Whether they're over-the-counter, legal or illegal, drugs are routinely in the mix for live and online poker players, and many of those players believe the drugs actually enhance their performance.
13-time WSOP bracelet winner Phil Hellmuth once said in an interview on QuadJacks.com:
"There's a drug, I don't know the name of it, but it's something like speed. I'm talking about a really heavy drug. Many poker players have taken this drug in the past 10 years. Almost all players who took this drug have won one or two million dollars over a six to eight month period. But then the effect of the drug stopped working, which left many of them with a drug addiction. I smoked weed about 25 years ago or something like that. But I'm not a person who's into drugs at all."
While the Poker Brat's authority as a drug expert might be questionable, what's not up for debate are drugs' pervasiveness in the poker world.
Today we explore the full catalogue of illicit substances being used by live and online poker players, including street drugs like weed and cocaine as well as so-called "smart pills" like Adderall and Provigil.
We'll go down the list drug-by-drug to find out how they affect poker players and how they fit into the poker world.
Poker and Drugs: Adderall (Amphetamine Mixed Salts)
If you believe the hype around Adderall it might look like the holy grail for poker players, but more and more studies are debunking its effectiveness as a mind-enhancing drug.
Adderall is an amphetamine formulation commonly used to treat attention deficit hyper-activity disorder but it's widely believed to increase concentration and mental agility in people who do not suffer from ADHD.
There's no doubt that Adderall will make you feel like you're performing at a higher level, but how it effects you may depend on how well you're already performing.
In a study by Martha J. Farah at the University of Pennsylvania results pointed to Adderall boosting convergent thought (answering a question that has one correct answer) in subjects who were previously performing at a sub-average level, but negatively affecting subjects who were already performing above average.
In poker terms this could mean that Adderall will help a losing player play better, but might impair an already gifted pro.
Farah's study also described that while improvements in mental performance were difficult to prove across the board, one thing was clear: The subjects all thought they were performing at a much higher level.
So while Adderall will keep you awake and focused longer it's unclear whether it will actually make you play better.
Adderall users can become dependent on the drug and with potential side-effects like loss of appetite, depression and paranoia it doesn't look like a good candidate to to improve your poker performance.
Dexedrine is another popular ADHD drug that contains dextroamphetamine. It is also used to increase cognitive performance like Adderall.
Poker and Drugs: Ritalin (Methylphenidate)
Just like Adderall, Ritalin is used to treat ADHD but has gained wide popularity as a mental-performance enhancer.
In patients suffering from attention-deficit disorders it works to raise concentration to a normal level, but for healthy recreational users Ritalin is reputed to induce a state of hyper-focus for long periods of time.
And being able to stay awake and on-task longer certainly lends itself to playing poker.
It's also the most commonly-prescribed medication of its kind which means it is available and affordable.
While not habit-forming when used the way it's prescribed, recreational use and abuse of Ritalin can be addictive.
Poker and Drugs: Cocaine
Behind alcohol and marijuana, cocaine is likely the third most common drug in the poker world. Whether it's partying on tour or staying up while playing online, a surprising number of poker players use cocaine.
Similar to Adderall, cocaine is thought to keep you awake, alert and ready to play for long periods of time which makes it an obvious fit for poker players.
Less appealing are the risk of dependency, negative side-effects and high cost of a cocaine habit.
Just look at Stu Ungar.
He said in his biography that he started using cocaine on the advice of his poker-playing friends who relied on it to keep them energized for marathon poker sessions.
While Ungar certainly succeeded at the poker table his drug use turned into an addiction that eventually killed him.
So while moderate cocaine use might keep you awake in the short term, the long term effects and risks make it a poor choice for improving your poker game.
Poker and Drugs: Provigil (Modafinil)
Modafinil is used mainly in the treatment of narcolepsy and shift-work sleep disorder but it has gained wide acclaim as a way to turbocharge focus and performance.
The subject of a CBS exposé last year Provigil has been touted by everyone from computer programmers to high-powered business executives and it's also used by poker players.
In a 2012 article in the New Yorker poker pro Paul Phillips was quoted saying Adderall, and later Provigil, helped him win millions of dollars playing poker.
“Poker is about sitting in one place, watching your opponents for a long time, and making better observations about them than they make about you,” Phillips told the New Yorker. “With Provigil I could process all the information about what was going on at the table and do something about it.”
The vast majority of people who use Provigil experience no side effects but the biggest risk could be what we don't know about the drug. No studies have been done on the long-term effects of modanifil.
Poker and Drugs: Beta Blockers
Although not as trendy or written-about as study drugs, beta blockers are used to combat anxiety and have been popular among performers since they were discovered in the 1960s.
Beta blockers moderate the fight-or-flight response to stress that causes things like pounding heart, increased respiration and sweating which could come in handy at the poker table.
Poker players could use beta blockers to help keep a rock-solid poker face or just to control their anxiety in order to concentrate and play better.
The list of potential side effects is very long and includes everything from nausea and diarrhea to erectile dysfunction so a more holistic approach to managing your anxiety is advisable.
Poker and Drugs: Alpha Brain (Balanced Nootropic)
Alpha Brain is a supplement that doesn't fall into the same category as the rest of the “drugs” on this list, but certainly contains enough powerful ingredients to change the way your brain works.
It's also endorsed by poker pros Matt Vengrin and Sorel Mizzi, which makes it particularly relevant to this discussion.
Alpha Brain's marketing says the supplement will help keep you calm, focused and mentally driven.
Customer reviews are extremely mixed but the list of ingredients is impressive, and the pill does have big-name proponents like Joe Rogan who said on his podcast that everyone should try it.
From Alpha Brain:
Alpha Brain contains Alpha GPC which is a source of choline; a precursor to acetylcholine, which is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for increasing mental acuity and brain function, Vinpocetine, a nootropic derived from periwinkles and an ingredient that has been the focus of many researches and is also known for its neuroprotective properties, another nootropic called Bacopa that helps improve motor learning, memory functions, and reduces anxiety, and Rainforest superb herb or AC-11, a compound derived from cat’s claw which is native to the Amazon rainforest that has been proven to help the body repair DNA damage.
Many bad reviews have to do with the supplement's large price tag.
Poker and Alcohol
Alcohol is far and away the most commonly used drug in the poker world.
From the free drinks given to players in Las Vegas casinos to the six-pack of beer you pick up on your way to the weekly home game, booze factors into poker more often than any other drug.
And if you think alcohol only exists in the realm of the amateur, just watch Scotty Nguyen's infamous 2008 WSOP performance.
But if you can practice moderation better than Scotty, a couple drinks might actually help you deal with high-stress poker situations.
In fact, TJ Cloutier once described 1985 World Champion Bill Smith as the greatest player in the world when slightly drunk, but the worst in the world when he had too much.
And as you may have learned yourself, alcohol is particularly destructive when it comes to memory. Individuals under the influence are able to recall existing memories but have a hard time holding on to events that happened while drunk.
That means if you're regularly a six-pack deep at the poker table it's going to be tough to make good reads based on past experience.
And since it impairs you both mentally and physically it's just plain wrong to think alcohol will make you a better poker player.
But that doesn't mean alcohol can't help you win more money. Just keep an eye out for the player ordering a long line of Jaggerbombs and play more pots with him.
Poker and Marijuana
If there was ever a drug tailor-made for long sessions in front of a computer tucked away in your parents' basement it's marijuana. Right behind alcohol, marijuana is the second most common drug in the poker world.
Smoking pot has been on the rise among teenagers and since so many of them are jumping into poker, it's no wonder that weed is pervasive in the poker world.
Just visit a parking lot or hotel hallway at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas and you'll be reminded how many people play poker high.
Effects of marijuana include:
- Altered perception of time, distance, space, sights, sounds and touch
- Impaired judgment and decision making
- Loss of coordination and slowed reaction time
- Problems with memory and learning
- Trouble thinking and problem solving
Just like alcohol, marijuana impairs your judgment, decision-making, learning and memory so it's hard to believe it would make you a better poker player.
Marijuana users often argue that weed helps them concentrate, an obvious benefit for poker players, but studies have shown that in the case of chronic use focus is ultimately negatively affected.
In other cases marijuana may reduce an individual's anxiety allowing him to play poker more effectively online or live.