A Healthy Bet (12) – How Does Memory Work?

A Healthy Bet (12) – How Does Memory Work?

As it appeared in Ante Up Magazine – Oct. 2009

By Frank Toscano, M.D.

I had been card dead recently in a cash game for several of hours so when I turned over 99, I felt excited but still cautious. I figured that if overcards appeared on the board I’d let the nines go unless I flopped a set. I bet out three times the BB and got one late position caller, a regular I’ll call “Joe”.

The flop was 2-5-8 rainbow so I led out for 2/3 of the pot. Joe immediately shoved in his entire stack, a big overbet. He also had me covered. Could he have a better overpair? Or maybe he flopped a set? Or was he drawing to connectors? Three weeks earlier, Joe and I had played for hours at the same tournament table from the very beginning down to the final five. Now I was trying desperately to remember what his shove meant.                   

If I was Jill Price, I could have remembered easily. Jill, a middle aged school administrator from California, has been blessed (or cursed) with the most amazing memory ever studied. Jill can remember every detail of her life for the past 30 years – dates, public events, television shows, even what she had for lunch every day since she was 14. She kept a detailed diary with over 1,400 daily entries so she can be checked on personal as well as public events. 

Neuroscientists have studied Jill extensively and are uniformly astounded by her uncanny ability. Several others with similar memory skills have also come forth to be tested. You can read about her odd talent in her book called The Woman Who Can’t Forget or you can Google her to learn more about this amazing woman.

It turns out that Jill’s ability is probably not all that helpful at the poker table after all. Her memory works mainly for autobiographical events, things that happen to her or that she has heard about. Her ability to memorize a long number or a poem or to remember how Joe played three weeks ago is probably not really any better than yours or mine. It does make you wonder how memory works and what you could do to improve your own memory at the poker table.

I believe in the “attic” theory of memory. Once the attic is full, you can’t put anything more up there unless you take something out first. For me to remember how Joe likes to play small pairs, for example, I’d have to forget the names of one of my kids. Now I truly love Alexa and What’s-his-name, but I’d also like to become a better poker player, so what am I to do?

In 1970, when I was a Duke University sophomore, a sadistic psychology professor assigned to my class the task of memorizing the first 50 digits of the irrational number e, the base of the natural logarithms, to prove some point about how memory works. I sat in an alcove of the library with classmates chopping this number up into three and four digit chunks and trying to assign some memorable meaning to each chunk. Today, nearly 40 years later, I can still rattle off those 50 digits but I can’t for the life of me remember what educational point my professor was trying to make. Clearly, he didn’t understand memory then any better than I do now.

The truth is that how memory really works is still pretty much a mystery. Anyone who claims to understand it deeply is either a world-renowned neuroscientist or just guessing, but it’s certainly clear that memory is not like an attic. With that disclaimer in mind, here are a few general guidelines for improving your memory at the table.

First, understand the process. You must pay attention to the play at the table before you can notice something worth remembering. If you are watching the dog races or surfing the internet, you are not paying attention. Second, look for a pattern. “He plays good,” is not a pattern. “He slow-plays sets,” is. Once you recognize a pattern, think about it. Break it into simple chunks. Think about it again. Resolve to remember it.

Exercise your memory regularly. As people age, those who engage in complex mental exercises like crossword puzzles or poker (hurray!) stay sharp longer. Finally, drink some coffee. Recent studies on rats and also on humans with dementia seem to show that large doses of caffeine actually improve memory. How much you’d have to drink to have a measurable effect is not really clear, so don’t go crazy on Red Bull.

So, now back to the hand with Joe. I let my wife’s birthday fade out of my brain and suddenly I was able to remember that Joe usually raised preflop with premium pairs. I then erased my cell phone number from my memory (I never call myself anyway) and could now remember that he liked to slow-play and trap with sets. Finally, I gave up the words to Gilligan’s Island and could suddenly recall that during the tournament Joe shoved on me twice with nothing but a draw. I was confident now. It was a classic semi-bluff. I called his all-in and he flipped up 67 suited for an open-ended straight draw. My nines held and I took down a juicy pot.

As I searched the parking lot trying to remember where I parked my car, I resolved to stop on the way home for a double espresso.