The Distraction Era: How modern poker is betting blind

It’s here. The Amazon Room is again alive with the seemingly endless buzz of shuffling chips, the vuvuzela-like resonance which signals that our World Cup has begun.  At last, the Thunderdome has awoken from a nearly yearlong slumber, ready to introduce the world to the newest wave of poker talent.  There’s no place in the world but Las Vegas, no better stage than the World Series of Poker, to witness our remarkable progression in the 11 short years since Chris Moneymaker shocked the world.  But for all our achievements, we need look no further than the Amazon Room to realize how much we’ve yet to learn.

numerous web icons made into face shapeAt every Day 1 starting table of every event this summer, you’re bound to notice at least one tablemate repeatedly distracted by an electronic device — cell phones and tablets have been a foregone conclusion at tournaments worldwide for at least the past two years.  And this widespread distraction epidemic in poker is by no means exclusive to recreational players — most of today’s best players see no problem with tweeting at the table, while others go so far as to claim these supposed “distractions” perplexingly help them perform better. Earlier this year, two Poker Stars Team Online pros even blogged about their favorite ways to implement diversions into everyday sessions.  It seems modern poker — marked by the domination of game theory and quantifiable analysis over the old guard of raw intuition and experience — has yet to completely outgrow its humble, intuitive adolescence.

The heart of the problem with distractions lies not with the distractions themselves; rather, it lies with distractions as a whole: what they entail, and the long-term implications they may have in store for poker players as learners and competitors.  Electronic distractions at the table don’t merely steal our focus away from the session, which is certainly detrimental to performance in the short-run; they come with much more subtle future consequences — that, in the long run, could have a compounding impact on even an elite player’s competitive advantage.

At the poker table, “being distracted” amounts to multitasking.  The term “multitasking” is a misnomer, because the human brain does not actually “multi”-task as intuition leads us to believe.  “True multitasking is impossible,” acknowledges “Mental Game of Poker” author Jared Tendler. “You’re [actually] taking in information from different sources. With multiple sources, it decreases your ability to [perform] as well at both.” In most situations, the brain can only focus on one task at a time — rather than pay attention to multiple tasks at once, the brain actually “switches” back and forth between sets of tasks.  Each one of these switches is imperceptibly fast, resulting in an illusion of accomplishing multiple tasks at once.

Within the present-day “task-switching” paradigm, psychology describes the brain’s role as something resembling an orchestra conductor — real-life maestros may be able to control the orchestra as a whole, but their hand gestures can serve as a guide to only one section at a time. You can also imagine this task-switching brain as a television — which can switch from channel to channel, yet only watch one channel at a time. In this regard, multitasking is much like surfing back and forth between a hockey game and the Main Event broadcast — you can move back and forth actively enough to get a sense of what’s going on, but you’re liable to miss a lot of action on both sides in the interim. As it so happens, this is precisely what happens to the brain when we multitask at the table.

“It turns out that multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking,” the late Clifford Nass, communications professor at Stanford, told NPR in 2013. “They’re suckers for irrelevancy — everything distracts them.”

Nass, who passed away suddenly from a heart attack late last year, was among the first in his field to study multitasking’s effect on the brain and productivity.  His work led to the discovery that multitasking diminishes nearly every aspect of mental performance, including most of the essential cerebral skills for poker success — such as prioritizing the importance of different information, and managing short-term memory.  Perhaps most mystifying, he even discovered that the world’s worst multitaskers somehow believe they’re the best.

“One would think that if people were bad at multitasking, they would stop,” Nass added. “However, they seem to think they’re great at it and seem totally unfazed.”

Tablet-toting professionals will be quick to point out that their distractions help to alleviate mental stress and keep them playing longer — an indispensable benefit during a summer full of tournaments at the WSOP. Despite the known drawbacks, they reason, the benefit from the ability to play longer hours outweighs the negative cognitive effects — but as it turns out, these electronic diversions may actually make the already long days seem even longer.

When the brain switches its focus from one task to another, it needs some time (usually fractions of a second) to reorganize itself before commencing the new task, which psychologist refer to as a “switching cost.” This cost is not a fixed one — research suggests switching costs compound the longer you multitask, the more you switch, and the more complex your tasks.  Over the course of a long session spent refreshing social media, checking emails, and playing poker, these costs build up rapidly and begin to exhaust the overwhelmed brain — severely diminishing mental performance and leaving the multitasker more prone to making mistakes.  Although players may bring their tablets to the table as a way to alleviate mental fatigue, the fact of the matter is distractions are probably helping to achieve the opposite of their intended effect.  While some of this information may not come as a shock, what it entails for how we learn and compete is incredibly troublesome.

According to the American Psychology Association, a wealth of recent research affirms that multitasking fundamentally changes the way we learn. Since the brain’s cognitive processes are not conducive for heavy-duty multitasking, “tasks that distract you while you try to learn something new are likely to adversely affect your learning,” says UCLA researcher Russell Poldrack. When its capacity is crippled during multitasking, the brain attempts to compensate by using different structures than normal to organize new information; but when the user later tries to recall this information, the brain automatically and fruitlessly searches within the usual structures. As a result, some psychologists believe that learning while multitasking is not merely “adversely affected” — rather, it is fundamentally impossible.

The immediate impact of this reality is players who multitask aren’t learning any new information during sessions.  More habitual multitaskers are potentially learning nothing in-game for months or years.  To keep up with his peers, a multitasking pro would need to uphold incredible study habits away from the table. What’s really forsaken is the invaluable synthesis of initial data for future review, countless opportunities for free information helpful to future decisions, critical reinforcement of learning processes. Summed together, these could be enough to make the difference between “good” and “elite” players.

“If people really understood what was being missed, they wouldn’t be distracted,” says Tendler.

Worse still, present multitasking creates a greater probability of future multitasking.

“If you multitask today, you’re likely to do so again tomorrow, further strengthening the behavior over time,” explains Zheng Wang, assistant professor of communications at the Ohio State University, and co-author of a study on multitasking habits.

Multitasking — especially when it involves fun, social tasks — provides the user with a strong and immediate emotional benefit, which increases the probability of the user multitasking again in the future.  Wang has discovered that multitasking is characterized by what is known as a “dynamical feedback loop;” the more you multitask while playing poker, the more boring “single-tabling” poker becomes by comparison — and the more likely you’ll be next time to pull your phone out of pocket even sooner. Wang noticed that, in times of unusually high mental stress — whether due to studying for an exam, or playing a 12-hour day of poker — people were especially likely to seek out the emotional benefit of multitasking. There exists a real possibility that, over time, even the most casual tableside multitaskers could one day be spending more time on their devices than the average Open Face Chinese addict.

Considering just how little it takes to fall behind the curve in this ever-competitive modern era of poker, intentional distractions at the table could have a crippling — and potentially irreversible — effect on a professional player’s competitive edge over time. Yet today, top professionals and recreational players alike remain ignorant to the true scope of the problem, as evidenced by modern poker’s collective indifference toward diversions. The fact that multitasking in poker is so widespread serves as a warning sign that even our most talented human intuitions can at times be deceived; as well a benchmark for how far we’ve yet to go in comprehending all there is to know about our game.

Chris Moon is a professional poker player and an instructor at Tournament Poker Edge. You can follow him on Twitter @whichchrismoon.

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July 2014