Sleep Better, Play Better: How Sleep Affects Your Poker

Sleep Better, Play Better: How Sleep Affects Your Poker

Tommy Angelo articulated a great poker truth in his book Elements of Poker:

Before anything flows, there must be a difference. Between different elevations, water flows. Between different pressures, air flows. Between different poker players, money flows….

Reciprocality is any difference between you and your opponents that affects your bottom line. Reciprocality says that when you and your opponents would do the same thing in a given situation, no money moves, and when you do something different, it does.

You can mine for reciprocal gold anywhere in the poker universe.

Let me suggest an insufficiently mined corner of the poker universe that you should consider drilling for a reciprocal advantage — sleep.

Last week I read a Scientific American article on recent advances in sleep research, written by Robert Stickgold of Harvard Medical School. Though the article doesn't discuss poker specifically, its general conclusions reinforced my long-standing opinion that good sleep is essential to good poker.

Emotional memory

One study described in the article was conducted by the author himself in 2006. His research team asked test subjects — half of whom were sleep-deprived for the prior 36 hours — to rate the emotional content of words as positive (e.g., calm), negative (e.g., grief), or neutral (e.g., willow). After two nights of recovery sleep, the subjects were given a surprise test of their memory about what words they had seen.

Compared to the control group, the sleep-deprived subjects were 40 percent less able to remember test words. That severe hit to memory all by itself should be something you'd want to avoid — but there's more.

In fact, the effect was not uniform across the three emotional categories. There was a 50 percent loss in words of positive or neutral emotional content, but only a 20 percent loss in words with negative emotional content. That is, the memory of negative words was at least twice as strong as positive or neutral words after sleep deprivation.

Stickgold notes, "This result suggests the rather horrifying possibility that when you are sleep-deprived, you effectively form twice as many memories of negative events in your life as of positive events, producing a biased — and potentially depressing — memory of your day."

Imagine yourself in a multi-day poker tournament. If you go into it sleep-deprived, this research suggests that you will selectively retain memories of the day's negative events over the positive ones. Your mistakes, bad beats, annoyances, and conflicts with other players will stand out in your memory the next day, while you're less likely to remember the instances in which you played especially well, got lucky, or had pleasant social encounters.

How do you suppose that distorted mental landscape will affect your performance on Day 2?

Memory consolidation

Stickgold writes, "The past two decades have seen an explosion of discoveries showing that sleep participates in memory processing…. Sleep after learning leads to the selective stabilization, strengthening, integration and analysis of new memories. In doing so, it controls what we remember and how we remember it."

The article reviews studies showing that "anything you think is important will be selectively retained while you are asleep."

For example, researchers can train volunteers in several tasks. They tell the subjects which of these tasks they will and will not be tested on the next day, then allow them a normal night of sleep. "Only the information that subjects are told they will be retested on shows improvement the next day."

These kind of results, Stickgold says, contribute to a growing theory that our memory systems have evolved in order to help us improve our future performance. Sleep appears to be a crucial component of those systems. Interfere with it, and you sabotage your natural ability to use your recent experiences to perform better the next day.

Complex processing

The article finally describes a series of experiments in which test subjects had to learn a complex set of probabilistic relationships between pictures on cards and their interpretations.

When people were tested first in the morning and then again the same evening, there was no change. But if they were tested first in the evening, then allowed to sleep, and retested the next morning, they showed a 10% improvement.

"Somehow," Stickgold writes, "the sleeping brain was actually able to improve participants' understanding of the relation" between the pictures and their interpretations.

It seems that the old expression, "let me sleep on it," has a genuine physiological basis.

I've had the experience of wrestling with some conundrum without resolution, only to have the answer occur to me the next morning soon after waking up. It seems that the old expression, "let me sleep on it," has a genuine physiological basis. Our brains can solve problems and deepen our understanding of complex systems in our sleep. And if poker isn't about problem-solving and understanding complexities, I don't know what is.

Back to reciprocality

With that science update in mind, let's go back to Angelo's maxim about reciprocality in poker.

Abby and Bill, strangers to each other, are assigned to the same table on Day 2 of a major poker tournament. Abby shunned the various temptations of the casino after play concluded on Day 1. She ate a good dinner and retired to her hotel room.

The quiet time alone allowed Abby first to review in her mind some crucial hands and analyze what she did right and wrong in them. Second, it relaxed her, enhancing her ability to fall asleep quickly. She slept well for eight hours, and still had time in the morning for a workout in the gym and a good breakfast before returning to the tournament room.

Bill, on the other hand, couldn't resist the opportunity to enjoy everything the casino had to offer — exciting table games, free drinks, and, later, a night club with loud music, dancing, and flirting. He finally went back to his room at 3:00 a.m., but found that he was too wound up to sleep, so he watched a horror movie on the on-demand service. He finally slept at 5:00 a.m., but only fitfully, with nightmares and frequent awakenings. He barely made it to the 10:00 a.m. tournament restart.

Over the course of Day 2, chips are going to flow between Abby and Bill. Which direction do you suppose the current will be?


Make sleep a priority, especially in multi-day tournaments. Most of your opponents will not be doing so, and your attention to this basic physiologic need will give you an edge on them that you would otherwise not have.

Robert Woolley lives in Asheville, NC. He spent several years in Las Vegas and chronicled his life in poker on the "Poker Grump" blog.

  • Learn how getting a good night's rest can improve both your memory and your mood -- and your poker.

  • Get an edge on your opponents simply by making a conscious effort to get an adequate amount of sleep.

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