What Does Sleep Have to Do With Success at the Poker Table?

Before I delve into the world of nootropics, I would be ashamed of myself if I didn’t first discuss the importance of sleep and nutrition as they relate to mental performance. Medical professionals are always taught to discuss non-pharmacologic therapy prior to beginning any medication regimen, even in the pill-popping world today. Exercise, nutrition, and lifestyle can improve every possible medical condition known to man. There is no drug in the world that is effective as those three interventions. The sad part is they’re not very efficient. Thus we see the dependence on drugs.

I promise I’ll keep it as short as possible. I just want to give you some interesting facts, talk about a couple sleep medications, discuss the so-called energy drinks, and give you my insight about improvements that cost you nothing financially, but everything in the game of poker.

Sleep: It does a brain good.

I’m not going to lecture you on the importance of a good night’s sleep. I’m sure you already heard about getting 8 hours of sleep a night. I’m here to tell you that that isn’t entirely true. There’s really not a lot of research that supports 8 hours of sleep per night. As with most things, it’s highly patient variable. You should know how much sleep you need a night to function at optimal performance, especially if you play poker. Personally, I need between 7-9 hours of sleep per night. If I get anything less than 7 hours, I’m crabby and my upper back and neck are extremely tense throughout the entire day. If I get any more than 9 hours a night, my mind is extremely foggy, and I never seem truly awake. The bottom line: you know how much you need so get it.


I just want to discuss some of the benefits with you regarding sleep and mental performance. Originally, sleep was thought to serve as a replenishing time for the entire human body. However, as the research grew, we began to realize that sleep is largely for the brain. Even though they haven’t pinpointed the exact purpose of sleep, they have some pretty good hypothesis. Below are three of the most widely accepted hypothesis. In my opinion, I really don’t think sleep has one purpose. It probably helps in all three areas. There’s too much research behind each hypothesis to ignore any individual one.

1) Lack of sleep appears to increase the amount of oxidative stress in the brain. Oxidative stress is basically a fancy term for these little free radical molecules that form whenever we use oxygen for energy. These molecules can attack healthy cells leading to eventual damage. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation causes a decrease in superoxide dismutase (SOD), a powerful antioxidant in the brain. Without SOD to protect the brain from free radicals, there is a higher likelihood of damage from oxidative stress. This is particularly important to the brain because it uses 20% of the human body’s energy expenditure throughout the day even though it is only 2% of the human weight. More energy means more free radicals. More free radicals mean more damage. More damage means more mental mistakes. Not something you want if you’re using your brain for a living.

2) Adequate amounts of sleep appear to restore critical nutrients and hormones in the brain that are involved in mental performance. If you don’t get enough sleep, you won’t get this replenishment of key substrates the brain uses for energy. Thus, the brain will never be able to work at full capacity. Consider the amount of mental energy spent during a game of poker. Think about the long duration of a game of poker. You need this restoration. Trust me.

3) Adequate amounts of sleep allow you to improve your procedural memory. This isn’t fact-based memory such as remembering the first time you won a hand of poker. Procedural memory involves the memory of skills and how-to knowledge. This is the memory that is critical for poker players. Poker isn’t really a game of memory as it is about utilizing strategic moves during a game. You compute, analyze, and create solutions in poker. You don’t remember odds. To me, this is the most exciting benefit of sleep. It’s also the newest. The majority of information regarding procedural memory and sleep has been developed over the last 10 years, largely due to the advancement of technology in the medical field.

Those are the three primary benefits of getting a good night’s rest. I don’t want to bore you with study after study about sleep, but I just want to discuss two studies that could really change the way you prepare for a game of poker. Side note: You’ll notice I’ll set up all of the studies I present in a similar format. It will not provide everything you need to know from the study, just the main points. I encourage you to read the entire study for yourself if it interests you because this is just a really brief, generic overview.

Clinical Studies

The first study I’d like to look at was done in 2004 by German neuroscientist Jan Born and colleagues. Purpose: To discover if complex problems can be solved after a night’s rest that were not solved during the day

Subjects: 44 total split into 3 groups (initial test followed by 8 hours of sleep, nocturnal wakefulness, and daytime wakefulness)

Procedure: Subjects performed a mathematical task involving calculating a sequence of numbers. They were timed to show improvement in subsequent trials. However, there was a trick that once figured out could improve the subject’s time greatly leading to a much greater improvement than simply “practicing.”

Results: After a night of sleep, 13 of the 22 subjects who were allowed to sleep figured out the hidden trick while 5 of the 22 subjects in the other two groups did.

Author’s Conclusion: “We conclude that sleep, by restructuring new memory representations, facilitates extraction of explicit knowledge and insightful behaviour.”(1)

How it relates to poker: Remember, this is just my opinion from the data provided by this study and many others. If I was playing a game of poker and came upon a stumbling block (whether it is another player or a particular hand), I wouldn’t get upset or aggravated. I’d try to think it through, playing as many scenarios as possible in my head. I’d retire early in the night, ensuring that I don’t stress about it. Then after an adequate amount of sleep, I’d wake up, and replay the whole scenario in my head. Just maybe then, I’d have a new insight into how to overcome this obstacle. This makes a lot more sense than trying to pull an all-nighter strategizing about the game. I’ve used this technique many of times, and have had great success. In fact, I don’t make an important decision or conclusion until I’ve slept on it. Think about it.

The second study was done in 2000 by Robert Stickgold and colleagues at Harvard Medical School. Purpose: Whether sleep after training is important for memory consolidation, integration, and maintenance.

Subjects: 133 18-25 year-olds divided into two primary groups (one group was deprived of sleep only on the night immediately after the training but could sleep as much as they want on the 2nd and third nights while the other group could sleep every night.)

Procedure: Subjects had to perform a visual discrimination test. Basically, the test was horizontal lines, vertical lines, T’s, and L’s flashing on a computer screen. They were timed for improvement on subsequent tests. Training and test sessions each included 1250 trials and 25 blocks.

Results: No significant improvement was shown when subjects were tested on the same day that they were trained. Subjects that were tested 2-7 days after training showed a statistically significant improvement than subjects who tested just one day after training (18.9ms vs. 12.6 ms, p1. Born J, Wagner U, Gais S, et al. Sleep inspires insight. Nature. 2004 Jan 22; 427:352-55. 2. Stickgold R, James L, Hobson J. Visual discrimination learning requires sleep after training. Nature Neuroscience. 2000 Dec;3:1237-1238.

Source by Dr. T. J. Allan, Pharm.D.

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