Memory loss at the table? Remember to remember

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

I had been card dead for several hours, so when I looked down at 9-9 I felt excited, but cautious. I figured if overcards appeared on the board I’d let the nines go unless I flopped a set. I raised three times the big blind and got one late-position caller, a regular I’ll call “Joe.”

The flop was 2-5-8 rainbow so I led out for two-thirds of the pot. Joe immediately shoved, a big overbet. He also had me covered. Could he have a better overpair? Or maybe he flopped a set? Or was he drawing to connectors? Three weeks earlier, Joe and I had played for hours at the same table. Now I was trying desperately to remember what his shove meant.

If I was Jill Price, I could’ve remembered easily. Price, a middle-aged school administrator from California, has been blessed (or cursed) with the most amazing memory ever studied. She can remember every detail of her life for the past 30 years (dates, public events, television shows, even what she had for lunch every day since she was 14). You can read about her odd talent in her book called The Woman Who Can’t Forget.

It turns out her ability probably isn’t all that helpful at the poker table after all. Her memory works mainly for autobiographical events, things that happen to her or that she has heard about. Her ability to memorize a long number or a poem or to remember how Joe played three weeks ago probably isn’t really any better than yours or mine. It does make you wonder how memory works and what you could do to improve your memory at the poker table.

I believe in the “attic” theory of memory. Once the attic is full, you can’t put anything more up there unless you take something out first. For me to remember how Joe likes to play small pairs, for example, I’d have to forget the names of one of my kids. Now I truly love Alexa and what’s-his-name, but I’d also like to become a better poker player, so what am I to do?

In 1970, when I was a Duke University sophomore, a sadistic psychology professor assigned to my class the task of memorizing the first 50 digits of the irrational number “e,” the base of the natural logarithms, to prove some point about how memory works. I sat in an alcove of the library with classmates chopping this number up into three- and four-digit chunks and trying to assign some memorable meaning to each chunk. Today, nearly 40 years later, I can still rattle off those 50 digits, but I can’t for the life of me remember what educational point my professor was trying to make. Clearly, he didn’t understand it then any better than I do now.

The truth is, how memory really works is still pretty much a mystery. Anyone who claims to understand it deeply is a world-renowned neuroscientist or just guessing, but it’s certainly clear that memory is not like an attic. With that disclaimer in mind, here are a few general guidelines for improving your memory at the table.

First, understand the process. Pay attention to the play at the table before you can notice something worth remembering. If you’re watching the dog races or surfing the Internet, you’re not paying attention. Second, look for a pattern. “He plays well,” is not a pattern. “He slow-plays sets,” is. Once you recognize a pattern, think about it. Break it into simple chunks. Think about it again. Resolve to remember it.

Exercise your memory regularly. As people age, those who engage in complex mental exercises like crossword puzzles or poker (hurray!) stay sharp longer. Finally, drink some coffee. Recent studies on rats and humans with dementia seem to show large doses of caffeine actually improve memory. How much you’d have to drink to have a measurable effect is not really clear, so don’t go crazy on Red Bull.

Back to the hand with Joe. I let my wife’s birthday fade out of my brain and suddenly was able to remember Joe usually raised preflop with premium pairs. I then erased my cell number from my memory (I never call myself anyway) and could now remember he liked to slow-play and trap with sets. Finally, I gave up the words to Gilligan’s Island and suddenly could recall that during the tournament Joe shoved on me twice with nothing but a draw. I was confident now. It was a classic semi-bluff. I called his all-in and he flipped up 6-7 suited for an open-ended straight draw. My nines held and I took down a juicy pot.
As I searched the parking lot trying to remember where I parked, I resolved to stop on the way home for a double espresso.

— 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