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How to Turn the Power of Sleep into Better Poker Results

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Jason Bourne called it a weapon.

The Dalai Lama called it the best form of meditation.

Daniel Negreanu and Fedor Holz believe it’s the key to becoming the very best poker player you can be.

They're all talking about sleep.

The Science of Fatigue

“I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?” -- Ernest Hemingway

For many years, top businessmen and entrepreneurs have pointed out with glacial equanimity how a solid eight hours sleep is one of the primary reasons behind their success.

"Hey ... what time did you go to bed last night?"

It was only a matter of time before the world of sport sat up and took notice.

In 2016 the New York Times ran an article on the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks and their attempts to improve players' sleep patterns to gain an edge on the football field.

Players were wearing Fatigue Science Readibands designed and created by Fatigue Science, a company that creates wearable technology so people can understand how sleep affects performance.

Sam Ramsden, the Seahawks Director of Player Health and Performance, told the Times that the wearable tech allowed them to understand why certain players weren’t getting enough sleep and then work with that data for the benefit of the team.

The technology allows Ramsden to interrogate sleep quality to determine a player's state of alertness. If you have two quarterbacks of equal ability, and one is 100% alert and the other 50%, then that information comes in handy.

It also allowed players to identify previously unknown sleep disorders such as sleep apnea so they can receive treatment. Minor changes such as changing the mattress and pillows also made a substantial impact.

And it's not just egg chasers who understand the value of a good kip.

From Poker Players to Sleeping Giants

When Daniel Negreanu shared his goals for the 48th Annual World Series of Poker (WSOP), high on his list was to sleep a lot. The two-time WSOP Player of the Year even has a trailer outside the Rio so he can take micro-naps.

When Fedor Holz launched his mental performance app, Primed Mind, he was very vocal on the interview/podcast scene about the importance of sleep in his ascent into the Top 10 All-Time Money Earners.

When two players who have won more than $55m between them share the same enthusiasm for sleep, it's time to pay attention.

When players complain the game of poker is becoming more difficult it's because there is so more education available to players.

Technical abilities have improved so much that elite players are now turning to improvements away from the table to find new edges.

Yoga, mindfulness, meditation and sleep are giving them that edge.

Why Do We Sleep, Anyway?

Until modern times, why we slept was a mystery. Today we understand that sleep is crucial for:

  • re-vitalization of our cells
  • to erase the crap floating around in our brain
  • to support learning and memory, and
  • to regulate mood, appetite and our desire for a bit of hanky-panky

Neuroscientists categorize sleep states into two distinctly differing phases.

1. Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM)

NREM is the phase of your sleep cycle where you begin to drift off. It allows for:

  • a reduction in electrical activity in the brain
  • decreased muscle activity
  • decreased oxygen consumption
  • decreased heart rate
  • the secretion of certain chemicals that help aid the next stage of sleep 

2. Rapid Eye Movement (REM)

REM sleep - often referred to as deep sleep - is where the brain continues to release more chemicals that paralyze our muscles to prevent us from causing harm (to others and ourselves).

We witness decreased control of body temperature, increased oxygen consumption and, if you are a man, you develop a chubby as your penis fills with blood. 

In a recent study at the University of California San Diego researchers discovered that REM sleep enhances the creative process even more than when you are awake.

When you think you're sleeping, your brain is working very hard to process what you have learned throughout the day (NREM sleep) and to prepare to use that information the next day (REM sleep).

So: if you choose to watch RunItOnce videos until the crack of dawn, fall asleep for a few hours and then get up to play, you aren't giving your brain enough time to process the sexy tone of one Phil Galfond.

Five Ways to Optimize a Good Night's Sleep

So what changes can we make in our life to get more sleep?

When not writing about poker I help people quit alcohol and a lot of them suffer from insomnia after ditching the bottle.

How do you eradicate insomnia and learn to get a good night's rest? Here are five pieces of advice:

Matt Berkey: Gets the why.

1. The Why Behind Your Time

A lack of philosophizing can lead to insomnia. Being stuck in a rut is a good example. Imagine you hate your job but you don't consider any other options.

There are no goals, no meaning and no purpose, limiting your scope of change. You become psychologically and physically stuck.

Perhaps you aren't happy playing poker but are unsure what to do about those feelings, increasing your levels of stress, making you feel very confused when at the tables.

A clear meaning & purpose - the why behind your time at the tables - can very often lead to better quality sleep. But you can't find meaning & purpose without first developing the habit of philosophy.

2. Try Not to Medicate

Try to eliminate supplements such as sleeping pills and melatonin. I would also avoid using drugs such as alcohol or cannabis as a sleep aid.

Supplements are short-term fixes. While they may be worth it if you desperately need to get some sleep to catch an early flight or something, they hide your core issues and you never end up doing anything about them.

Meds not a good long-term solution.

Supplements and drugs are short-term fixes. We are poker players. We believe in the long term.

3. Get Dark

We are designed to sleep when the lights go out so it makes sense to darken your room when it's time to get some shut-eye.

The darker the room, the more your body secretes melatonin. Dark curtains are essential.

Another tip is to use an eye mask and the best one I have found is the Sleep Master Sleep Mask available on Amazon, as recommended by the entrepreneur and author Tim Ferriss 

4. Reduce Electromagnetic Fields

We still aren’t sure the range of effects that our increased exposure to electromagnetic fields has on our bodies. But there is some growing research that suggests one of the side effects is a reduced release of Melatonin.

Before bedtime, turn off your wireless router. Turn your phone onto airplane mode and remove it from your room. Also remove your laptop and turn off any unnecessary electronic devices and sockets. 

Another useful tip is to protect yourself from EMFs by using a Hedron EMF shield.

5. Box Breathing

Another issue affecting sleep quality is a topsy-turvy central nervous system. One way of calming it is to develop a bedtime breathing routine.

When in La La Land most of us breathe through our mouth but it's beneficial to get into the practice of breathing through your nose as it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and this induces relaxation.

One proven routine is box breathing (or four square breathing):

You can also check out the Lucas Rockwood podcast where he talks about the benefits of Box Breathing as well as giving an example.

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Now it’s your turn. What tips do you have for a good night’s sleep?

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