Kittens, I am blocked! Specifically I am finding it impossible to complete the promised “Locals II: Something Something Something” (even the sub-title has hidden under the bed). I suspect a large part of the problem is that the article is requiring me to examine my own role in the poker ecosystem, and until I manage to string a psych-snake through my cerebellum, the article will remain scattered in fancy fragments.

But having been encouraged to deposit text at RCP on a more regular basis, I trawled the forums for inspiration and came upon this thread about poker and drinking.

“Aha!” I exclaimed, causing Louis The Cat to flatten his ears, “I have an opinion on this!”

And I also remembered that I had written on the topic years ago.




I have several strategies for nipping bad-beat stories in the bud, most of which involve rudely interrupting the person bemoaning their luck. The situation is trickier with students since it can be argued that they are paying me to listen to them, and if they choose to piss their money away by bleating about losing a flush on a pairing river I suppose that’s their business. Except it’s also my business since I am employed, at least in part, to help them stop pissing away their money.

Since I prefer not to appear rude, even (or perhaps particularly) when I am being rude, I have developed various methods of deflecting bad-beat stories down less pointless paths. With individuals familiar with this tactic, however, more cunning ploys are necessary. My current favorite involves interposing a question somewhere around “Two hands after I lost a flush to a rivered boat I picked up aces…”

The most effective question I’ve found to date is one I stole from the late Joyce Grenfell:

“Do you like string?”

While this has never failed to stop the bad-beat story firmly in its tracks, it suffers from having nothing to do with poker. This is, of course, a large part of its effectiveness, but with students it runs the risk of bringing up additional questions such as “How much am I paying Kat for this crap?” Consequently I recently rolled out a new question to thwart those attempting to recount the unfathomable horror of getting out-flopped:

“Maybe the problem is your level of arousal?”

At which point I have seized control of the situation, but with an important advantage over the “Do you like string?” approach because psychological arousal in poker is a legitimate and important topic.

The first issue to clarify is that psychologists use “arousal” in a slightly different way than normal people. You can think of psychological arousal as being close to alertness or the degree of mental (and sometimes physical) engagement in a task or activity. Almost falling asleep while watching an Iron Chef marathon is an example of a low level of arousal, whereas multi-tabling PLO8 while slamming energy drinks typically corresponds to a high level of arousal.

You may suppose that it’s better to be in a high state than a low state of arousal to successfully accomplish most tasks, but it turns out that the story is a bit more complex. If you’re on the verge of falling asleep it’s unlikely you’ll play poker well, but it doesn’t follow that as you become incrementally “more awake” you also get better at playing poker. There is a point at which you reach a sort of maximum efficiency beyond which further increases in arousal lead to you performing less well.

The change in performance with arousal level can be represented by something that used to be called the “curve of arousal.” This is exactly the sort of thing that university freshmen giggle at, so many psychologists now refer instead to the “Yerkes-Dodson Law.” The law can be summarized graphically:

Because I like graphs and data and other things nerdy I looked in more detail at this law and this graph and reached the following conclusions:

1. Nobody has ever conducted an experiment that produces data that are “fit” by the curve shown.

2. Neither “performance” nor “arousal” are defined in a quantitative manner.

3. It follows from point 2 above that no experiment to obtain data that might be used to construct such a graph is possible.

4. The curve of arousal shown above is better expressed by the following statement: If humans are under-stimulated or over-stimulated they perform less well than if their arousal state is somewhere in the middle.

5. The statement in point 4 above is sufficiently self-evident that I suggest renaming the Yerkes-Dodson law the Goldilocks-Martin law.

6. The paper by Yerkes and Dodson that is cited by psychologists whenever they refer to the Yerkes-Dodson law describes a study of the rapidity of habit formation as a function of strength of external stimulus. In other words it is only peripherally related to the functional dependence of performance on arousal shown in the graph. This adds weight to my proposal in point 5 above.

So what does this have to do with poker and drinking?

T.J. Cloutier describes a poker player from back in the day who was easy to run over when sober, a chip-spewer when drunk, but an extremely dangerous opponent during the happily-buzzed phase of intoxication. In fact this general profile is fairly common, particularly amongst recreational players who are regular drinkers but who rarely play live. While such players are unlikely to become formidable opponents at any level of inebriation, a couple of drinks will often allow them to feel more settled at the table. Once they stop worrying about whether they are playing fast enough or handling their chips and cards correctly they can devote more of their attention to playing their best game.

The problem with self-medicating in this manner is that it is basically impossible to maintain the level of arousal produced by a couple of drinks for any appreciable length of time. This appears to have led some well-known professionals to develop the ability to play good poker when hammered. Whether or not this is sustainable over years or even decades is largely dependent on the constitution of the individual, but it doesn’t strike me as a particularly good idea. An additional consideration, at least for the high-profile members of the profession, is the likelihood of acting like a complete jackass on ESPN.

The central point to recognize is that poker abilities depend on one’s state of arousal and that many factors influence that state of arousal. How an individual decides to act on that information is basically a risk-reward equation. For example, flying into McCarran, dropping your luggage off at the hotel bell desk, and heading straight to the Vegas poker tables may satisfy your desire to play, but you are unlikely to be playing your best. However, if your enjoyment outweighs the cost of playing below your best, this behavior is perfectly reasonable.

As you move up to higher limits a greater fraction of your opponents will be seriously addressing issues relating to arousal. Some even have life coaches or consult with sports psychologists. And even at middle limits there are plenty of players who are, at a minimum, paying attention to nutrition, stable sleep schedules, and general mental well being.

Do you really want to give those opponents an edge by adopting a cavalier attitude to your own state of arousal?

I don’t.

Based on and excerpted from “The Expectation Value of Arousal” (Blind Straddle, 2011, with permission).

~ Kat Martin, October 2016.
Twitter: @TheGameKat

  • GoStumpy

    This article arouses some questions about my own drinking at the table… great food for thought!