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Music At The Poker Table

by Jonathan Little |  Published: Apr 08, 2020


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Jonathan LittleWhen you walk through any poker room, you are certain see many players wearing headphones. While most recreational players assume the pros are listening to music to get them pumped up and ready to battle, that could not be farther from the truth.

For the most part, the best players in the world rarely wear headphones at the table. There is a treasure trove of information being conveyed at the poker table and if you consistently wear headphones, you will miss most of the verbal tells that clearly indicate either strength or weakness about your opponent’s hand.

A classic example of this that I recently saw took place in a loose, splashy $10-$25 no-limit cash game. One of my opponents would consistently say, “Screw it, I am all-in” whenever he had the best possible hand. This verbal tell was demonstrated three times throughout a two-hour session. If your opponent says something that narrows his range down to only the best possible hand, you can fold almost everything, resulting in your opponent paying you off when you make the best hand while you never pay him off.

Giving off verbal tells like this one is the reason many players stay stuck in the small-stakes games forever. My best advice is to be quiet when you are in a hand unless your opponents are completely oblivious (which is not the case in almost all situations).

I listen to music about 15 percent of the time when I am at the poker table, and when I do, the purpose is to relax me, not get me excited and ready to fight. I strive to be as even-keeled as possible, allowing me to consistently make clear, rational decisions. When I elect to listen to music, it is usually classical music of some sort.

When I am at the table with an especially annoying player, which fortunately doesn’t happen all that often, I listen to podcasts to give me something else to focus on.
Some of my favorites are This Week in Startups, Planet Money, and The Tim Ferriss Podcast. The major problem with listening to podcasts and audiobooks while playing poker is that they are often so immersive to the point that you completely ignore the poker taking place right in front of you, resulting in you missing all the action and all the information about your opponents. In a game of information, this is obviously not ideal. So, don’t listen content that distracts you!

Daniel Negreanu also does not listen to music at the table. When he elects to put the headphones on, he is listening to podcasts about hockey, including Hockey Central, Keeping Karlsson, Dobber Hockey, and Spittin’ Chicklets.

Phil Hellmuth Jr. also does not listen to music all the time, but last summer, he listened to Spotify’s Top 50 channel, and this summer, he listened to All Out ‘70s, which took him back in time to when he was a young man. He also listened to Joe Walsh’s Life’s Been Good over and over. #positivity

Some other pros listen to various binaural beats, which are a series of different frequencies that produce an effect similar to meditation. I have experimented with them and found them especially useful for putting me to sleep on airplanes. Since I am not trying to fall asleep at the poker table, I have shied away from them there, but a few players swear by them.

It is worth mentioning that not a single top pro told me that they listen to music to get pumped up and ready to battle, whereas I often hear recreational players blaring overly aggressive music. At its core, poker is a puzzle. Your goal is to figure out the best possible play in each situation you encounter and then make that play. Poker is not a battle to the death that you need to be amped up for. The players who succeed in the long run consistently make fundamentally sound decisions and minimize mistakes. Their goal is to make the best decision possible, not to try to out-macho their opponents.

It should also be clear that if you have a difficult time following the action while wearing headphones, that you simply should not wear headphones. If you find that you consistently have to ask how much a bet is or miss the action entirely, stop wearing headphones immediately. I played with someone at the World Series of Poker who had to take his giant headphones off every time the action was on him because he had no clue what was going on (obviously he was listening to aggressive music).

He would confirm the action and then put his headphones on. One time, the player in first position quietly said “all-in”, and everyone folded around to our headphone-wearer. He did not realize there was an all-in and said “raise” and put out a few chips. He then lost his mind when he was told he had to raise the all-in the minimum amount (because he said “raise.”) He ended up losing a giant pot when his J-9 suited could not beat K-K. Being oblivious is not an excuse for poor play.

If you regularly listen to music at the table and find that you do not have excellent results, I suggest you learn to be comfortable in silence and focus intently on the action at the table. You just might find that your win rate increases, allowing you to move up in stakes and win more money from poker. ♠

Jonathan Little Jonathan Little is a professional poker player and best-selling poker author with over $7,000,000 in live tournament earnings. If you want to learn how to play fundamentally sound poker and increase your win rate, check out Click here to try for free.