We all sit down at a home poker game in the hopes of winning a little extra cash, but as we age we’re likely to reap a few more perks from that kitchen table game night than we might think.
Academic studies have been championing the benefits of playing games for some time, with research showing that doing so can improve everything from mental performance to hand-eye co-ordination.
So how does playing poker help you stay sharp as you get older, and what can you do to create the perfect home game experience for you and your friends (for therapeutic reasons, of course!)?
A Gym For Your Mind
“At Replay Poker, we have a really engaged community,” says Replay’s operations manager Ash, aka ‘fizzymint’, “and one thing that gets mentioned again and again is how poker has this fun, social side to it, but it’s also great at stimulating your mind with a series of unique mental challenges.”
No two poker hands ever play out in quite the same way, and it’s the constantly shifting and evolving dynamics at any given table that provide a great mental workout for poker players. And for those who aren’t as able to get physical exercise, poker can provide a wonderful way to stay sharp, engaged and stimulated.
“You don’t need to be in top physical shape to play poker, but the mental edge it can give you means it’s the perfect game for older or less mobile players”.
So what are the mental benefits of playing poker, and how can you set up your own game night?
Stay Alert and Mentally Flexible
“When it comes to physical exercise,” Ash says, “we all know how hard it can be to get going again if you take a long break. You need to stretch and use your muscles regularly to keep them flexible, and the same thing goes when it comes to your brain”.
Each hand of poker is like a little puzzle to be deciphered, whether you’re involved in the hand or not. Using your gray matter to figure out what cards your opponents have, what your odds are of hitting the cards you need, or how to get your rivals to hand over their chips when you have a strong hand, all helps to keep your mind active.
“One of the great things about poker is that these mental exercises all come naturally when you’re playing the game. It’s always easier to do exercise when it doesn’t feel like exercise – you’re just having fun!”
Social Interaction and People Skills
It’s a sad fact that as we age, many of us find we have fewer opportunities to spend time with those whose company we most enjoy.
“The pandemic was difficult for so many people,” says Ash, “but older people in particular can suffer from the lack of social interaction that came with lockdowns and isolation. And again, that’s an area where poker can really help your mind stay a little more youthful”.
Poker involves empathy – putting yourself in someone else’s shoes in order to get an insight into how and why they’re doing what they’re doing. And it may be obvious to say, but poker requires other people to play against!
As the pandemic becomes more of a memory, many of us are simply out of practice when it comes to being around other people in a social setting, let alone predicting, analyzing and empathizing with other people’s behavior. Poker brings those social elements to the fore, yet as Ash points out, these day you don’t need to leave the house to be able to work on those skills.
“One of the beautiful things about online poker is the way it brings real people together, playing the same game, from all over the world. Whether you’re less physically able, shy, or even isolating, you’re always able to spend time interacting with real people. It can be a great way to stay connected to the world and get yourself out of a funk”.
Tips to Run a Healthy Home Game
So, given all we know about how poker can be a force for good in people’s mental health, how can you use this information to make your next home poker game a positive event for your friends’ wellbeing?
Ash recommends bearing the following tips in mind:
- Invite people who will enjoy each others’ company
“When we’re in confrontational, awkward or uncomfortable situations, we’re not always able to function at our best. Make sure the people at your home game will contribute to a positive, fun experience”.
- Provide healthy snacks
“People love junk food, but if you provide some healthy options in the snack department you’ll not only give folks a shot at a healthier body, but also a healthier bottom line! Many top pros, like Daniel Negreanu, have adopted a vegan diet and nutritious foods have been proven to help maintain high mental performance”.
- Switch off the auto-pilot
“Ever played poker without really thinking about what you’re doing? Everyone has lapses in concentration, but by trying to stay engaged in every hand you’ll not only be improving at poker all the time, you’ll be training your brain to perform at a higher level for longer”.
Finally, while Texas Hold’em is the most widely-played and understood poker game in the world, consider adding a few different varieties to your home game lineup. Switching to a game like Omaha or Seven-card Stud is a great way to keep challenging yourself. Just make sure everyone knows the rules!