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Super-human Hold ‘Em

Drug watchdogs have the sporting world covered, but are steroids getting injected into poker?

Well, steroids have invaded just about every sport under the sun, and now that poker has arguably become a sport, has steroids’ evil era of cheating reached the professional world of poker too? This is a touchy question but it’s not at all impossible. When speaking of ‘poker steroids’, I’m not referring to the anabolic type but rather those drugs that increase mental stamina and the ability to stave off sleep and headaches.

As much as we might not like to admit this, drugs such as Modafinil and Adderall may be out there in the poker world. Modafinil keeps you awake and enhances short-term memory. 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. Adderall is a pharmaceutical psycho-stimulant comprising mixed amphetamine salts. It is used primarily to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy (excessive daytime sleepiness).

Brave New World

I was first made aware of poker players using these drugs by way of a disturbing e-mail I received from a mother whose online-playing teenager she suspected of ‘poker doping’. She wrote that her son was staying up all hours of the night playing online, missing sleep, missing school, missing out on just about everything. Did I know how he could be doing this? she asked.

Well, one thing I knew even without knowing was why these kinds of drugs appeal to sleepless online poker players who want to be just as sharp while playing as they are sleepless. Online players often play multiple games at once and need to retain more data and play more hands in much less time than when playing a single game. This requires a keen alertness unadulterated by fatigue. For example, if one normally plays a maximum of three tables simultaneously and wants to increase that without losing the ability to keep track of all the variables, he or she may search for the added ‘boost’ needed to make this jump possible.

Short-handed games alter this tracking effect even more, as players tend to devote more focus on the short game than the filled tables. Everyone is different of course, but for most players the natural comfort level where they don’t feel like they’re giving up anything due to distractions is three tables, or 27 simultaneous opponents.

But with Modafinil and Adderall, players are able to extend their effective gamesmanship to six tables with relative ease. Their new altered ability to increase attention to detail allows them to reliably track player movements on all tables, most importantly when new players come into any game. They feel the ability to track the movements of more than 50 simultaneous players, with perhaps the capacity for even more as they experience growing confidence in their little helpers.

For these players it’s vital that none of their active tables overlaps with any others, in order not to block the information as it streams in. Personal set-ups vary with many using a video card with dual monitor outputs, two 21-inch monitors set to 1600-by-1200 resolution each, and placing the monitors side-by-side and sitting between them, as opposed to having one directly in front and one to the side. Basically the idea is to have all the action visible without needing to shift one’s eyes or head around, and relying on the increased awareness of Modafinil and Adderall to keep track of where each player was sitting and sits now, which is normally difficult since names and avatars are shrunken at 1600x1200 resolution and multiple actions are taking place simultaneously.

In the Flesh

What about brick-and-mortar cardrooms? Well, just like online, live poker is about gaining and exploiting edges against your opponents. Usually study, observation, analysis and experience together with the ability to mentally sustain these applications are what achieve these advantages. But 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. It 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 contain the emotional destructiveness of tilting, as he or she 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 such a can of worms? Do I have any knowledge of specific poker players taking Modafinil or Adderall? Is there a “Marcus Report” that names names? Sorry, but no. I haven’t even heard of a single player who has taken any drug to enhance his or her poker skills. But the problem is that I’ve heard several players talking about it on different occasions. This is why I am writing about it now. I think Modafinil, Adderall 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 stop talking about drug-induced breakthroughs for mental competition. Just like in many other sports that have preceded it, poker might still be in a phase of increased vocal traffic of mental-performance enhancers rather than outright use. And that’s why any of you out there who might be influenced to take drugs to better your poker play rather than seek the seemingly easy way. It’s 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. Besides, taking any performance-enhancing drugs will ultimately hurt, if not destroy, you and your bankroll.
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