Just Say No

18 Jul 2010 | 13:40

Several years ago, I was diagnosed with a condition which causes my heart to beat too rapidly. 

After a brief hospitalization a few months ago, I was given a prescription for medication designed to help prevent this problem.

I'm supposed to take the pills twice a day on a schedule, but I almost never do.  The medication tends to make me drowsy, and if I take it every day, my tolerance will build to the drug and I will eventually require more and more until it stops working altogether.  The doctor really doesn't give a damn if I develop said tolerance, but I do.  This being the case, I simply carry the bottle around with me and only take the drug when I clearly need it.

How do I know when I "clearly need it"?
I carry something in my pocket called a 'pulse oximeter'.  This odd blue and white device painlessly snaps onto my finger and indicates my pulse and oxygen saturation levels within about 10 seconds.  If my O2 stats or heart rate get too low or high respectively, I take a pill.  It's kind of a pain in the ass to have to use the monitor a few times per day, but I prefer this method because it allows me to take far less medication.

Earlier today while sitting at a 2/5 table at the Big O, I began to feel mild symptoms.  After mucking my hand, I held the pulse oximeter under the table and slipped my finger into it.  Sure enough, walking from the Flamingo monorail station to the Bellagio in 113 degree heat was enough to induce a minor tachyarrhythmia.  The weather here is designed to kill life.  That's why they call it the desert.

Because of the reading, I decided to reach into my pocket and take one of the dreaded pills.  Since I needed to wash it down with water, I was not able to be as subtle about this, however.  A gentleman sitting next to me observed me twisting the cap off of my prescrition bottle and immediately said "Hey, come on, share with the class".

"Trust me, you wound't want this", I replied.

"What is it?", he asked.

"Beta blockers", I responded.

"Wow, you take this game seriously", he said.

"What?", I said.  I thought the guy was trying to make a lame joke, but as it turns out, he wasn't. 

He went on to tell me that beta-blocker usage was common among professional poker players, and he rattled off a few names (which I won't repeat for obvious reasons) who were either suspected of using, or admitted to using the drug.  He explained to me that because professional usage was so common, more amateurs were starting to use beta-blockers in an attempt to mimic their heroes a/la hoodies and sunglasses.

The man assumed that I was one of these bandwagon amateurs, but I assured him that I was not.  How could I be?  I do not follow professional poker.  While I do watch network shows on my computer, I don't have a television or cable TV anymore.  I have not seen "Poker After Dark" or a nationally televised game in nearly 2 years.  Aside from the older guys (Chan, Hellmuth, Ivey, etc), I really have no idea who's who in poker these days, and I certainly have no idea what the pros are snorting, injecting, or swallowing.

Even though the notion of poker players using performance enhancing drugs sounded patently ridiculous on its face, I gave it some more thought during the course of the day, and I realized that there could be some physiological basis in the phenomenon.

Human beings are nothing more than bundles of tissues, bones, and liquids, and as an animal ... we are fairly predictable.  We all have the same neurotransmitters, and for the most part, the same reactions to stimuli.

When human poker players get pocket Aces or they flop the nuts, their body reacts to the excitement of this discovery by producing adrenaline ... which in turn causes their pupils to dilate, their heart to speed up, their palms to sweat, their hands to shake, and may even cause changes in voice intonation.  The more visible of these reactions are commonly referred to as "tells".  As a matter of fact, masking pupil dilation is the very reason that professional players began wearing sunglasses in the first place.  This also explains why there are no white poker pros.  Black people dominate the game of poker because you cannot easily see their pupils.  First the NBA, then the NFL, then the Presidency, now this.  No wonder honkies are perpetually pissed off.

Anyway, in layman's terms, beta-blockers "block" the effects of adrenaline on the human body.  This can partially or wholly prevent any and all of the above physiologic symptoms from occurring.  In theory, I can see how they might be useful in certain situations of intense-stress, but I dispute the notion that this class of drugs is helpful to the typical amateur player.

First of all, I believe that physical tells are grossly overstated.  I've participated in untold thousands of poker hands over the years, and I have never seen anyone get anime-pupils when they got a good hand, nor have I seen them start shaking like Michael J. Fox.  Simply put, the body does not excrete the same amount of adrenaline when you catch a flush as it does when say ... a hungry tiger is chasing you.  The body's "fight or flight" response is proportionally measured against an actual threat of danger.  The assumption that someone is going to start shaking like a leaf with a $200 pot in front of them defies reality.

For the vast majority of people, the effects of adrenaline at the poker table will be very subtle.  So subtle that it is unlikely to be perceptible to other players.  It never ceases to amuse me when I am sitting at a 1/2 game, and a guy puts on sunglasses before going all-in.  I mean, if Dr. Gregory House were sitting across from him then I would completely understand the need for glasses -- but come on -- the 50 year old woman contemplating whether to throw her remaining $48 into the pile cannot read a 1.08mm pupil enlargement.

Second, even if you could perceive a physical tell, you wouldn't know what it meant.

Think about it.  If you have the nuts and you push all-in, you are going to be excited and your body will release adrenaline.  But ... what happens if you are bluffing and you push all-in, trying to induce your opponent to fold?

That's right, your body will release the same adrenaline.  Whether you are ahead or behind in the hand, once you push in, your body is going to be coursing with adrenaline.  If I look over and see your hands trembling and your pupils dilating, I'm going to know that you are excited, but I am not going to have any idea WHY you are excited. 

I haven't been playing poker for very long (only about 5 years), but I can tell you with near 100% certainty that physical tells are nowhere near as dramatic as the elaborate costumes suggest they are.  Those who might possibly be able to read tells are amongst the most perceptive and elite people in the world, and these players are almost certainly not sitting at 1/2 or 2/5 No Limit tables.

Anyway, for those of you out there who have been following my poker career and holding me out as your own personal hero for the last five years, it is now my duty to come clean and inform you that I have, indeed, been taking performance enhancing drugs.

I would like to apologize to all of the kids out there who have been using me as a role model for all of these years.

I stopped living by the core values that I was taught to believe in.  I knew my actions were wrong, but I convinced myself that normal rules didn't apply.  I never thought about who I was hurting.  Instead I thought only about myself.  I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to.  I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me.  I felt I was entitled.  Thanks to money and fame, I didn't have to go far to find them.  I was wrong, I was foolish.  I don't get to play by different rules.  The same boundaries that apply to everyone apply to me.  I brought this shame on myself.  I hurt my wife, my kids, my mother, my wife's family, my friends, my foundation, and kids all around the world who admired me.

In recent weeks, I have received many thousands of e-mails, letters and phone calls from people expressing good wishes.  To everyone who has reached out to me and my family, thank you.  Your encouragement means the world to Elin and me.  I want to thank the PGA Tour, Commissioner Finchem, and the players for their patience and understanding while I work on my private life.  I look forward to seeing my fellow players on the course.

Finally, there are many people in this room, and there are many people at home who believed in me.  Today I want to ask for your help.  I ask you to find room in your heart to one day believe in me again.

On second thought, you can all go to hell.

It's time to go pick up my refill.


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