While many consider poker to be a game of chance, it also involves a fair amount of skill. Throughout the many different types of poker, there are countless rules to memorize and variables to consider. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise, really, that poker can actually help to sharpen the brain’s ability to process information and numbers.
Unsurprisingly, the game has been a common choice of activity for people throughout the pandemic. Stuck indoors, and without access to social activities, many turned to poker as a way to socialize and keep their minds stimulated. But how exactly does poker accomplish the latter?
There’s a lot of math
While there’s always an element of chance in any game of poker, the best players use math to understand just what that chance is and how to navigate it. By fully understanding a pack of cards and the circumstances of any variety of poker, good players can predict with at least some degree of accuracy what cards other players have, or how likely a given card is to be dealt.
This process has something to do with memory, which we’ll touch on more below. But it is also about quick calculations on the fly. Poker cannot be “solved” with math, but it can be simplified by those who make the effort. And that effort sharpens the mind.
With or without a mathematical approach, players need to be smooth and savvy with their decisions. Essentially, all of the information at hand in any given moment needs to be processed and turned into an informed decision in real time. Careful, quick analysis of this kind is something that can be learned –– which means it’s essentially a cognitive skill one can develop through poker. And believe it or not, the decision-making process plays such a tangible role in brain activity that the brain can be witnessed going through it!
Of all the brain processes that poker demands of players, the ability to memorize and recall its numerous rules is one of the most important. Indeed, some of the first tips beginning poker players learn ultimately amount to exercises in memory. Things like learning the different varieties of the game and their respective rules, understanding what hands can be assembled and how they rank against one another, and so on all need to be stored in memory for instant recall during games
The social side of poker can be just as important as the math and analytical sides. Ultimately, the game is about combining your own predictions with accurate “reads” of your opponents. Picking up on subtle social skills can be difficult, especially when some people have tells that most non-poker players would never pick up on. But as you play more and you learn to take note of almost imperceptible signals, you’ll actually be improving your social intelligence. Plenty of poker players fancy themselves savvy observers of other people specifically because of their experiences at the tables.
Poker also sharpens your emotional intelligence –– teaching you to be measured in your approach to challenges. You need to play the game without letting your opponents know just how well or how poorly you might be doing. This is a skill that improves the longer you play poker, and it may well carry over into more stoic, logic-driven reactions to everyday situations in your life.
When you consider all of this, it’s easy to see why many see poker as a sort of mental exercise. We talk a lot about fitness with regard to the body, and much less about how to give your brain a “work out.” But given all of the above, it’s interesting to consider poker as part of a cognitive regiment you can set up for yourself.