Poker Physiology

by , Jul 16, 2011 | 6:50 am

Jen Dunphy

Poker Life Coach


Your body is an intricate and delicate system designed to sense threat, and biologically programmed to avoid it. Your nervous system is a vast information highway that runs every cellular process in the body. From breathing and your heartbeat to movement and thought, your nervous system affects every process of your body.

So what’s happening in your body during a hand?

Because of the unknown outcomes, the variability of chance, and the sheer financial risk, poker is stressful by design. Let me be clear about what I mean. Let’s define stress as a physical, emotional or chemical factor that causes bodily or mental tension and let’s avoid judgment of whether stress is good or bad. Stress simply exists and we live in relation to it.

So during a hand, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or experience at the table, a body responds to stress exactly the same. Stress is a threat and regardless of the size, shape, cause or intensity the body reacts with a Fight or Flight response.

Originally intended to protect you, the fight or flight response causes a release of hormones that:

  • Increase your heart rate
  • Increase your blood glucose (blood sugar)
  • Put you in a “ready” state

Ever have the feeling that you need caffeine, sugar and other stimulants to keep you on your toes? You’re simply prolonging the “high” your body has already initiated.

The flip side of your stress response is that these hormones also:

  • Decrease your immune system function, making you more susceptible to illness
  • Decrease your digestive system function, making you get less from what you eat
  • Affect your ability to control your mood, motivation and fear factors

This last point is particularly important. When your stress response is on, there is a five-lane, one-way highway from the emotional center of your brain (limbic system) to the thinking center of your brain (pre-frontal cortex) that dampens your ability to access rational thought. Emotion is running the show and no amount of statistical math, strategy or poker skill can stop it.

But there is one scientifically proven way to interrupt this emotional rollercoaster of hormones and put your rational mind back in the driver’s seat:

Asking a question stimulates the thinking center of your brain and interrupts the stress response — limiting its negative effects.

You can’t ask just any old question. When your stress response is on (as it almost always will be in poker) you have to ask the right question for you: A powerful inquiry that sparks curiosity. This is something you can work with a coach on: Creating powerful questions to ask yourself when needing an antidote to tilt.

To get started finding your powerful question, check out the questions below:

What does poker give you that you can’t get anywhere else?

With all the rejection and pain that poker can bring, what makes being a poker player worth it to you?

What skill or gift do you have that gives you an edge at the table?

One player I work with uses the theme song from Rocky to imagine himself as a fighter, able to face any opponent and forever willing to get back up and fight no matter what the circumstances. Poker gives him the opportunity to face a challenge that he finds exciting. The experience of overcoming obstacles and being financially rewarded makes it worth it and the gift this player brings to the table is strength, endurance and a willingness to fight for what he wants.

Can you see how answering the three questions above created a vibe for this player that is more powerful and positive than the circumstances of any hand can shake?

It’s a critical first step toward controlling your game in the phase of physiological stress. Because if you’re not using your mind to connect with your body when it hits, the game is more likely to be controlling you.

Jen Dunphy is a certified professional Life Coach who works with poker players as well as major gaming corporations in Las Vegas. Find out more about her services at and

2 Comments to “Poker Physiology”

  1. steves yok

    To body check-up the every month and give a opportunity to them and Heart Rate, Blood Pressure and ready to check by the clinic.

  2. Poker Shrink

    The problem with ‘fight or flight’ is that modern (post-modern?) humans have the ability to change their behavior. One way to do so is to repeat an experience over and over, slowly modifying your response. So being all-in for the twelve thousandth time really is not a big deal and your blood pressure does not spike. It’s called being a pro.