The No-Good, Very Bad Mistake of Multitasking in Poker

The Saratov Spiderman (Photo: Daily Mail)

On a recent plane trip from LA to London I watched a documentary about young men who climb to the top of the biggest industrial cranes in the world and then hang off them with one hand.

There are no harnesses, no safety nets. No second chances. If they lose their grip, they die.

Whilst this death-defying stunt seems stupid - and it is - there's still something we as poker players can learn from it.

Just prior to the hang -- and during the hang -- there is complete and utter silence. Not a single word.

Focus is the key to survival.

Effective Multitasking is a Myth

Put the bar down.

All of us have been in similar situations.

Perhaps not hanging from a crane the size of the Empire State Building, but times when we know that one mistake can result in a nasty ending.

During a recent skiing trip in Breckenridge, Colorado, I found myself on the ski lift with two young hotshots.

They didn’t lower the safety bar. Neither did I. It was an ego thing. I didn’t want to look soft.

As I stared down towards my death, I was bricking it. There was no way that I was going to engage in conversation. Not one word. I was focused on one thing: Keeping my ass in my seat.

Effective multitasking is a myth; one of a myriad of societal norms that we accept in a bid to fit in with the tribe.

The lack of effectiveness of multitasking is why the crane hangers don’t talk when they hang, why I didn’t talk when I took my death defying ski-lift, and why I once crashed my car on the motorway because I was talking to my boss on a hands-free phone.

Jonjo Shelvey Puts Swansea Up

I decided to play online poker on Sunday night. I fired up four tables and got stuck in.

I started at 3pm and at 4pm I turned on the game. It was Southampton versus Swansea. I had no interest in either team, but I turned it on anyway.

Then I decided to go through my e-mails. It was Sunday so I decided to go through my weekly ritual of planning ahead.

Football's not helping you either.

Google Calendar was on, Wunderlist was on and I was going through my tasks and prioritizing them.

The action folded around to me. I was in the big blind holding ace-jack. The cutoff moved all-in for 15 big blinds.

I didn't know what that meant. Who is this player? How long has he been seated there?

Is this the first time he's shoved? Is he loose or tight? Aggressive or passive?

Jonjo Shelvey puts Swansea one-nil up. I fold ace-jack.

A Belief That Doesn't Stand Up to Science

“Multitasking is merely the opportunity to screw up more than one thing at a time.” - Steve Uzzell

Between the poker, the football and the multitude of other little tasks I set about handling on that Sunday afternoon, what was the most important task?

It was poker. So why then was I interrupting the most important task of my evening by diverting brain capacity to trivial things?

steel trap
It's a trap!

It doesn’t make much sense, right?

And yet I am positive this is what happens to so many recreational online poker players, and some of the professionals. And why not?

The ability to multitask is so en vogue companies include it as a ‘skill’ when advertising for positions.

But it’s all a load of bollocks. It’s a con. It's a belief that doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny.

Our awareness is not piqued because we keep overrunning the bath.

Serious people in serious-looking white coats have experimented on multitaskers and found that not only do we fare worse academically but we also tire quicker.

Research conducted at Stanford University found that multitaskers fared worse than people who concentrated fully on one thing. They were slower to react because it took them so long to filter out all of the unnecessary information. 

Similarly researchers at the University of London found that prolonged exposure to multitasking lowered your IQ levels.

People were actually becoming less intelligent by trying to do more. There are even studies that suggest multitasking is damaging our brain function.

The Brain Only Offers So Much Capacity

As wonderful as it is, the brain only offers up so much capability at any one time.

The more you divide this capability up into various tasks, the more diminished returns you will receive.

Safer than a crane, sure. But not optimal.

Take my Sunday grind as an example.

If I put 25% of my attention on online poker how will I fare, in the long run, against an opponent of equal skill who focuses 100% on his game? What if he's only playing one table? 

When I first started playing online poker I played two tables. That quickly moved to four; then eight; then 10, then back down to four.

I now play a combination of one, two or four. I wasn’t good enough to play more than one table. I did so because I was bored.

I didn’t understand the power of focusing on the game when I wasn't involved in a hand. I thought the game was all about my actions.

Once I had folded, I was bored. I needed more tables.

Much Safer Than Hanging from a Crane

Then I realized that too many tables meant I couldn’t keep up. I scaled down. I got bored.

I started to watch movies, football, check e-mail and even write articles. I recently made the final table of a MicroMillions H.O.R.S.E event on PokerStars, all the while writing articles.

I thought I was clever. I just got lucky. I was a dick. 

If you're playing poker for fun and the result is neither here nor there, then by all means multitask. If, however, you want to take this game seriously, then you need to remove all distractions.

Play as few tables as possible and just focus on your poker. Remember that the game is still going on after you have folded.

I even suggest trying to play just one table for a session. You will learn a great deal about the power of focus and can apply it to improve your game.

After all ... it’s much safer than hanging from a 600m crane.

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