July 11, 2005

Science: Narcoleptic Poker Player Epidemic!

Poker has gotten big.

Really big.

As in, the World Series of Poker had 5,619 entrants this year, up from 2,576 in 2004 and just 839 in 2003. At $10,000 each, that's a chunk of change. There were so many entries, that Harrahs had to stagger the start, with some players starting Friday, some Saturday. There's now a tournament circuit to get into the Tournament of Champions. There was more than $45 million in prize money in 2004, and there's more up for grabs this year.


Well, if you figure Steven Johnson is right, then poker is exactly the style of multi-tasking game that should be increasing in popularity. It fits with the increased complexities that our minds have been encountering since we've bothered questioning such things. Poker just happens to be something that caught the public eye at a time when we wanted it. Oh, and having a 27-year old 2003 champion who never played a live tournament before helped by giving the illusion that anyone caould win millions of dollars playing a game. The illusion is wrong, of course: while the best players are most likely to win, in a field of 5,000 only some of the dead money has to to get lucky at the wrong time before they're out.

As a comparison, compare the odds of making it to the NHL, with say 1,000 players or so playing at least one game there in any given season. Canada is the big supplier of players, of course, but scouting has been multi-national for a generation now, so many players are coming from the US, Sweden, Russia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Finland, and even countries like Switzerland and Germany. A player has to play all their lives at a lever good enough to qualify for the next level of competition, each lever smaller and tougher to get into than the last; they have to avoid serious injury; they have to be noticed by a scout and drafted; they have to be able to stop whatever else they have going on in their lives for this shot at being able to play hockey at its highest level. And they have to afford to play in the first place: rare enough if hockey isn't the first sport considered in their household. Given populations and relative popularity of hockey in those countries, and the turnover rate of NHL players, call it 200,000-to-1.

So what can you do to reduce the odds? Well, the number of junior teams who have a personal trainer has skyrocketed; diets have changed dramatically; and I'd be amazed if more than 20 players in the NHL smoked. Then, of course, there's drugs. A number of players use antihistamines, or steroids, or amphetamines to get themselves a bit more of an edge for the games. Steroids can backfire, as players cannot use too much bulk: they will be slower, and more prone to penalty trouble (note: just an opinion, but Todd Bertuzzi became a better player after he shed 30 pounds).

So what the hell do the last two paragraphs have to do with poker? Just this: even the best players in the world lose sometimes, and some of those times it will be to players worse than themselves. They play against each other at this tournament, too, whereas some of the lesser players might avoid them completely until later rounds: tournaments are short-time risks, and short-time risks favour luck. So call a tourney with 5,000 people (about half of which are dead money) 50-to-1 against for any of the great players there, and far worse for the others.

No gambler in their right mind would take those odds. So some of them cheat.

Oh, not how you might think: far too many cameras around for that. Besides, the house uses their own dealer. So what to do? Well, science to the rescue!

Poker is a game of odds, it's true; but it's also a game of psychology and strategy. First you learn how to play your hand, then how to play your opponents, then your stack (of chips). "Tells" are a big part of the game: seeing what the other players do when they've got a weak hand, or when they are top dog after the flop is how you take their money. But as you're reading opponents, they're doing the same to you: how can you prevent giving away what your own hand is? One answer making the rounds is Botox. No, I'm not kidding. You can't give away your hand with facial twitches if your face can't twitch, right? (Thank you, Paul Ekman.)

There's also been efforts with short-term psychoactive drugs like amphetemines, but these tournies are week long, 14-hour-a-day affairs: you'll burn out before day one is finished. Drugs have always been high-risk (at best) since mental acuity is only part of the equation, with endurance and patience being the others.


Welcome to the world of modafinil.

There's a few different brand names for this drug, which had been originally used to combat the effects of narcolepsy. Yep: it keeps you awake. But it improves so much more, like: alertness, mood, impulse control, and memory. A lot of players are knocked out of tournaments because they lack the patience to play, or get tired, or frustrated, or confuse one players habits with anothers.

See anything in that list modafinil wouldn't help? And whatever the side efects, for a piece of $53,000,000 wouldn't you?


posted by Thursday at 3:33 pm


Post a Comment

<< Home