June 02, 2010

The Tour de WSOP

Kumar:  Hang on a second, nurse. What we should probably use is marijuana. That'll sufficiently sedate the patient for surgery.

Male Nurse:  Marijuana? But why?

Kumar:  We don't have time for questions. We need marijuana now, as much of it as possible! Like a big bag of it.

—Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle

In what is likely the world's most pointless survey since Maxim discovered women lie about sex as much as men:

A Nova Southeastern University study recently presented at a national conference found that 80 percent of poker players around the world reported using drugs and other substances to enhance their performance in poker.

Poker players are using drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, Valium, and other prescription medications, as well as substances including caffeine, energy drinks and guarana to get an edge over their opponents.

Apparently the survey involved having a mere 198 poker players fill out an online questionnaire.  The players self-selected to participate in the survey after seeing it advertised on online poker site.  Not surprisingly, the demographics were heavily male (96%) and young (average age of 26).  Also not surprisingly, the participants probably have an inflated sense of self, with a whopping 60% claiming to be professional (25%) or semi-professional (35%) players.  Two-thirds were primarily online players.  Now onto the pharmacology:
  • 28% report using one or more prescription medications to improve their game.  I suppose in the age of widespread use of "study drugs" (a/k/a "nootropics") like Ritalin and Adderall, it really should not be a shock that younger people who are college age or just out of college might have access to and past experience with such drugs, and use them to enhance their online poker performance.  Most of the drugs reported in the prescription category either have or are reputed to have positive effects on concentration and memory.  It should come as little surprise that these drugs were obtained by illicit means by a 3:2 rate over legitimate prescriptions.
  • The high reported usage (by roughly 20% of respondents) of benzodiazepines (sedative/hypnotic drugs) and hydrocodone (a common opioid) might be as a method of counteracting the stimulant qualities of other drugs, rather than for their own benefits.  It certainly doesn't appear as though these types of medications would have any independent positive effect on poker performance.
  • With respect to "other" performance enhancing substances, caffeine is the king, as might be expected (71%), while the use of energy drinks (51%) seems rather low, at least given their ubiquity in the poker media.  Scotty Nguyen will be happy that plenty of youngsters (30%) emulate his use of booze as a method for enhancing, well ... his personality, at least.
  • One-third of those surveyed use marijuana to improve their poker play.  This one just doesn't seem to add up.  I suppose it might relax someone who is hyper or on super-monkey tilt.  Maybe marijuana is like alcohol—a little bit helps relax a player and lower natural risk-averse inhibitions to allow aggression in play, but too much and the edge evaporates, along with the bankroll.
  • Finally, 46% took some kind of nutritional supplement to improve poker performance.  The most common were Vitamin B12, guarana, Gingko biloba, ephedra, and ginseng.  Seriously?!?  Online poker guys spend tons of time researching game theory and calculating odds, and then fall for the nutritional supplement scam?  I get that guarana and ephedra are just alternative stimulants (though ephedra is rather risky), but for the most part, science really doesn't support the claims for most herbal supplements. 
Frankly, I don't much care one way or the other about the use of performance enhancing drugs in poker, partially because I am not terribly worked up about the illegality of the kinds of drugs involved, and mostly because I doubt these drugs give most players a significant edge at poker.  After all, a bad player on drugs is just a bad player who can stay awake longer to give away his money.

Wake me up if poker players ever figure out a way to hide an electric motor in a bicycle ...

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