Keep Fit, Stay Sharp, Play Better Poker

Patrik Antonius
Four out of five experts agree, Mantonius is fit!

I know, I know. These are supposed to be articles on poker and the psychology thereof.

But a couple of installments back we had an extended discussion on the role of self-confidence and personal assuredness and their impact on our games. In that article, I snuck in a bit on exercise.

I did it for a good reason. Physical exercise turns out to be a remarkably important element in cognitive function, and let's face it, folks - poker, if it is anything at all, is one hell of a cognitively demanding game.

I've said this before, and I grow ever more certain of its truth: The game of poker, when it is played at its highest levels with the strongest opponents, is the most complex and mentally demanding game that is played routinely by members of our species.

Sure, it can be played by any old bozo and, if you wish, you can fool around at the tables without so much as cranking up your brain past its basic, grade-two level.

But if you want to truly grasp the richness of the game, its wonderfully interwoven features, its wheels-within-wheels-within-wheels strategic ploys, you'd better get that three-pound hunk of what looks for all the world like a bowl of porridge between your ears rolling.

And physical exercise will help you do it.

I'm serious. We now know that physical exercise can have a significant impact on cognitive functions, particularly on memory.

This link has been suspected for a long time, particularly in the elderly, whose declines in memory can be stopped or even reversed by a program of physical exercise. But until recently we didn't know exactly why this happened, and we weren't sure if it also helped younger people.

Erik Cajelais
Did someone say fitness?

It turns out the reason is simple. Physical exercise boosts the efficiency and effectiveness of brain metabolism, specifically of lactate, glucose and an insulin-like growth factor, and it does so across the board: in rats, monkeys and people of all ages.

Simplifying a bit, these compounds are to your brain as gasoline is to an internal combustion engine. They're the fuel.

Each of them has slightly different roles, but a series of recent studies recording brain activity shows that uptake of all three of these compounds by brain cells increases with exercise.

And, fascinatingly, the brain areas that are most affected are those known to be critical for memory, decision making and deliberative thought - functions that lie pretty close to the core of the game of poker.

So, what do you need to do? It's fairly simple. You need to put in at least one to two hours a week doing three classic kinds of exercise: cardiovascular, strength and flexibility. If you can do more hours, so much the better.

There are all kinds of ways to do this - running, fencing, skiing. But for most of us, it's best done with trips to the gym or wellness center.

Poker players are among the most unhealthy people in the world. They sit around all freakin' day in a chair doing dick-all, eating on the fly, usually fatty, unhealthy foods.

Sam Farha
Sammy smokes when Sammy wants.

Fortunately, not as many of them smoke anymore, and we can all be thankful that very few public rooms allow tobacco now. But I find myself feeling more than a bit sad when I see how many of my friends are overweight and how many of them weren't a couple of years ago.

Between the need for solid decision making, thinking and memory and the importance of physical stamina and bodily well-being, it's a bloody shame to see how many of us have let ourselves go.

And, yeah, I understand how tough it is to get your butt down to the fitness center two or three times a week. Sometimes I have to drag my weary self out of my comfy chair too.

But I do it. And when I do, I am really happy with myself.

I keep my weight down and my muscle tone up, and I can almost feel those glucose molecules zipping around in my medial temporal lobes (important brain areas for memory), parietal regions (involved in processing many incoming channels of information) and, of course, my frontal lobes (critical structures for decision making and deliberative actions).

OK, I'm done preaching now, but you know what? I just gave you some of the best poker advice you've gotten in a long time. If you follow me here it'll give you as much of a step up in your game as reading all 72 volumes of Dan Harrington's writings on poker.

Author Bio:

Arthur Reber has been a poker player and serious handicapper of thoroughbred horses for four decades. He is the author of The New Gambler's Bible and coauthor of Gambling for Dummies. Formerly a regular columnist for Poker Pro Magazine and Fun 'N' Games magazine, he has also contributed to Card Player (with Lou Krieger), Poker Digest, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Titan Poker. He outlined a new framework for evaluating the ethical and moral issues that emerge in gambling for an invited address to the International Conference of Gaming and Risk Taking.

Until recently he was the Broeklundian Professor of Psychology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Among his various visiting professorships was a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Now semiretired, Reber is a visiting scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

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