Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Performance enhancers in poker

After my post about what makes a good poker player my friend Erik posed the question "you ever hear of people taking beta-blockers, which block adrenaline in the body, or use other anti-anxiety drugs to get an edge in the game?" This was in response to the section where I mentioned that during a big hand when players get nervous (myself included) their heart rates go through the roof and you can notice a visible change in their breathing which can help you figure out what cards they might have. I've certainly never heard anyone admit to doing this kind of thing, and certainly haven't seen anyone recommend doing it in print. However I do have a little experience with this type of medication. As some of you know I developed an intense fear of flying in my early 20's (which I've overcome for the most part) and for about 3 years whenever I'd fly I'd take anti anxiety medication (either valium or addavan). While I was relaxed I also felt kind of out of it and I think in poker the negatives would greatly outweigh the positives.

On the other hand medication designed to treat ADD or increase focus could certainly help improve your performance. Some people might even put Red Bull into the category of performance enhancers. Right on the can it says that it's designed to improve focus in high stress situations. Behind bottled water Red Bull is the second most popular beverage at the tables (and it's free so why not have a few!).

There is really no governing body for poker and to my knowledge, while I would consider it unethical, it is not against the rules to use mental performance enhancers. Although you could certainly get barred from all Harrah's (the company that owns the Rio and the WSOP) properties for a variety of infractions, there is no one to bar you from all major poker tournaments. The closest thing to a governing body is the Tournament Directors Association (TDA) which has only been formed in the past few years. The main purpose of the TDA is not to regulate poker, but rather to standardize rules. These days if you play a tournament in Atlantic City you can expect the same rules as you would find in Mississippi (I bet you didn't know that Biloxi Mississippi is the third largest gambling area in the country behind only Vegas and Atlantic City -bigger than Reno!). The TDA tends to focus on things like what do you do if the dealer puts out the flop before the action is complete before the flop (you reshuffle the deck and deal out a new flop after the action is complete) or how many cards can you find face up in the deck before you declare the hand a misdeal (five!). Situations that don't come up often, but happen from time to time.

As far as conduct goes I can only think of two specific rules. First of all if you say "fuck" in any form, for any reason, you get a 10 minute penalty (meaning you must leave the table and any blinds or antes that you owe are taken from your stack). In fact if someone called you a mother fucker and then you told the floorman "he called me a mother fucker," you'd both get a penalty. Sorry if I offended anyone with the coarse language there. The second rule is while folding your cards if either or both fall off the table for any reason you get a 20 minute penalty. Of course it's up to the floor people to use their discretion to hand out penalties for other misconduct that is not explicitly spelled out. I once saw a guy who's hand was declared dead for using his cell phone at the table (which I guess is another conduct rule) have a pretty strong reaction. Sometimes there's a little room to maneuver with this rule, but this guy was on the phone for most of the hand and was asked to get off several times, by the dealer and the other players. By the time the floorman got there, the hand was over and the guy in question was showing a winning hand. The floorman told him he had a dead hand and gave the pot to the other player who had missed a draw and had nothing. At this point the guy with the dead hand threw his cell phone at about 90 miles per hour directly into the wall. He was expelled from the tournament (with no refund), escorted out by security and his chips were removed from play (also his cell phone broke into several pieces so he lost that too).

Another time, I was in a tournament in L.A. and I saw the card off the table rule come into play in a crucial situation. In a $500 tournament that paid 27 places, with about 35 players left a guy threw his cards at the dealer and one fell onto the floor. The dealer called the floorman who told the player he was going to get a 20 minute penalty. The guy spent at least 5 minutes arguing and it wasn't until after he was done that the 20 minute clock started. They'd announced the rule several times and it was one of only two rules that had been written out on the paper that had the blind structure and other information about the tournament. While walking away from the table the player, who was a phenomenal jerk, asked the rest of us to "play slow" so he wouldn't lose too much in the way of blinds and antes while he was gone. In one united voice we told the guy that he was crazy if he thought we'd play slow. If he was eliminated we'd all be that much closer to the money and whatever chips he lost would be going into our stacks! If he wasn't a huge jerk we might not have gone out of our way to screw him, but he was, so we did. About every 5 minutes he'd come back and say "come on guys slow it down for me would ya." At which point 3 or 4 of us would thank him for reminding us to play as quickly as possible. With 1 minute left on his penalty it was his turn to put in the big blind which amounted to about half of his stack. He made it back for his small blind, but didn't get lucky and was eliminated in 29th place. If he hadn't thrown his cards at the dealer he probably would have made the money. Furthermore, if he hadn't argued for so long about the rule or asked us to play slow so many times he would have at least given himself a chance. You never know when being a jerk is going to come back to bite you in the ass.

Getting back to performance enhancers, I've often wondered how many people use them in poker and my guess would be not very many. I've also wondered what other players might think about the ethical implications of using them, but I've never seen the topic discussed in person or in print. If you use steroids or other physical enhancers it's easy to measure your improved strength or stamina, but with mental enhancers in poker it's not so clear. I know that if I play after I've had a few drinks (which I never do for significant amounts of money) I feel like I'm making the same decisions and playing the same way, but my results tell me other wise. Similarly I'm not sure you would feel like you were making better decisions if you were on something so unless there was a dramatic change in your results you might not give credit to the enhancers. Also I think many players underrate the focus aspect of playing good poker so they'd never try to improve that aspect of their game chemically.


Anonymous said...

Isn't it harder to reign in the "f" word when chemically enhanced anyway? It seems like the lessons we learned in kindergarten apply - play nice with the other kids, and don't eat/drink things that are bad for you. Luckily there are plenty of jerks who didn’t pay attention in kindergarten, which means more money for you!

Eebster said...

Assuming, Dave, that you have it, is superior Mojo (capital "M") a "performance enhancer", or, as it is generally god-given (small "g"... sorry if my priorities are showing through here), is it considered a natural advantage?

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