This Is My Brain On Poker
by Dusty Schmidt | Published: Feb 19, '13
After not blogging for quite some time, I figured now is as good a time as any. I have a significant life update to report and I feel it is important for people in the poker community to hear what I have to say.
Over the course of the last 7-8 years playing full time online poker, I have noticed many subtle changes in my brain. Many things in my brain seemed to improve tremendously while other things became noticeably worse. For example, I gained an ability to read and process information at ridiculous speeds. I became able to take a subject I had little to no experience with and understand at nearly an expert level, all of the moving parts to the subject. Thoughts began moving quickly and often. They began moving so quickly that if I was speaking about something important to me, if I tried to get the words out as quickly as they were coming, I wouldn’t make sense to anyone. But when writing, I was able to get them all down and I was able to come up with some really useful stuff in poker and other areas of life.
On the flip side, I was deteriorating in many other ways. Anxiety had started to take over my life. Since thoughts were coming in so quickly and swirling around in my head so fast, I was “stuck” on these thoughts and unable to process what was immediately in front of me. My wife became very frustrated with me because we were unable to effectively communicate in subtle ways. We could have good conversations if I was locked in on her, but otherwise she said it became like speaking to a brick wall.
Equally as frustrating was how this impacted my kids. My kids and I have an amazingly good relationship. I take my daughter on “daddy daughter dates” on nearly a weekly basis as well as play with her as often as I was able to control my anxiety. But I was unable to simply play with her on her schedule. It always had to be on mine because I never knew when I would be tortured by rapidly paced and intense thoughts. I never knew when my skin would stop crawling from my anxiety. As a result, I can only try and move forward because I will never get back all of the cool little moments your children provide you each and every day that went right over my head.
In February of 2012, I went to my general practitioner (big mistake) and began explaining what was going on. That same day I was given 100mg of Zoloft and was told to start with 50mg for the first week and move to 100mg from then on. She told me to check back in 6 months or sooner if I had any major problems.
A couple of months into the medication, I was feeling great. I felt like I was trending back towards my old self. About the 3-4 month mark, I noticed a significant change. I was starting to feel my anxiety coming back, but since I was feeling so good internally, I decided to take the summer mostly off of poker and just enjoy the summer. I began playing some golf and drinking/smoking pot way more than I ever had before. When I drank, it only took 1-2 drinks and I was already feeling completely amazing due to the compounding effects of the medication. Unfortunately I kept on drinking and found myself getting too drunk too often. It wasn’t an every day thing, but it was becoming a 2-4 times a week thing.
This past fall didn’t bring me any closer to where I wanted to be and at my wife’s urging, I began seeking a psychiatric evaluation. Fortunately, I knew exactly who I wanted to see. My best friend is a poker pro named Matt Amen. Matt Amen is the nephew of Dr. Daniel Amen of www.amenclinics.com. Dr. Amen is well known around the world as perhaps the most innovative and successful psychiatrist in the world. His Clinics are world class and utilize something almost no other Clinic in the world utilizes, SPECT brain imaging. For those who are unfamiliar with his work, Dr. Amen is the psychiatrist who is using brain scans in the official concussion study being done by the NFL. His work is world renowned. I knew for a problem of this magnitude and because he specializes in the tough cases (like someone who 15 tables online poker for a living), the Amen Clinic was the way to go.
After answering thousands of questions, having two SPECT scans of my brain (one resting and one concentrating) and undergoing numerous neurological exams, I received the news. Essentially what I learned was that I had developed a pattern in my brain (while concentrating) that facilitated a very high functioning processing loop. This “loop” was able to move so quickly and so efficiently that it was no longer a mystery why I was able to play poker at such a high level and across so many tables. I was told that as long as I was functioning “within the loop” I was going to excel at it. But if I had to do anything outside of the loop within a few hours of being in the loop for a long period of time, I would get “stuck.” When you’re “stuck” you can hear the other person speaking to you and you may even want to answer them, but the words or actions just never quite happen.
Another very interesting thing came up in my brain scan. The part of the brain that makes you irritable or moody was significantly less active while concentrating than it was while resting. I was told this was highly unusual. I immediately called Jared Tendler (my mental game coach) and told him that he was a “freaking stud.” Before I worked with Jared, I was the exact opposite. I was easy going when I wasn’t doing anything and I was highly irritable when playing poker. Since Jared approaches the mind so much differently than most of his peers, he was able to go right to the core of my problems while playing poker. He quite literally rewired activity in my brain so I could become the unflappable player at the tables that I eventually became after working with him. I couldn’t believe it!
After hearing some exciting things about my brain, I then got the bad news. The bad news is that what poker puts the human brain through is unsustainable. I was told that if I choose to play online poker as a full time career, I will likely die of a stroke before the age of 50. They said that the human brain simply does not have the capacity to put itself through 8+ hour days of mass multi-table online poker. They said that playing online poker to that degree was quite literally one of the very worst things you can do to your brain and body. They said it wasn’t quite as bad as being an NFL player or someone who works full time around organic solvents, but it wasn’t far off. It was on the doctor’s urging that I retire from full time online poker.
It all makes so much sense when you think about it. Why should we expect mass multi tabling online poker to be good for our brains? When in human history has something like this ever bee done before? When has there been a multi-billion dollar industry rewarding someone handsomely for being able to crush 15 video games at once? For how long has anything like this been around? It certainly couldn’t have ever existed prior to this century before the internet exploded. My point to everyone is that we are the guinea pigs for this grand experiment. The results have been abysmal for me personally and I have the brain scans to prove it.
Before anyone gets ahead of themselves and concerned for their health, I need to point out one very important thing. I am certainly not saying to the average player that online poker is ruining their brain. I am not even saying that if you are an online poker professional that you are damaging your brain in any way. I am speaking out to a very small group of mass multi tabling online poker players (and those hoping to emulate them) and urging them to ask themselves if online poker is impacting them in a negative way. I also want to urge them to realize that the impacts are subtle. It’s important to be careful because much like the famous science experiment where you put a frog in a pot of room temperature water and crank up the temperature 1 degree every minute, only to reach a boiling point and notice the frog still hasn’t jumped out, mass multi table online poker can have that same effect. Even though it would be easy to just think you are feeling fine now and write off this blog post, if nothing else, I think it would be great to simply keep a journal by your computer and spend 5 minutes a day charting your happiness levels and thoughts you are having. At least if you start to notice changes at some point, you will have proof of how you used to feel.
My decision to write this blog post came after much consideration. I wanted to take a month to process it all before I said anything publicly. I toyed with the idea of protecting my personal privacy, but ultimately decided that doing so would be selfish. This information needs to come out and there needs to be more discussion about the impacts of doing things like chasing Supernova Elite. I love Poker Stars. They were my former sponsor and in my opinion is one of the most well run companies on earth. But I’m sorry Poker Stars; SNE is not good for your brain.
I was the first cash game player to make SNE in 8 months back in 2007. I made over a million dollars in the process and life seemed great. But I think doing so set the wheels in motion for my brain to change in a mostly bad way and I regret my decision greatly. The fact is, it wasn’t worth it. I wish I had just utilized my talent differently by playing 1/3 as much poker and enjoying a couple hundred grand a year rather than chasing a million. I can always make a buck, but I only have one brain. What good does the money do when it robs you of time with your children that you can never get back? I’d write a check for a million dollars right now if I could get back all of the priceless moments with my kids I missed while off in the wonderland I was living in while at home, but away from poker.
I have not played a single hand of online poker in nearly 2 months now. I am not quitting the game. But I will need to play it in a much healthier fashion which for awhile will be about 5-10 hours a week. When I decide to start playing again, that is the plan. I was told that a good way to avoid severe damage to my brain would be to go on a schedule of playing for 2 hours in the morning followed by lots of exercise and then for 2 hours more before retiring from any other strenuous mental activity for the day. For now, I am happy to take a little more time away from the game.
Since I will no longer play poker full time I am pursuing a publishing contract for a golf book I have long wanted to write. I will not give out any further details than that because the information is sensitive, but I am greatly looking forward to taking on a project away from the game of poker. I have also decided that I will begin easing into golf tournaments (I know I have “quit” poker to play golf a time or two before, but trust me it’s real this time hehe) starting next month with the aim to play full time in 2014. I have long wanted to return to golf. It is unquestionably my primary passion and always will be. Now that it is doctor’s orders, they don’t have to twist my arm, I’m ready to do it now.
If you’ve gotten this far, thanks for reading this blog post. I will keep a pulse on the discussion of this blog and try and post a follow up blog in the near future that describes in more detail my experience. For now, my hope is simply to explain my story and what the doctors told me. Keep in mind, I am obviously not a doctor so everything I said should be viewed with a grain of salt. If anyone is concerned for themselves, I would recommend seeing www.amenclinics.com before they make any decisions about playing poker. The brain scans see what a regular psychiatrist can not. For that reason alone, I think if you are concerned for yourself, Amen Clinic is in my opinion your “best play.”