Even during its prime television days on ESPN, many felt quite uncomfortable calling poker a sport—unless you're talking about a mind sport.

Poker undeniably tests your logical thinking (and flexes your mental muscles).

It overlaps with the strategic battles of Scrabble or chess, showing if you've done your homework.

  • Fun fact: Did you know that Joe McKeehan, the winner of the 2015 World Series of Poker Main Event, is also a world champion in the board game Risk? That’s not an accident.

To succeed, you need rigorous logical reasoning skills. Leave the Texas Hold’em cheat sheet at the door!

Now, the average person's expertise in biology doesn't extend much beyond clicking random YouTube videos.

You know you’ve searched titles such as Why You Should Never Swallow Gum and What If You Only Drank Coffee And Nothing Else? Or Google searches asking if your dog knows he’s cute.

But let's rewind to the moment when the author found herself knee-deep in the complexities of poker brain science while working on her book, "A Girl’s Guide to Poker."

She quickly realised that she needed someone with profound expertise - cue Dr Tricia Cardner, a powerhouse in the field.

Does Playing Poker Make You Smarter?
Does Playing Poker Make You Smarter?

Now, Dr Tricia is different from your average interviewee. She's a force to be reckoned with, holding not one but two PhDs in psychology and criminology. 

As a psychologist specialising in the neurology of Texas Hold’em, Dr Tricia has authored numerous books, including the following –

  • "Peak Poker Performance"
  • "Positive Poker"
  • "Purposeful Practice for Poker"

 Oh… and she co-hosts the popular podcast "Poker on the Brain".

Her academic credentials uniquely qualify her to delve into the intricate workings of the human mind within the context of a poker hand.

When it comes to poker science, Dr Tricia is the real deal—the ultimate authority you can trust.

So, let’s hear her answer to the question, does playing poker make you smarter?

Emotional Intelligence: The Secret to Poker Mastery

When processing information, “we have an emotional reaction almost instantaneously,” Dr Tricia says, “before we ever even stop and think rationally.”

In other words, we need to learn how to process our feelings to think straight.

  • Success in poker doesn’t start with tying your opponent into mental knots.
  • It doesn’t start with complex analytics.
  • It starts with learning how to regulate your emotions.

According to her, when we process information, our emotions kick in almost instantly, way before our rational thinking can catch up.

Forget about outwitting your opponent with mind games or diving headfirst into complex poker combo probabilities.

Success in poker starts with mastering your emotional state.

Does Playing Poker Make You Smarter? - Emotional Intelligence
Does Playing Poker Make You Smarter? - Emotional Intelligence

Dr Tricia describes it as the "first stop on the train tracks" of our brain's journey where our feelings naturally take charge.

Does "gut instinct" mean "limbic system" instinct? Well, it turns out that it just might.

Afterwards, it travels onto the brain's logic centres—planning, reasoning, and decision-making. No matter how talented you are as a critical thinker, you must always face your emotionality.

Feelings first, followed by rationality - in that order.

The key takeaway?

Mastering your mental game is about more than mathematical prowess. You need to process emotions effectively.

Learn Poker the Smart Way

Let's say you're not as concerned about tilt control and instead want to start playing No-Limit Hold 'em as soon as possible.

  1. What’s the fastest way to learn poker?
  2. Should you play a bunch of hands or do drills?

“It’s 100% better to do the drills,” says Dr Tricia.

She prescribes flashcards, videos, and online poker trainers. "I can do 10,000 hours, but if my practice is not quality, then nothing is going to happen".

Her co-author and famed poker coach, Jonathan Little, deposited $50 online and quickly turned it into $300,000. But he spent six months prior studying without playing a single hand.

Quality practice trumps quantity.

Someone can spend decades in a poker board game. But you’ll have a serious edge on them in just a few months of targeted study.

Does Playing Poker Make You Smarter? - Learn the Smart Way
Does Playing Poker Make You Smarter? - Learn the Smart Way

Let's revisit our thesis:

Does playing poker make you smarter?

Remember, it's not about logging hours at the poker table. It's about the effectiveness of your preparation.

Exercising this level of diligence will naturally improve your mental readiness. The commitment and work ethic required may even increase your self-esteem—bringing us back to our first point regarding mental strengthening.

They’re inextricably linked -

♦ Playing more poker doesn’t mean playing better poker.

♦ A little poker each day will accelerate you faster than a chunk 1x/week.

Poker is different from running. You run every day; you're going to get faster.

But you could play poker every day and remain a slowpoke.

Mental Gymnastics

Dr Tricia likens learning a new skill or poker variant, like three card poker, to circuit training for the brain.

“The first time you fire the circuit, it doesn’t go very fast. The message goes slow because you don’t really know what you’re doing,” explains Dr Tricia. “But the more you fire that circuit, the faster the messages travel.”

Think of it like learning to drive a car. Initially, you're still determining which pedals to press, but it becomes second nature with time.

In simpler terms, practice leads to improved efficiency—it becomes faster, easier, and more streamlined.

Does Playing Poker Make You Smarter? - Mental Gymnastics
Does Playing Poker Make You Smarter? - Mental Gymnastics

Think of it like learning to drive a car. Initially, you're unsure which pedals to press, but with time, it becomes second nature.

So, take it slow and steady—your brain is on its way to becoming a well-oiled machine!

Do I Have to be Smart to Play Poker?

 “When we’re testing people in the U.S.A., we’re usually looking at working memory-based intelligence [IQ tests],” explains Dr Tricia. “but there are many types of intelligence.”

“Maybe you didn’t do that great in school. That doesn’t mean you don’t have a lot of social and/or emotional intelligence.”

She even suggests that certain professional poker players with very high IQs would improve their results if they worked on their people skills.

“This thing called ‘intelligence’ only accounts for maybe 20% of the variance in success, generally speaking,” says Dr Tricia, a woman who is clearly good at doing homework.

“Yes, you need to have a certain understanding of math and logic to learn poker, but it’s not rocket science.”

Conclusion: Does Poker Make You Smarter?

Poker isn't just a game of chance—it's a mental sport that can profoundly sharpen your cognitive abilities. Through the insights shared by Dr Tricia Cardner, we've discovered the transformative power of mastering the mental game of poker.

  • First and foremost, understanding and regulating your emotions is essential for making clear-headed decisions at the poker table.
  • By prioritising emotional mastery, you can enhance your strategic thinking and improve overall performance.

In this way, poker undoubtedly does make you smarter!

Does Playing Poker Make You Smarter?
Does Playing Poker Make You Smarter? 

Furthermore, Dr Tricia advocates quality practice over quantity. Structured drills, flashcards, and targeted studying are far more effective than simply logging hours at the poker table.

Focused preparation can lead to major profits in a relatively short period, as Jonathan Little's success story demonstrated.

Moreover, the process of learning poker mirrors circuit training for the brain.

With repeated practice, neural pathways become more efficient, leading to faster and more streamlined cognitive processing.

As with taking up any new skill, mastery of poker requires the following –

  • Patience
  • Dedication
  • Willingness to learn from mistakes.

Lastly, Dr Tricia challenges the notion that intelligence is a prerequisite for poker success. While a basic understanding of math and logic is beneficial, success in poker is not solely determined by IQ.

Social and emotional intelligence are equally crucial in navigating the game's complexities.

Poker offers a unique opportunity for mental growth and development. Hone emotional regulation, strategic thinking, and adaptive learning skills to widen your profit margins. These techniques can also enhance your cognitive abilities in life.

The next time you sit down to play a hand of poker, remember you're not just testing luck—you're exercising your mind and becoming smarter with every decision.

Amanda is the author of the book A Girl's Guide to Poker, dedicated to making poker friendly and accessible to everyone. In 2021, she was a World Series of Poker final-tablist where she and her father took third place in the WSOP tag team event.