By Sean Zucker –
It all comes down to this: mano a mano. The rest of the table has folded and all that’s left is two players squaring off. Cards on the table—one winner, one loser. That’s cool and all, but poker actually offers much more than a chance to empty some buddies’ wallets.
New York Times sports and culture reporter Sopan Deb, for example, recently detailed the reassurance and comfort poker provided him during a very dark time.
“I won’t miss the pandemic, with the suffering and isolation it has caused across the planet,” he writes, “But, I will miss one thing about quarantine life whenever it’s over. I have developed real bonds with people through poker, which is, ironically, a game inherently built on mistrust.”
Deb started building this bond shortly after the pandemic began and he was invited to join a new acquittance’s friendly online poker game. It quickly became the refuge he needed during the lonely months of the Covid-19 lockdown. The weekly low stakes endeavor represented one of poker’s largest non-monetary benefits—community.
The collective experience of playing cards is a perk of the game even for high rollers. Luxury-lifestyle magazine Robb Report notes that following college many people, especially men, have trouble creating and maintaining new friendships. Poker is a hobby that encourages intimate interaction with strangers, forcing players to mingle and talk with each other, often leading to strong long-term bonds.
“Poker is an intensely social, jovial game—more like Pictionary than golf. Although golf is social, you’re out on a vast green expanse, and you have to keep quiet and maintain decorum,” it explains.
The magazine went on to lay out firsthand accounts of high stakes games featuring large amounts of money at risk that became a social sanctuary for prolific players.
Beyond bringing people together, poker may also be a boost to the brain.
A few years back, research was presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Copenhagen that showed playing the game might actively reduce the risk of developing dementia. The findings saw people who spent more time playing poker, and similar card games, were more likely to perform better in learning, memory and information processing assessments. It was theorized that these brain-stimulating activities could help to preserve vulnerable structures and cognitive functions in regions of the brain involved in dementia.
“Previous evidence has suggested that keeping the brain active may help boost ‘cognitive reserve’, allowing the brain to resist damage for longer, and this study adds to the ongoing ‘use it or lose it’ debate,” reported Dr Laura Phipps, science communications manager at Alzheimer’s Research UK. Phipps, not surprisingly, added the caveat that prioritizing a healthy lifestyle including a balanced diet, regular exercise, not smoking, and moderate levels of cholesterol and blood pressure continues to be the biggest step towards reducing risk of developing the disease.
Given the obvious focus on math and cognitive skill, some claim playing a few hands can improve sleep, helping refresh the mind and unwind after a long day. The crux of the agreement being it’s a means of exercising mental muscles causing a subsequent release of tension similar to effect of a physical workout.
Whether or not a melatonin substitute is needed, it might be worth taking a gamble on the pleasures of poker.