Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Poker and Steroids! Is that Ridiculous?

Well, steroids have invaded just about every sport under the sun, and now that poker has become a sport, has steroids' evil era of cheating tarnished the professional world of poker too? This is a funny question but it is not at all ridiculous. The first analytical discussion, and an obvious question you might ask yourselves, is whether steroids or human growth hormone could somehow give professional poker players and edge the way they do baseball's fastball pitchers and power hitters. Could they actually merit being taken by poker players looking for a dishonest edge? This argument can be broken down into two parts: physical and mental.

Physically, it's rather obvious that the muscle-bound effects of either steroids or human growth hormone will do absolutely nothing to help poker players win at the tables. But when speaking of "physically," I'm talking about sheer size and power, not stamina or the ability to stave off sleep and headaches. Which brings us toward the other, more integral argument about steroids in poker: the mental side.

It turns out that the conclusion there is rather straightforward as well. Anabolic steroids are not going to do anything much to give a cheating poker player and edge in the games--unless, of course, he plans on strong-arming his money back from a fellow player who beat him out of a big pot. But, as much as we might not like to admit this, there are certain "poker steroids" out there. I am not talking about steroids in the anabolic sense; I'm talking about other kinds of performance enhancement drugs. There are several but the one at the forefront is called provigil (generic name Modafinil). Provigil is a drug that keeps you awake. It has legitimate medical uses and has also been used by the military to increase the performance of its pilots and soldiers in combat situations. Provigil enhances short-term memory and lets users stay awake for extended periods. In short, it keeps you awake, alert and sharp, three necessities in the world of winning poker.

What is poker about and what does provigil have to do with it? Maybe nothing, maybe something, maybe soon to be something more, although I hope not. Poker itself is about gaining and exploiting edges against your opponents. Usually study, observation, analysis, and experience, which are all naturally occurring processes that everyone has the capacity to practice, coupled with the ability to mentally sustain our applied knowledge in these areas, are what achieves these advantages, and thus, even though some players will always be better than others, poker is thought of as a "fair" game. Modafinil is the first artificial stimulant I've heard about that alters this landscape by giving a player the ability to perform longer mentally and at a more concentrated level than what he can achieve normally. Modafinil not only helps in gathering knowledge with a sharp, observational outlook, but also in applying intellect without normal taxation. If a player already has analytical skills, the drug can help him to contain the emotional destructiveness of tilting, as he can focus beyond the immediate result and concentrate on the overall plan, essentially wiping out an inherent weakness of many good players.

You know, I hesitated before writing on this subject. Do I really want to open up a can of worms, such as the one pried open by George Mitchell in naming Roger Clemens as a massive longtime steroid user? In fact, do I have any knowledge of specific poker players taking Modafinil? Is there a "Marcus Report" that names names like Mitchell's report did with baseball's steroid-takers?

Sorry, but no. I haven't even heard of a single player who has taken Modafinil or any other drug to enhance their poker skills. But the problem is that I heard several players talking about it on several different occasions. This is why I am writing about it now. I think Modafinil and other drugs capable of altering the landscape of thought and alertness may threaten poker in the very near future. Especially in light of the megabucks surrounding the pro circuits, let alone the driven desires to succeed in competition and be champions at all the major events.

So let's learn a lesson from baseball and the Mitchell Report and stop talking about drug-induced breakthroughs for mental competition. As baseball once went through a time period where players talked about steroids before actually taking them, poker might be in that similar time period right now for mental-performance enhancers, and that is why any of you out there who might be influenced to take drugs to better your poker play need to think twice. It is not worth it, and with all the regular forms of cheating we see both online and in brick and mortar cardrooms, this kind of very dangerous cheating is the last thing we need.

TOMORROW: Modafinil and online poker, is that a real problem now?