A Healthy Bet (4) – Performance Enhancing Drugs (Part 1)

A Healthy Bet (4) – Performance Enhancing Drugs (Part 1)

As it appeared in Ante Up Magazine – Feb. 2009

By Frank Toscano, M.D.

With AK in early position, I raised 4 times the BB and had gotten only one caller. The J-7-2 flop didn’t worry me so I cut a pot-sized continuation bet out of my stack. It was at that precise moment that it happened.

You didn’t have to be Joe Navarro to notice the tell. The player two seats to my left had assembled all of his remaining chips into one medium-sized tower and clearly was planning to slide it across the betting line as soon as the action got to him.

I missed it though. Before I could stop myself, my continuation bet fell out of my fingers and across the line. He, of course, pushed and I realized that my hand was way behind. I folded. He showed his AJ and collected the pot.

I had noticed his tell but I wasn’t quick enough to avoid wasting some chips. I had been playing for some hours so maybe I was a little fatigued or bored or inattentive. This hand made me wonder if there was something I could do to improve my concentration at the table, something a little more effective than stale coffee or Red Bull? What about the pros? How do they stay focused for such long periods? Do they take something? It turns out that some of them certainly do.

At first glance, speed and cocaine seem to be obvious candidates for performance enhancers. They make you feel more awake and alert, but they do so at great risk to your health. These drugs increase blood pressure and heart rate at the same time as they shrink the very blood vessels that supply oxygen to the heart. Heart attacks with permanent damage are amazingly common in young otherwise healthy people who use these drugs. Plus they’re highly addictive, expensive and illegal. So unless you fancy having constant chest pain and being locked in a small room with a tattooed giant named Sugarlips wearing an orange jump suit, it’s best to seek performance enhancement by other means.

Stories do surface from time to time about pros who use cocaine or speed recreationally. Mike Matusow’s flirtations with ecstasy, speed and cocaine are well documented and have resulted in jail time. Stu Unger dramatically crashed and burned. Several of poker’s “bad boys” are rumored to use various forms of nose candy between bottles of Cristal at pricey Vegas nightclubs. Despite these stories, however, tales of illegal drugs used during a major tournament to improve performance are fairly rare.

What about those ADD drugs like Ritalin and Adderall? Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and its hyperactive cousin, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are real diseases most common in school age children. Ritalin and Adderall allow these kids to filter out multiple competing and confusing stimuli and concentrate on a single task. Children become more calm and focused. Once they hit adolescence, the calming effect becomes somewhat diminished and jittery side effects become more common. The improved focus effect seems to remain for all age groups.

Sounds great, right? Improved focus but a little jittery – it sounds like it might work just fine at the tables. Let me be absolutely clear about these drugs.  They are speed – nothing more or less than pharmaceutical grade amphetamines. All the side effects of speed, the increased blood pressure, the rapid heart rate, the heart attack risk, the addiction potential, are exactly the same as for crystal meth brewed by skinny guys with bad teeth.

For those adults who truly have debilitating ADD or ADHD, these drugs are indeed effective and may be worth the risks but that decision is complicated and serious and should be made in conjunction with a physician or psychiatrist.

In his blog, poker pro Paul Phillips credits Adderall with taming his ADHD and allowing him to win $2.3 million in one year. “With Adderall in my system, I am like an information sponge, able to process data from several players at once while considering my next action. It also improved my patience. I can’t count how many chips I used to squander playing hands out of boredom. Now, I have no problem folding as many (or as few) as the game conditions require.” (See:  http://www.slate.com/id/2122188/entry/2122189/)

Mike Matusow suffers from bipolar disease and ADHD. It has taken him years to get his medications properly adjusted. Mike’s followers have noted a distinct change in his behavior this year. He has shed 60 pounds and seems calm and focused. His bipolar meds in conjunction with Adderall helped him maintain his cool and his concentration and win a bracelet in No Limit 2-7 Lowball at this year’s WSOP.

So what can the average player do? What if you don’t have ADHD, you don’t want to risk a heart attack and jumpsuits don’t flatter your figure? Is there something else? The unqualified answer is “Maybe.”  Next month I will give you the detailed scoop about the drug called “steroids for the brain.”