speed, at the table but, in fairness, those particular pros suffer from true mental disorders and have obtained these drugs legally with a doctor’s prescription. Last month I discussed Provigil, a true performance enhancer with minimal side effects. Some pros are already using it to improve their game.
There are many other drugs that might be helpful to poker players. Beta blockers reduce heart rate and blood pressure and could help you hide that pulsating neck vein you get with a big hand. The Restless Leg Syndrome drug, Requip, reduces inhibitions and could help convert a tight-passive player into a loose-aggressive one. There are drugs for dementia that improve memory, concentration and pattern recognition. Even Botox can be used to paralyze some of the facial muscles and reduce tells.

Before you dismiss this as fanciful or unlikely, consider some tournament fields number in the thousands and millions of dollars are at stake. Surely some players are using drugs to get an edge. The real question is not whether it’s happening, because it is. It’s what, if anything, the poker community should do about it.

Let me be clear: This issue involves tournaments only. In cash games, house rules apply. The house, whether it’s a casino or your home, can allow cigars, drugs, booze, eating at the table, wild cards, Pass the Trash, or running the flop more than once. If you don’t like the rules, you don’t have to play.

But when you’ve coughed up hundreds or maybe thousands of dollars to try to win a tournament, you have a right to expect the rules are structured so no one has an unfair advantage. So here’s the big question: Should major-event tournaments develop a list of prohibited drugs and then drug-test the final table?

Here are some bullet points AGAINST drug testing:

Poker always has been associated with booze, drugs and hard living. Poker players are Libertarians. Leave them alone.

How easy would it be to spike someone’s drink at a final table so they would fail the drug test? A whole new level of security would have to be established. Olympic teams commonly bring their own food and chefs for this very reason.

Are tournament sponsors prepared to deal with the legal earthquake that would occur if a main event bracelet winner fails a drug test?

What about players who truly suffer from mental disorders such as ADHD and need these drugs to function? Should they be prohibited from entering tournaments? Or must they stop taking their medication and risk a relapse? Can they be considered disabled and can they sue for discrimination under the ADA?

All right, what are the major points FOR drug testing?

How can poker gain legitimacy as a serious international competition while continuing to ignore drugs that enhance performance?

The Olympics, football, baseball and even horse racing require its champions be drug-free. What kind of message is the poker community sending to young people about this issue?

You’ve been sitting at a final table for hours. You’re fatigued. Life-changing money is at stake. If everyone else at your table is taking something to stay awake and improve performance, would you feel pressure to risk your health and take something, too? Is that fair?

For now, I’m going to remain strictly neutral on this issue, but I would love to hear what you think about it. Send me your opinions and comments and I’ll report back to you in a future column.

— An avid poker player, Frank Toscano, M.D. is also a Board Certified Emergency Physician with more than 28 years of front-line experience. He is now the medical director for Red Bamboo Medi Spa in Clearwater.