Healthy Poker Book Introduction: Early Draft for Comments


Healthy Poker Book introduction and outline

By Paul Gibbons

DRAFT: For circulation and feedback.  Not to be published without author’s consent.  All rights reserved.

‘Healthy Poker’ seems an oxymoronic concept. Not only is Poker associated in the minds of many with ne’er-do-well gamblers and degenerates, but the conditions under which it is commonly played and the lifestyle associated with the professional player make it hard to maintain, never mind improve, health.

Nevertheless, Healthy Poker is a book whose time has come.   Tiger Woods ushered in new standards for athleticism in golf that almost all professionals must now rise to.  Flexibility, stamina and strength training are now part of the ante to compete at the highest level in that game.  Professional athletes sometimes work extensively with sport psychologists, to overcome the ‘yips’ or ‘chokes’.  Increasingly this is the case with Poker pros.  Who would have predicted ten years ago that a Vegas catering ( firm would be delivering over 50 healthy meals to the $25,000 Players Championship at the WSOP in 2012?

Tomorrow’s winning players will not just have great skills, but they will have levels of professionalism, training, and mental stamina and toughness that are only infrequently seen today.

The Unhealthy Poker Context

The game of Poker has been transformed by the media: television, social networking and the internet.  In 1991, the WSOP Main Event had 191 entrants and a record-breaking $1m in the prize pool.  2012 saw our first $1m buy-in event!  By 2006, the number of entrants had grown to 8,773 and first place alone had a $12m prize.  This exponential growth was not from the ranks of crusty, old, long-term gamblers, but from 20-somethings who might otherwise be working on Wall Street, or pursuing PhDs in Math or Finance, and from the ranks of Professional Bridge, Chess and Backgammon players who had been competing in ‘mental sports’ for decades, and from the 60 million US recreational players who took their chance to compete at the highest level for life-changing money, and from overseas where Poker (a very American game) captured the imagination of young people with intensely quick minds and a fearlessness (recklessness) that would change the way the game was played.

High-stakes cash game players can play when they are optimally ready.  If tired, they can take a break for an hour or a day.  They can ‘grind’ in a normal Circadian rhythm, play when they are fresh, eat well, take time off for the gym, do some yoga, or get a massage; if ‘tilted’ by life or a downswing in cards, they can stop.

A tournament player, by contrast, will, if successful, finish her twelve-hour day after midnight.  Perhaps overstimulated by caffeine and ‘pumped’ from having made it through another day, sleep may not arrive until 3AM.  That leaves nine hours to exercise, meditate, prepare mentally, eat well and sleep.  Something usually has to give: usually all of the above.

Furthermore, during the player’s day, she[1] will sit in a cramped space, on a cheap chair with no back support.  The human body was not designed to sit and certainly not to sit badly.  The gentle curves of a healthy spine become temporarily exaggerated, the hamstrings shorten, the erector spinae of the back have to work especially hard and long and become like steel cables.  Furthermore, sitting still can mean much shallower breathing using only one third of the lungs, and diminishing their long-term vitality.  Increased muscular tension increases fatigue and makes emotion control much more difficult.

On breaks (between fifteen and thirty minutes usually), the most urgent biological need is usually to relieve some of the pressure from too much coffee, or too many bottles of water.  Grabbing and guzzling a burger, sandwich or other fast food replaces a well-chosen, healthily consumed meal.  This mismanagement of blood sugar, blood fats, and calories creates problems at the table, and problems for later life.

In addition to the dearth of good information, even those with that information find that there are other temptations.  Poker is, by-and-large, played in fun places.  To be young and well-off in a fun place creates the temptation to stay out late and ‘party’. (And why not!?) One would think that well-known pros would avoid this (after all, there are millions at stake), but this author has met several top-ten pros staggering casino floors beer-in-hand looking the worse for wear at 3AM.

However, the game is changing.  It is rare to see a big-name professional intoxicated at the table these days (with some exceptions).  Some pros understand the mind-body link and practice it.  Phil Ivey is often seen munching on an apple (rather than potato chips, or pizza).  Negreanu is a health ‘nit’.  Esfandiari adopts a modified lotus (or so it seems) under the table.  Galfond and other top pros meditate. (Rumor has it.)  Lisandro (as do others now) has special healthy meals prepared and brought to the table.

Part of this countervailing force, the trend toward healthy-mind/ healthy-body in Poker is a result of the flood of younger, well-educated players who might otherwise be working on Wall Street or running businesses are by-and-large much healthier than the Boomer-plus older players.  For this group, running, going to the gym, doing yoga, hiking and biking are habits well-established by their early twenties.  As with senior executives, or driven business people this group’s problem is balancing the hours, travel schedule, availability of good food, and poker lifestyle with healthy practices.

You Are Win What you Eat: Poker Nutrition

Even the diet-conscious pro has to find resources and the world of nutrition is filled with garbage: garbage food, futile fads, useless supplements, and garbage writing (sometimes based on garbage science).  Who should one trust on caffeine (health-giving, or health challenging), supplements, anti-oxidants, organic food, fats (animal and other), and carbs (high-GI or not)?

In addition, the halls of the WSOP are full of sellers hawking ‘mindset’ products.  This summer you could buy special cognitive enhancing amino acids, caffeine strips, and even oxygen.   If you know the right people, it is easy to come by Adderall and Ritalin.  Some players swear by B12, some by Taurine.  I’ve been offered anti-oxidant (Blueberries) at the table because ‘they help you think more clearly by stopping oxidation of neurotransmitters’.

Some of these work, and some of them don’t.  Some are dangerous and some are harmless.  Some are based on BS science.   A considerable portion of Healthy Poker is therefore devoted to nutrition, fitness and their effect on cognitive performance.

However, if you are looking for the quick-fix, you will not find it here.  Our approach will be rigorously science-based.  It is a fact that people make money selling the above preparations, and a sad fact that people with financial incentives are sometimes parsimonious with the truth.

Health Motivation: Intrinsic and Extrinsic

Healthy practices have, of course, value in their own right irrespective of what they may contribute to your bottom line.   People who exercise and eat well have developed healthy habits and actually enjoy exercise and a healthy meal.  The main problem for people intrinsically motivated[2] is finding the time and incorporating their healthy practices into their tournament or cash game schedule.

For the rest of us, perhaps most of us, we need some extrinsic motivation.  We psychologists further distinguish motivation into two categories: distal and proximal (far away and nearby).

Distal motivations are far in the future.   Living long, injury and illness free, avoiding the American obesity pandemic and looking good are distal motivations for leading a healthy lifestyle.  However, the body and mind can be mistreated for years and the consequences not felt for a very long time.  It is axiomatic in the ‘behavioral change’ world, that distal stimuli provide far less motivation than proximal ones.  One favorite expression of mine is ‘we don’t change when we see the light, we change when we feel the heat’!  Younger players, for the most part, are unlikely to be worried about type-II diabetes or heart disease.

More pressing to the younger player is succeeding at the table: the millions of dollars available annually to the top echelon of pros is a substantial carrot.  This is a proximal motivation!  Many of today’s best pros recognize that exercise and eating right are not a trade-off, or something to be sacrificed in the name of success, but rather that exercise and eating right are critical to at-table performance.  Some don’t know what to do (because of lack of, or garbage information); some know what to, but fall short (I fall into this category).


Mindset is a hot topic: in physical sports and mental sports such as Poker, Bridge and Chess. Our definition of mindset is as follows:  ‘the state of mind that allows maximal performance’.

As with all sports, there are skills to be learned: bet-sizing, hand reading, opponent reading, hand selection, etc.  In addition, there is the capacity to deploy those skills maximally:  Tommy Angelo calls this your ‘A-game’. Self-doubt, lack of focus, erratic emotions, and tiredness, can compromise the A-game of even the best player.  In a game where skills improve dramatically year-on-year, getting and maintaining a winner’s mindset is essential to success.  It is no use having a world-beating A-game, if you can only deploy it erratically.

There are several dozen books on ‘poker mindset’, some good, but few pay sufficient attention to recent findings in neuroscience, exercise physiology and nutrition science that suggest a strong link between a healthy body and a healthy mind.  The Healthy Poker book is intended to address that imbalance, and to review the best writing on mindset currently available from the point of view of a professional psychologist.

Life and Poker; Poker and Life

There is more to performing optimally at the table than what you put in your body.  A much less talked about area, is the relationship between life-success and poker-success.  It is obvious that causality runs in the direction from poker-success to life success: after all, succeeding at life without succeeding at one’s job, or earning enough, is hard to envision.  But the causal arrow also points in the other direction: life-success or impairment can support poker-success or impairment.  To further complicate matters Poker success can (perversely) create problems and stress that were not previously there. ‘Mo’ money, mo’ problems’ as the song goes.  In my case, having a huge influx of cash at a young age did me no good at all.  I burned through it, destroying my body and mind, and developing champagne and caviar tastes which I could not sustain during my life’s downswings. (More below.)

Imagine a life dogged by tax and financial problems.  Let us face it; we play poker to make money.  If we have squandered, or mismanaged, or not kept up with tax payments, financial success can be short-lived, or altogether destroyed.

Perhaps difficult relationships with a partner, or addiction or other mental health issues, or existential dis-ease (‘am I doing the right thing’), or lack of depth in areas such as friendships, hobbies, culture, travel, spirituality, family, or whatever else might be said to constitute the ‘good life’ dog the otherwise successful pro?

Do not such issues and lack of fulfillment distract from the ability to focus, maintain emotional balance, and maintain vitality?  The ‘presence’ of someone at the poker table whose life is deeply fulfilling and well-run is better, we propose, than someone who has chaos awaiting them when they get home.

Information Gap and Practice Gap

There are resources available on all these issues.  Poker forums have posts (largely by amateurs, few by professionals) on good practice.  There are many books on mindset, but fewer on nutrition, fitness, life-fulfillment, and tax and financial management.  Furthermore, many of these areas have tomes of tripe written about them. Diet and exercise fads, quick-fix financial solutions, and self-help claptrap are everywhere to be found.

This is the information gap.

The practice gap is the gap between having the information and deploying in.  This involves inventing patterns and habits that fit into the player’s life, and then embodying these as habits, and having strategies to correct relapse.

The problem our book aims to solve is two-fold.

First, how do we concisely sift through the poor, unprofessional, un-researched, fad-like writing to get at something resembling truth?  The second, perhaps more important question, is how do we make the best of this ‘Healthy Poker’ knowledge specifically relevant and applicable to the unique lifestyle and needs of the Poker community, pros and amateurs?

The Healthy Poker business ( is designed to advance the best of these ideas and offer coaching, support and resources in all these areas.  Our book, Healthy Poker, aims to summarize all of this in an efficient format.

The book is organized as follows:

Note for reviewers:  Although I’ve put some thought into each of the topics, until research is completed, I don’t know whether this is exhaustive, or whether some should be combined.  I’m not sure whether this is too ambitious for a first book and whether two smaller volumes might be easier to complete.  Comments on this are especially welcome!


Chapter Author/ co-authors??? ETC
Introduction:  Why this book?


Introduction to the mind: New findings in Neuroscience and mental performance


-        Systematic cognitive errors: decision making, behavioral economics and poker

-        Limbic vs. cortex: emotions and regulation of cognition

-        Dorsolateral Pre-frontal and impulse control

-        (Would meditation fit best in here?)

-        Intrinsic and extrinsic motivators

-        Affirmations and positive thinking






5 – 10 days

What does it take to be Professional?

-        How does being a Professional help your ‘neuroscience’ to make the link? (How does what is below get you what is above…)

-        Purpose

-        Vision

-        Practice

-        Mindset

-        Motivation


Designing YOUR approach to professionalism – what it looks like for you, and how it fits with your life



Paul (excerpts from Dusty?)


5 days

Poker and Life, Life and Poker: How to life-coach yourself

-         Is Poker good for you/ bad for you?

-         Purpose/ fulfillment

-         poker and career/ life planning

-         goals

-        Balance

-        Relationships

-        Knowing when to quit



Paul/ Jen D?


5 days

Better Poker through Chemistry?  Supplements and stimulants

-         poker and smart drugs

-         poker and caffeine/ stimulants

-         poker and vitamins and other supplements



Paul/ Jen M?


5 days

Nutrition and mental performance

-        ‘brain foods’

-        Insulin as a hormone and neurotransmitter

-        ‘anti-oxidants’

-        ‘diets’

-        ‘obesity’

-        Diet away from the table

-        Eating for performance at the table





5 – 10 days

Exercise and mental performance

-        Exercise and cognition

-        Exercise in life

-        Exercise during ‘performance’ (tournaments)




Paul/ Kevin


5 days

Sleep and mental performance


(this could be a sub-section of chapter 2: neuroscience)






2 days

Meditation, yoga and mental performance


Meditation research

Types of meditation

How to start meditating


Yoga and the mind – embodied cognition






5 days

Poker and Money

-         squandering the big win (personal)

-         Bankroll Management

-         Kelley/ risk of ruin/ guidelines

-         ‘tips’

-         Tax planning and management

-         Financial planning and management





Paul/ Ann?


5 – 10 days

Mental Health, Relationships, and Addictions

- depression

- add

- substances


Stories – Matusow?  Merson?  Me?








5 days




  2 days


The Author

While the notion ‘Healthy Poker’ may be oxymoronic, it is somewhat ironic that I find myself passionate enough about the subject to write about it. They say that therapists sometimes are as attracted to healing their own demons as those of their clients.  This is partly the case here.  Although spectacularly well-qualified in these areas, I make some spectacularly bad choices.  I don’t write this as someone who has perfected the art of living optimally, but rather as someone who wrestles day in and day out with how to do so in spite of knowing what to do.

My whole life story can be told as a battle between various psychological demons and great talent.  At 12 I won the Manhattan Math Team Championships several years younger than the other competitors.  I raced through High School in two years, and finished that at 15, not just a Math and Science nerd, but fluent in French and German, an accomplished Pianist and Clarinetist, and a State Champion Debater. In University, several Professors commented on what was then prodigious talent, the sort that could generate Nobel-quality breakthroughs in my chosen field (which was then Neurochemistry.)  Alas, I also discovered drugs, nightclubs, alcohol, smoking and women.  My ‘playboy’ lifestyle required Wall Street level income so off I went, and after a meteoric rise, earning nearly seven figures and buying my first Jaguar at 25, this combination of vast income and destructive habits brought me to my knees. The only restrictions on my partying were how much I could physically take, and how long my employers would tolerate it.  Since my constitution was extraordinary, the latter proved the breaking point: I got fired and the word spread (he will make you a mountain of money, but is impossible to manage).   I found myself unemployed and unemployable, and very depressed as the image of myself as a charming, fun, prodigy with lots to offer the world conflicted with the bitter reality of sleeping on couches and comforting myself with the substances that I could afford.  I was more or less a bum for six years.

I got sober at 32 (20 years ago), but the personal demons continued to chase me.  Anger issues, immaturity, depression, and ADD all pursued me as I pursued a new career as a management consultant.  I was successful enough, even famous in some circles, but never really a good corporate soldier, so I founded my own firm in 2001.

Again the success was rapid and substantial.  I had a compelling vision for a different kind of consulting firm, one that was a world-leader in many cutting-edge personal growth, leadership and organizational change technologies, and one that was an example of a happy marriage between people, planet and profit.  Much of the success was due to an extremely fortunate selection of business partners, and this firm grew at 150% a year for 6 years.  I sold it in 2009 and it prospers and wins awards to this day.

I began to take Poker seriously that year, securing some excellent coaches who took me from donkey to competent in very short order.  However, I suffered from tilt control and self-induced health issues (mostly to do with sleep) and as fast as I would make money in tournaments, I would spew it in cash games at 3AM.  (I remember an extraordinary night, where I won the ‘109-squared’ and finished 3rd in the 11R on PokerStars for something like $13K in wins.    At 4AM, I decided to play some 7-card stud – a game I am completely clueless at.  Soon winning (and bored) at 2-4, I moved up to 5-10, then final 30-60 where I dumped $6k at 6AM.  I got no sleep, playing a game I had never played, at a stake I could not afford, burning through the biggest win of my career!  I didn’t even play 30-60 Hold’em, a game I was becoming good at!)

Even today, after years of ‘personal development’, a decade of doing yoga three times a week, dabbling in meditation, multiple degrees in the Human Sciences, reading all there is to read on nutrition and exercise, I find myself periodically depressed, overweight, frequently exhausted, and off-again-on-again with smoking.  The ADD that was often harnessed into great creativity is worse than ever and leads to some terrible choices.  These bad choices play out in bad choices in Poker – usually game selection (time of day), and some choice of plays that might only be described as self-destructive from time to time.

I do one thing correctly, and this (priceless) insight I bring to all my coaching and writing.  If you wrestle with life-style and related issues, the thing that makes the biggest difference between the winners and losers is getting back on the horse.  Only 15% of people who join a gym in January attend regularly in February.  Only 7% of people who suffer a near-fatal MI (heart attack) make the life-style changes that will help prevent another.  The thing that I get consistently right, with regards to health and lifestyle issues, is to keep trying.  Some choices (such as sobriety and abstinence from drugs) stick with me, some come and go (like yoga and meditation).  I know that I am much better (and more profitable at the tables) as a result of the continued engagement with what it means to be healthy.  The question, for someone with my psychology, is sometimes not how good it can be, but how much worse it could be!

With all the issues that dog me, I’ve been enormously successful.  Many degrees, moderate fame as an academic for a time, successful consultant, rich investment banker, and a legacy (the company I founded) that may endure for decades are among my successes.  I began to pursue Poker about half-time in 2011, and since then, I have $350K in live cashes and a roughly similar amount online.  Unsatisfied with that, my ambition is to have a million dollar year and to have a breakthrough in healthy practices.  My studies and experience tell me that these two events will not be unrelated!

I hope you enjoy this book.  Live well! (And good luck at the tables.)

Paul Gibbons has advanced degrees in Neuroscience, Psychology, Philosophy and Economics.  Before becoming a Poker player and writer, he founded, grew and sold a leadership consulting firm in London, was a Strategy consultant for PwC, and was a derivatives trader at several blue-chip investment banks.  When not playing the circuit, he lives in Fort Collins, writes, teaches and raises his two sons.

[1] It is customary in formal writing to alternate ‘he’ and ‘she’, so I will.  Given the rise of prominence of female players in recent years, just using ‘he’ would be linguistically incorrect and descriptively inaccurate.

[2] There is more on extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation later chapters, but for now intrinsic motivation can be thought of as doing something because we like it, and extrinsic motivation can be thought of as doing something because of the goodies it provides or the pain it avoids.

Online versus live… can Poker aid job creation?

A well written and informative article.  Seeing online and live poker as competing is a limited view.

Here is the point of view of a strategy-management consultant, advisor to Financial Services CEOs, and part-time poker pro.

1) Online poker has been instrumental in the growth of the game (without dispute).  That will continue to be the case.  The growth will largely come from non-US countries where the game is just taking root: Korea, Japan, Eastern Europe (you could argue that this is already peaking), and (perhaps one day God help us) China.
2) Nevada needs to continue to build itself as the world’s poker Mecca.  It is now, but largely for historical reasons (the game is afterall American).  This franchise is worth not just the hundreds of millions in Poker revenue, but associated hotel income, and maintains Nevada as the destination of choice for Poker players, but with ‘cross-selling’ of other casino games.  If another destination followed some of the vision below, Nevada’s dominance could be compromised and jobs lost.
3) For all the size of the huge events (4000 for the WSOP seniors), there are tens of millions of recreational players who don’t know that the WSOP has 57 events, or that some of them cost only 1000 dollars, or that there are daily 200 dollar tournaments with 50k first prizes. (When I play live around the country, or talk Poker with amateurs they are amazed that I play in the series assuming that I must be a Poker billionaire.  When I say they could and should also – they are astonished.) In my estimation, the WSOP could be as big as five times its current size if it were broadly known as an ‘everyman’ event and not just for pros on TV.
4) No Casino does what some London Poker clubs once did:  offer online terminals for online Poker.  While waiting for a table, or wanting to play 2-7 instead of NLHE, casinos could profit immensely (by having a financial arrangement with an existing site for a portion of rake, or by hourly charges) from offering both in Mega sized poker rooms.  The Venetian has about 25 tables, but imagine a beautiful, comfortable, well-run venue 5x that size wth private rooms for high-limit games, named players associated, online available, microstakes available (on computer tables), and a much greater selection of games and stakes.
5) As with the recording industry – the online genie cannot be put back in the bottle.  The truly profitable and huge job creation will come from embracing the online and brick and mortar worlds – and seeking financial synergy between them, and disposing of the ‘us or them’ worldview.

Paul Gibbons