Poker Health - Sound Body, Sound Mind

Posted by Ashley Adams, July 21, 2014

I met a few of my poker buddies during the dinner break of a recent major tournament we were playing. One of them asked me how healthy my stack was.  I cringed a bit. My stack of poker chips was not doing well. I had half of the original buy-in – and I was playing poorly. And, come to think of it, I wasn't very healthy myself. I had a headache, a sore neck, my butt hurt, and my stomach was doing back flips.  It got me to thinking about whether there could be a connection between the health of my poker game and my own physical well-being.

Don't cash in your chips too early

You want to be in prime poker health if you're going to take on a major tournament. It's just common sense. You're playing long hours, requiring focus and stamina. You want your mental acuity to be at its peak, not its nadir. Ironically, just when the demands of a tournament require peak physical health, the lifestyle that often accompanies playing poker - eating poorly, not following what might be our typical regime of exercise and sleep - hurts players physically and mentally. Many of us neglect this important ingredient in tournament preparation - just when it should be our chief focus.

If you're traveling to Las Vegas, Nevada for the World Series of Poker, for example, it's going to take you at least three days of playing your best to win. You'll probably need to get lucky, to be sure. But luck tends to even out in the long run. What divides the winners and cashers from the whiners and crashers may come down to how physically and mentally prepared one is for what can be a grueling activity.

Playing live tournaments requires stamina and self-control; you need to be in great mental and physical health to succeed.

Have you noticed what a high percentage of the major tournament winners are under the age of 40, and how many seem to be in at least pretty good physical condition? I'm not saying that you have to be a health nut or an athlete to win. but I am convinced that physical fitness can truly help your chances.


What can you do to bring your poker health to its peak for the major tournament you're going to enter? Even events other than the three-week affair of the Main Event of the World Series of Poker will require stamina and self-control if you want to succeed.

Here is a list of five things you can do to achieve your ideal poker health.


get enough sleep

Unless you are a professional player, playing poker is not your full-time job. You've taken time away from work and from your regular routine to play in a major tournament. It's understandable that you want to squeeze as much poker action as possible out of what is probably a very special poker trip. You didn't travel to your tournament venue just to stay in your motel room and sleep, after all.

A man sleeping on a motorbike in China

Yet sleep is a key restorative. It gives your body and mind the physical and mental break they need to regain strength and perform at their full, healthy, potential. So when you arrive the day before your tournament date, don't push your limits of endurance to stay up late on Red Bull and adrenalin just so you can cram in a few extra hours in the cash game. Take it slow, retire early, and save the partying for when you've already cashed!


hydrate and don't dehydrate

I remember my first trip out to Las Vegas for a major tournament. It was in July. It was beastly hot. But I wasn't sweating. After four or five hours I found myself with a horrible eye-shutting headache like I had never experienced before. I popped a bunch of analgesics - to no avail. I was brought low by dehydration. I actually ended up in the emergency room with an IV in my arm, refilling my body with fluids. It's potentially a killer, this dehydration, and it creeps up on you if you're not constantly pounding the fluids. In the desert, sweat turns into vapor almost immediately, so you feel much drier than in other climates. Even so, you are getting dehydrated.

cat drinking tab water

Dehydration is not just a problem in the desert. Partying poker players, away from home in any venue for a tournament, are often consuming high amounts of alcohol, coffee, Red Bull, and cola. These are all diuretics - they eliminate fluid from your system, dehydrating you even while you are drinking them. Avoid them and stick to water. You must beware of this stealthy dehydration, making sure to always have water with you and to gulp it regularly.  If you're not well hydrated your poker game will surely suffer.


Eat right and stay sharp

You've probably heard the expression, “You are what you eat”.  It's true. Eat lousy food, and you'll feel lousy. Eat healthy, nutritious food and your body and brain will thank you. Going on vacation to play poker often invites quick on-the-go, fast food meals that are high on fat and salt and low on nutrition. Same thing for many of the dishes at the ubiquitous Chinese, Mexican, Indian, and Middle Eastern restaurants that dot likely poker tournament venues in vacation and resort areas around the world. But unless you're careful to order vegetables with your dinner, these meals are usually not very nutritious.  Who wants to go to some great restaurant just to order salad?

Keep this in mind as well. When you eat a big meal, the blood in your body goes to your stomach to help that organ work on digesting the large quantity of food you've just consumed. By going to your stomach it is draining nutrients from that area where you'd like to have them - your brain.

Keep your pre-tournament meals light and small. Bring snacks with you that you can nosh on regularly at the table - cut-up fruit, vegetables, pieces of chicken, nuts, seeds - things that are easy to eat, relatively high density nutrients that won't overly tax your system.

Here's what I do. I stop at a grocery store when I'm in town for a big tournament. I stock up on healthy snacks that I can munch in the car, at the poker table, and during breaks if I'm feeling hungry. What kind of snacks? I buy bananas, apples, other fresh fruit, dried fruit, nuts, seeds, carrots, celery, granola bars, and lots of bottles of water. I cut up the fruits and vegetables into easy to eat, bite-sized pieces and then put them in a zip lock bag. I slip an ample supply of them in my backpack when I go to the casino and bring it with me while I'm at the table. I'm never hungry and I'm not tempted to grab anything unhealthy during my breaks. And if I eat an unhealthy big meal after my tournament, at least I've had something nutritious already.


physical exercise

You don't have to join a gym or interfere with your poker play by exercising for long periods of time. But you should devote at least 30 minutes to an hour every day to do something physical. You can also exercise, at least casually, while at the poker tournament. For example, start your day with a brisk walk. Walk away from your motel for at least 15 or 20 minutes and then walk back. You can also make walking choices during your trip. Don't take a five-minute cab ride to dinner. Walk instead. Don't take the elevator to your room on the 8th floor. Take the stairs.

There are also some exercises you can do at the poker table. I'm not suggesting that you do jumping jacks next to your chair or that you drop down for ten quick push ups and sit ups (though, now that I think of it, that's not such a bad idea). But there are less conspicuous things you can do. While you're playing, stand up at least every 15 minutes, even if it's just to walk behind your chair and stretch your legs. Every hour or so, when you've folded pre-flop, and can be away from the table before the next hand for a minute or so, walk for 30 seconds away from your seat and then walk back. You can also do neck rolls, arm stretches, and leg lifts right from your chair. It will keep your muscles loose and your blood flowing, lessening the chances that you will have soreness and stiffness distract you from playing your best poker game.


mental activity

You'll get a lot of mental activity when you're at the table, thinking about hands, thinking about your opponents, calculating pot odds, and the like. But there are other mental exercises that you might want to employ to keep yourself sharp when you're away from the table, before and after you play. I find that it helps increase my ability to concentrate at poker to engage in some other type of mind play during my off hours; crossword puzzles or Sudoku work for me. But maybe reading a book or playing chess is more your thing.  Whatever it is, I suggest that you engage in some mental activity other than poker during at least some of the many off hours during your tournament experience.

   Good mental and physical health won't guarantee a huge poker win, but will definitely increase your chances of success.

There's no guarantee that attending to these five areas of your poker health will result in victory at the poker table. Poker is a game of probability, not certainty. By entering a tournament in good mental and physical condition you will be increasing your chances of success.  


Further Reading:  

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