I spent quite a bit of time over the last few weeks watching the NFL Scouting Combine on the NFL network. Astonishing display of athleticism. It bodes well for the future of the NFL to see the youngsters flexing their unprecedented muscles and flashing their hitherto unfathomable speed. What I learned most from watching the Combine was not the number of naturally gifted athletes I saw – though one can argue that all were gifted, else they would not be there – but the sheer dedication and hard work these young men had to put in just to compete. Watching the lads go through grueling physical training regimens and pushing themselves to their absolute limits I was both impressed and quite moved. How does all this pertain to poker? Read on.
So, given that each athlete at the NFL Combine had the requisite God-given repertoire of physical gifts to even get through the gates, the competition was far from over. What became abundantly clear as the athletes were put through their paces was that those who had worked hardest showed best; those who had put in the hours in the gym and on the field to finely tune their instruments, usually came out on top. Those who were highly rated but failed to get themselves in razor-sharp shape faltered during the testing, and in some instances embarrassed themselves with rank underachievement. For the poker player, the instrument is not the body; all the bench-pressing and wind sprints in the world won’t make you a better poker player. On the other hand, the brain, not only the conscious cognitive functions but also those capacities we might term subconscious, or unconscious, or related to instinct, or perhaps the nervous system as a whole – this, or these, are the instruments the poker player must train in order to separate him or herself from the talented pack.
Let’s face it, while donkeys may still outnumber experts by a large margin, the popularity of poker worldwide and the ability of players to compress years of experience into a few months by playing multi-tables online, and the availability of tons of poker literature and training programs and seminars and so forth, ensures that a very talented – and perhaps unprecedented – generation of poker players will be vying for chips in cash games and tournaments in the near future. That is, if that future isn’t already here. So how does the average joe compete? Train the brain, my friend. That’s right. Put your brain, and your nervous system, through a vigorous training regimen, much as an athlete would his body. And by training, I mean anything that will improve your concentration, and anything that will push your nervous system to the breaking point. Remember that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
A friend of mine, Cassio, a formidable cash-game player, recently told me that he agreed 100 per cent with my assessment. “In fact,” he said, “I train my eyes every day. I find that if my eyes are strong and clear my mind stays focused and I see things better.” Sensible enough, perhaps. I asked Cassio what he did to strengthen his eyes. “Well,” he said, “in the morning when I wake up, when I’m having my coffee and my first smoke of the day, I sit by the kitchen window and stare at the big oak tree in the back. I hammered a big nail into the trunk of that oak tree when I first moved into the house. So I track down the now rusted head of the nail and I stare at it without blinking during the time it takes me to drink a second coffee and smoke a third cigarette. After several years of this my eyes are like lasers. I don’t miss a beat at the table. Believe me.” I believe.
Lately I’ve taken up online chess to improve my mind, and I’m a pretty good chess player, but I’ve found that it has made me a somewhat more thoughtful poker player than I was before – and this isn’t always a good thing. Sometimes too much thinking can throw one off one’s game, not help it. Yet how does one train one’s instincts, one’s third eye as it were? That same friend Cassio told me he’d heard of guys standing on their heads until their noses hemorrhaged or pretzelling themselves for hours in even more preposterous yogic postures, or doing other contortive and painful exercises to improve blood flow to the brain or elevate consciousness. There was this one fellow who used to spend hours trying to guess random cards from a deck, saying that he’d done it enough times that he knew which cards would appear molecularly – and though his success rate far exceeded the norm – the variability of his guesses still left him gaping when it came time to play a real game. Convinced an ace would come he’d bet it so and when the ace did not come he would groan and lose a wad.
I don’t know. I guess everyone has to find their own way. I drink a lot of coffee and sometimes I find myself shaking from caffeine surfeit; indeed I drink so much coffee when I’m not playing poker that I must seem to some like a wired-up speed freak. But when I play poker I only drink water and thus find myself in abnormally (for me) calm states. No matter how furious and tense the action gets at the table, I remain calm. I believe that my excessive off-table coffee consumption has been crucial in prepping my nervous system for battle – in a way that, say chess, has not. Of course, this raises the question about performance-enhancing chemicals, which I have discussed in a previous column, though the day they ban coffee as a performance-enhancing drug is the day they ban sunlight or oxygen, or Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach Cello Suites.
Emile Frendo of the Honeymoon City is a semi-professional poker player and winner of the 2006 Pirate Poker Open Championship.