How important is fitness for poker?

Barry Carter is noticing that the best poker players are getting fitter and, with input from some big names in the game, thinks you should to.

Lex & Elky in training
Is poker a sport? This is a question that gets asked all the time because the game is presented very much in sporting terms to the general public. I think ultimately the answer is no, because poker does not involve physical activity and that is usually how we define a sport. 

But in recent times I have come to think that while poker is not a sport, the most successful players could be considered sportsmen and sportswomen. I have interviewed a lot of the most successful players in the world and this year the one commonality between all of them is that they are starting to take fitness and nutrition seriously. Eugene Katchalov, Chris Moorman, Jason Mercier, Jeremy Ausmus and Daniel Negreanu have all recently told me how regular exercise has helped them focus at the tables.

Poker probably has a bad reputation as an industry in terms of health. Not only does it involve sitting for long periods of time, but the casino environment is full of unhealthy temptation. One of the reasons poker once seemed laughable as a sport is because until very recently the participants could smoke at the table, and even today in most casinos they can still drink alcohol. 

Poker puts on the pounds

Ted Forrest after his weight loss bet
A lot of poker players are overweight, in fact I would wager that most of us put on a few pounds when we started taking the game more seriously. It is not just the lack of activity and the unhealthy temptations, it is also probably largely due to the fact that professional poker players have no routine. They can get up when they want, play when they want, and quit when they want.

One of the easiest ways to stay in shape is to make the gym a habit, which is hard when you have no routine, especially if you travel a lot. WSOPE bracelet winner Jeremy Ausmus recently told me how valuable having structure in his life was:

"As much as non-structure feels good too for a while, if you have goals you want to accomplish you could benefit from a schedule. Getting up at a certain time, working out - you're going to feel good. If you don't you are not mentally the best and that carries over to your life."

In poker history being overweight has often provided an opportunity to make money. If you saw a previously portly poker player looking in good shape, the chances are they won a prop bet. A few years ago Mike Matusow lost around 60lbs in a year for a $100,000 prop bet and more famously, lost $2 million to Ted Forrest who lost around 47lbs in a couple of months.

Although embarking on prop bets to do something healthy like losing weight is well intentioned, there are two big problems. First of all, it is generally an unhealthy way to do it (Mike genuinely thought Ted might die from his bet) and secondly they are unsustainable. You simply cannot keep on doing the things you did to lose weight for a bet for the rest of your life, so the weight goes back on. 

Sitting is the real danger

Is this the way to play online poker?
Perhaps the most worrying health aspect of all for poker players is long hours spent sitting at the table. There is a fast growing body of research which suggests that non-stop sitting is as unhealthy as smoking. Not just because of the lack of exercise (Sitting burns the bare minimum calories per hour, usually under 80 per hour).

Studies are now showing that heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes and cancer are more common the more you sit. Your body was meant to move and when it is inactive, your defence mechanisms shut down. I've recently purchased a stand for my laptop so I don't sit all the time when I am working for this very reason.

I'm not saying if you are a poker player you are unhealthy. Nor am I saying you need to be fit to be good at the game. What I am saying is that the consistently successful poker players are taking care of their health and fitness. If you look at the current top ten of the GPI300, everyone in it looks pretty healthy. It's hard to say if they are or not, but at the very least none of them are overweight and several of them are known to exercise regularly. 

Healthy body, healthy mind

Eugene Katchalov's transformation
Jason Mercier is in that top ten and is one of the most successful live players of the last six years, not to mention one of the most active. He told me he is able to put in so much table time because he takes care of his fitness:

"I would say it has a lot to do with what I do when I am not playing poker. I try and do a lot of physical activity when I'm not playing - working out, playing basketball and other sports. My body and mind are trained to play poker at a high level." 

The current number one on that list (And all rankings lists) Daniel Negreanu told me recently that he thinks there is a significant correlation between healthy body and healthy mind:

"There are plenty of studies that show that working out, even if it's just 30 minutes a day for three times a week, has a massively positive impact on your life. Not just physically but mentally, the secret to happiness is physical exercise. I think a lot of poker players are smart enough to realise if they want to be happy, they have to work out. The best way to get out of a depressive state is to do something, to exercise."

Eugene Katchalov was recently featured on the cover of Men's Health magazine for getting in great shape and he told me the same thing:

"There is definitely a significant link between physical and mental health. I find myself more concentrated, full of energy and just generally in a better mood ever since I've embarked on this new lifestyle. Even when running bad or even making mistakes during play at tournaments, I feel like the new me has the ability to not get as upset about the situation as I used to get in the past and quickly move on."

The biggest way to improve your game?

Liv Boeree staying in shape
Both men are right, I too have seen an abundance of reports linking physical fitness and mental performance. Anecdotally I have also noticed how much sharper I feel as a writer when I have exercised in the morning. 

My good friend and mental game expert JaredTendler has spent his career studying performance and he too suggests that perhaps the biggest single tactical improvement anyone can make to their game is to eat better, rest better and exercise more:

"If you don't know what to work on next in your poker game, you can't go too wrong by exercising more. Even someone at the top like Phil Ivey could see some improvement by exercising more. I have coached more than 15 players to get to Supernova Elite and their physical health was a key factor for most of them. Not only does regular exercise improve your health and focus, it also helps improve your self discipline."

The benefits of exercise for mental activity are difficult to quantify, but equally difficult to ignore. I don't think you could ever put a dollar figure or BB/100 value on how beneficial exercise is to your poker game, but when the added benefits include looking better and living longer, it does seem like the biggest no brainer in the game. 

Do you work out regularly? Do you think physical fitness is important for a mind sport like poker? Tell me your thoughts on this, what you do to stay in shape and your own experiences of the benefits of exercise in the thread below:

 Discussion forum: Getting fit for poker in 2014

By Barry Carter l Barry Carter on Twitter

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