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Poker is one of those games that, to be played at its apex level, requires an extreme amount of concentration over an extended period of time. The problem with this is that poker itself is a game that has all the excitement of a snail race for much of its proceedings. To counteract this, players have always tried to find something – whether it is legal or illegal – to combat the dullness that the game sometimes inflicts on its participants.

♠ Read Part Two Here: Playing Poker Under the Influence, Part Two: Illegal Outlets

In this, the first of a two-part series, we are going to look at the pros and cons of playing poker “under the influence.” For our experiences, the term “under the influence” means that whichever situation we are speaking of, it is enough that it is providing us a “distraction” of some sort or affecting our mindset at the poker table. With this in mind, let’s get started with what might be called “legal outlets.”


This is perhaps the most noticeable “legal” substance that you will see around a poker table, be it in a casino or at your home poker game. Whether it is your buddy Joe bringing a six-pack for the $5 home game tournament you’re playing that night or the dude in the three seat that is hammering Jack and Cokes like he’s Lemmy Kilmister, there’s usually nothing wrong with having a drink at the table when you’re playing. It’s when it goes beyond that “one drink” that alcohol’s effects can be seen.

beerThere are studies that show that limiting yourself to a drink per day can have beneficial effects to a person’s health. One drink, actually, can “cut the edge” when someone is a bit nervous about a particular situation, such as sitting down at the poker table. A beer, even a mixed drink such as the legendary favorite drink of the late, lamented departed leader of Motörhead, can serve that purpose on the felt.

Once you broach that one drink minimum, however, all bets are off (no pun intended). Alcohol basically attacks the frontal lobes of the brain, the decision-making center, and also reduces inhibitions. Basically, it could have an effect of you making a decision in a critical spot that you might not normally make were you sober (and let’s not even get into the extra trips to the restroom). Unless you’re Scotty Nguyen, try to stay away from alcohol in excess and save it for after you’ve cashed out for the night.


As a former smoker, this was one of my Achilles’ Heel’s when it came to playing poker. Normally when a smoker is sitting around, they’ll have a cigarette lit up to help pass the time. Nicotine is one of those rare drugs that can pretty much do what you want it to do:  it can relax, it can stimulate, it can break the monotony and it can be a communal enjoyment. At the poker table, however, it is a detriment.

no smoking signThere are some home games where smoking is still allowed but, according to statistics from 2009, only about 21% of the population smokes (down from 23% in 1999). For the most part, that means there is only going to be one or two smokers out of a ten-handed table at the home game. Thus, you are going to probably have to step out on the back porch or away from the table to have your butt.

This is something that hasn’t been a problem in the casinos for more than a decade. Most poker rooms went non-smoking in the late 1990s/early 2000s (thanks to the efforts of Casey Kastle and Tom McEvoy), so when you see those old World Series of Poker tapes where T. J. Cloutier is pulling on a cigarette, you know it’s a vintage episode. Today, players have to leave the poker room and go to the casino at the minimum (at the WSOP, they literally have to leave the building where all the action is) to satisfy their addiction.

And therein lies the problem with nicotine…it takes you away from the table, where you will miss probably a round of play at the minimum, and the potential to either make money or improve your tournament stack. You can somewhat satisfy your cravings with nicotine gum or the e-cigarettes (which are also being banned by many establishments) but, if at all possible, it is best to avoid this one.


coffeeI’ve been a fan of caffeine for decades. Tea or coffee, it doesn’t matter which one, I’ve usually been one of those that could toss back a pot of coffee, four or five glasses of iced tea and generally not have it affect me. While I thought that was true, I didn’t take into thought what it would be like when I tried to go to sleep at night! The same is true at the tables and we can add another uber-caffeinated beverage into that mix – “energy” drinks.
Basically caffeine is a stimulant that does nothing more than speed up every part of your body. Your heart rate, pulse, brain activities…all of these and more go into hyperdrive when you take any of these caffeinated beverages into your system. With this mental speed-up, there can be errors made in decision-making because the brain just isn’t thinking clearly when it is sped up.

Then there are the physical effects of the caffeinated beverages. While they are liquid, caffeinated beverages actually are diuretics, which means they take water away from the body and leave it wanting more liquid to replace the lost water. There’s also the extra trips to the restroom here, because that water has to go somewhere. Finally – and this goes in particular to the “energy” drinks such as Red Bull – there is still a great deal of wariness on the part of the medical community as to what effect long-term ingestion of these products (which are not regulated by any agency and don’t have to tell you what levels of caffeine – or whatever else – are in the product) can have on a person. Basically, stick to those bottles of water – they’ll be refreshing and won’t keep you up at night!


Yes, we all need to eat. But when you are at the tables – and especially when you are in a poker tournament – you have to be mindful of what you are eating and how much.

You’ve probably seen many poker professionals bringing backpacks into the tournament poker arena. Usually these backpacks contain a long-sleeve sweatshirt (casinos can be cold), any power cords for their electronics, maybe a book. They also will normally have a wide array of snacks in that backpack, simply to stave off any hunger pangs that may come up that might affect their thinking processes.

carbohydratesWhen it comes time to step away from the table for a dinner break, you also won’t see players storming the buffet and stuffing their faces – that is, if they are a successful player. Eating a huge meal laden with carbohydrates – and getting the resulting “food coma” afterwards – does not lend itself well to playing poker, especially its observational nature when you’re looking to close your eyes. Instead of that big meal, players are more apt to grab a salad or a sandwich and review some hands; there’s enough time to get a meal after the close of business for the day.

By taking some of these suggestions to mind, you might find yourself more attentive at the tables, whether it is that home game or the next tournament you enter. In Part Two, we’ll look at the “illegal” outlets that can have an effect on your poker game – besides their illegality, they are far more detrimental than any advantage you might get.

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Earl Burton

Earl Burton has been at the forefront of the poker media for more than a decade. In both print and digital media, Earl is a highly respected voice that has covered the World Series of Poker, the World Poker Tour and several other poker events across the United States. Whether it entails covering the political side of poker, its tournaments and players, the strategy of the game or its other myriad of nuances, Earl brings an inquisitive mind, a player's desire to learn and a journalist's quest for knowledge and tries to pass that knowledge along to the readers.