Is Music the Secret to Winning at Poker?

Have you ever stumbled upon a televised or online poker tournament and wondered why the players are sitting around largely in silence? While tension may be running high during the games, some pros actually use music to enhance their game. For instance, Annie Duke, who holds a World Series of Poker gold bracelet from 2004, says that she listen to White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” when she is short-stacked.

A study by the Stanford University School of Medicine found that music could be used to engage areas of the brain that are involved with paying attention and making predictions. Participants listened to music (in this case, short symphonies by an 18th century composer) while their brains were imaged using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Clearly, paying attention and making predictions are both key skills for poker players. This gives those who choose to play online poker at home a distinct advantage – they can use music to trigger those parts of the brain that need to be performing at their peak during play. This could become part of the essential rules new players need to learn, alongside hand rankings and knowing the differences between Texas Hold’em and Omaha Hi.

One theory about how music helps us to concentrate is that the brain has two attention systems: a conscious one and a subconscious one. During a game of poker with no background noise, our conscious attention is focused entirely on the game. However, our subconscious attention system is hard at work on a more primal level, doing things like scanning for danger and assessing our hunger and thirst levels. The idea of using music to improve focus is that this subconscious attention system responds to the syncopation of the music and hones in on that, thus minimizing other distractions.

Of course, the type of music needs to be non-invasive enough that your conscious mind doesn’t have to pay much attention to it. This means that the type of music that best helps your brain focus will vary based on your personal preferences. The Stanford University study used classical music to analyze how participants’ brains responded. While many people find that classical music helps them to focus, those who don’t enjoy it can find it an irritating distraction – hardly what you need if you plan to win big at the poker tables and are using music to help you do so!

The key is to experiment based on your personal musical tastes. You can take a quasi-scientific approach to doing so. Why not play three games of poker with jazz playing in the background, three with heavy metal on, three with a lively disco beat, and so forth? Keep a note of how well you get on with each type of music playing, then shape what you listen to during future games based on the results.

Naturally, you need to experiment with volume levels as well. The point of using music to focus your subconscious attention system is that it leaves your conscious mind free to focus on the game at hand. If your speakers are blaring at full volume, it’s pretty certain that at least part of your conscious mind will be paying attention to the music more than the cards! Everyone is different though, so experiment and have fun in order to find your perfect balance.