The image of the archetypal poker player used to be very unflattering. The old school cardsharks from 70's and 80's were often sporting a sizable belly and a face older than the date on their birth certificate would suggest. The degenerate lifestyle comprised of frequent 36+ hour-long, non-stop poker sessions that players of ol' powered through by chugging ungodly amounts of coffee, smoking several packs of cigarettes and eating pounds of junk food, can take a toll on one's body.
The early days of online poker weren't any different except for the fact that - through the power of the internet - the aforementioned degenerate lifestyle could now be enjoyed from the comforts of our own homes and didn't require us to wear any pants. Thankfully, the world at large - poker players included - is becoming more and more health conscious with every passing year. Weight loss bets are now among the most popular prop bets in the poker world, in part due to the success of the 'Ultimate Sweat' involving the excentric poker millionaire Bill Perkins and Staples brothers. On top of that, grinders begin to recognize that their mind and their body aren't two separate entities.
Turns out that it's much easier to stay in your A game for long periods of time, when you're eating well, sleeping well, exercising regularly and you don't have too many excess pounds weighing your body (and mind!) down. As a consequence of this simple realization, poker players are now a lot more interested in ways of optimizing their physical performance. In this article, we're going to discuss the benefits of intermittent fasting and explain how to include it in your own poker routine.
The Forgotten CureWhile there are still parts of the world where hunger is quite literally a matter of life and death, the idea of running out of food is a really abstract one to the average human, fortunate enough to have been born in Europe, North America and other highly industrialized parts of the world. Whenever you're hungry, you just open your fridge or go to a supermarket. Obtaining food is a trivial affair these days. This, however, wasn't always the case. Our ancestors didn't have the access to convenient ways of storing food nor the technology that would allow them to achieve the yields that modern agriculture is able to produce.
As a result, the feeling of hunger was considered a normal occurrence even for the relatively rich and powerful. Furthermore, fasting was often portrayed as something positive. Benjamin Franklin once said that: “The best of all medicines is rest and fasting” and “To lengthen thy life, lessen thy meals”. An Egyptian pyramid inscription from around 3800 B.C. states that:
Humans live on one-quarter of what they consume, on the other three-quarters lives their doctor".
Ancient philosophers would routinely fast for days at a time in order to "regain their mental sharpness" etc. etc. In short, for the vast majority of human history, fasting was considered extremely beneficial and yet, in some bizarre fashion, we managed to unlearn that simple truth in a span of roughly two or three generations.
Intermittent fasting is the attempt to reintroduce fasting into our modern lifestyle. To put it simply, it's the idea that we might be better of dispensing with the arbitrary three-to-six meals a day regiment and embracing fasting as a way to improve our health and the overall state of being. There are countless of studies out there conducted on hundreds of different species from yeast through mice to dogs, proving that if we reduce their caloric intake by 30% we can increase their lifespan by roughly the same percentage. Of course, no ethics board would ever sanction a similar study on humans and even if that obstacle was somehow lifted, it would be incredibly hard to find willing participants for a lifelong study. Given that our physiology is considerably different from that of a mouse or a dog, we're not guaranteed the same results but there are numerous other reasons why fasting might be a good idea.
Why You Should FastWe've already listed a bunch of quotes from famous people of ol' and some bro-science arguments from armchair evolutionary-psychology, but they are of course anecdotal and circumstantial. While this isn't exactly a science paper and we won't disrupt your reading with a ton of footnotes (feel free to conduct your own research if the idea of IF sounds interesting to you) there are a lot more arguments for including intermittent fasting into your own routine. The simple act of skipping breakfast has some profound effects on our hormonal balance. Without the increased levels of insulin and the easy access to an energy source called glycogen, our body is forced to break down fat stores for energy, producing more human growth hormone, cortisol, and norepinephrine along the way. This, in turn, results in a higher level of alertness and faster rate of fat loss (assuming overall caloric deficit).
Without going into boring details (again, I urge you to confirm the facts at your leisure) and seeing as this is a poker-themed article, we'll focus on the benefits of fasting that can potentially affect our win rate. We're used to the idea of starting our day with a hearty breakfast. After all, it's the most important meal of the day! Or is it? While there's nothing terribly wrong with eating food in the morning, the idea that our morning meal is somehow the most important doesn't come from doctors, it comes from copywriters trying to sell us breakfast cereals. It's not some sort of a conspiracy theory either. Just google a picture of a food pyramid and look what's usually included at the base of it. As poker players often say - "story checks out".
In any case, if you're used to eating every few hours you might associate the feeling of hunger with something that would negatively impact your performance. In reality, once you get used to that feeling and let it pass you'll quickly realize that so-called "food comas" are the real threat. When you consume food, your body activates the parasympathetic nervous system or the "rest and digest" mode. Digestion is a costly physiological process and it makes sense that it would have a potentially negative effect on the biggest energy-consuming organ in our body, which is, of course, our brain. Conversely, when we forgo the food for extended periods of time, our bodies are free to engage in the process called autophagy - simply put, when we're not weighed down by the digestion process, our cells are free to consume the inefficient parts of themselves, effectively repairing and improving the whole system, brain included.
Intermittent Fasting For Poker PlayersIf you're convinced that intermittent fasting might be a good idea let's talk about how to implement it in your own routine. First of all, how long should you fast? The longer the better, though I wouldn't recommend a prolonged fast without the doctor's supervision. While there are some examples of people fasting for more than a year without any ill effects, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that not eating can also kill you. Besides, prolonged fasting is a separate beast, and in this article, we're focusing on the intermittent version which assumes that you'll be consuming food every single day. With that out of the way, let's talk numbers. While there're plenty of different ways you could approach IF, every protocol assumes at least 10-12 hours long fasting period (including sleep). Why 10-12 hours? Because that's roughly how long it takes to deplete your glucose stores and therefore lower your insulin levels.
However, other potential benefits of fasting (like the aforementioned autophagy) need a bit more time to kick in and that's why the most popular IF protocol (aptly called "16-8") consists of a 16-hour long "fasting window" and 8-hour long "feeding window". It's important to point out that our bodies are almost never "all-in" on any biological process. It's not like people who eat breakfast never experience autophagy or can't burn fat because they always have access to glucose and higher insulin levels. Nothing of the sort. Our biology is extremely sophisticated and there are countless processes occurring in our bodies at the same time. Fasting is just a matter of maximizing some of them with external stimulus.
We've already mentioned the fact that fasting affects our hormonal balance, but we haven't mentioned two important hormones that affect (among other things) our hunger and appetite: ghrelin and leptin. Long story short, if you're used to eating three to six meals a day, the first week or two of intermittent fasting can be rough. That's because your ghrelin and leptin levels need some time to adjust to your new meal timing. For the first few days, you might experience ravenous hunger in the morning and brain fog associated with that feeling. The good news is that it's temporary but this difficult transition period is what prevents most people from including IF in their day to day routine. Because of that, I wouldn't recommend the "cold turkey" approach. Instead, you can try delaying your breakfast by 30 to 60 minutes each day until you achieve your desired fasting window. This strategy is especially well suited for poker players because it prevents the win rate drop that a rougher transition period could cause.
Speaking of fasting windows, we already mentioned the minimum of 10-12 hours and the most popular approach of a 16-hour long fast. There are of course other options like so-called "warrior diet" (20-hours of fasting), OMAD ("one meal a day") and even alternate day fasting (eating every other day). Feel free to choose the option that best suits your preferences and lifestyle. For example, eating only one meal a day can be very liberating for MTT grinders who usually snack during their 5-minute long breaks while a more conservative "16-8" approach can work great for a live casino grinder etc.
Lastly, it's important to point out that fasting won't magically transform you from a losing poker grinder into a card shark. It's also not a substitute for a healthy diet based on nutritious whole foods. You can still gain a ton of weight and impair your health while intermittent fasting if you consume excessive amounts of junk food. Intermittent fasting is no panacea. At best IF is the optimal way of timing your meals that's in tune with our biology. At worst, intermittent fasting is the diet equivalent of Steven Jobs's black turtleneck - a convenient way of decreasing the number of choices that we have to make in any given day. Steve Jobs famously wore the same outfit almost every day and that (coupled with a few other similar habits) allowed him to dedicate as much of his brain power as humanly possible to his most important tasks, without worrying too much about the mundane.