Mental exercise invaluable to stay sharp, try poker

Jan 26, 2016 3:08 AM

In a recent issue of the Los Angeles Times, the “Science File” by Karen Kaplan, presented the results of a 25-year study: There is a strong “link between exercise and cognitive abilities later in life.”

Over 3,000 people took cognitive function tests in their 40s and 50s after being tracked for 25 years. These tests measure the participants’ cognitive processing speed (ability to acquire knowledge), executive function (the cognitive management system of the human brain) and verbal memory.

Those individuals who watched the most TV (“couch potatoes”) and exercised the least when they were young adults had the greatest risk of intellectual decline. (The results were published in JAMA Psychiatry, a peer-reviewed journal from the American Medical Association).

Personally, based on my experience and observations (no tests), I maintain mental activities – such as playing poker – are likewise invaluable in “brain-health payoff.” That holds not just later in life, but throughout one’s life. This seems to be supported by my observations from my seniors’ poker group at the Claude Pepper Senior Center in L.A.

The group that started out just 11 years ago with only six members has rapidly grown to over 200. (Ages range from the 50s to over 90.) To my knowledge, not a single one has developed Alzheimer’s disease or any other form of dementia; whereas, it is my understanding one in seven adults will develop such mental deficiencies as they age.

When I presented this information to the Times’ science file writer, Karen Kaplan, she emailed me: “It is true, there are many studies showing that mental exercise keeps your brain young. Play on!”

Indeed, there is a new Kindle book by Dr. Alan Schoonmaker (the world’s leading poker psychologist and author of many poker books). “Stay Young; Play Poker” explains the benefit of playing poker, helping to keep us young at heart and in our ability to function with mental acuity.

The mental challenge rivals any other form of mental activity; although, I am sure doing crossword puzzles and playing bridge can have similar beneficial effects. Poker has one significant advantage over other mentally-stimulating activities: social interaction also helps to delay mental decline with age.

Of course, it is best to acquire the skills needed to make your poker sessions financially profitable, too. Learn to overcome the casino’s rake and other “costs to play.”

By the way, while sitting at the table playing poker, you can also exercise your body – getting the best of both worlds. In my first poker book, “The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners,” there is a full chapter on exercises you can do while seated at the table – isometrics. It’s also a good idea every hour or so to get up from the table and go for a walk.

Go outside to breathe the fresh air. Clear the cobwebs from your brain. Think about the game and your opponents at the table. Should you make any changes in how you are playing your hands? Perhaps a table change?

Recently, as I have aged (now 89), my physical therapist at the VA/West L.A. Medical Center has taught me new exercises to help overcome the ill effects of arthritis in my knees and shoulders. I perform these periodically at the poker table. While doing so, I still manage to observe my opponents (the “enemy”) to better understand their playing traits, and look for tells that I may have occasion to use later in the session.

Just so I don’t forget these, I keep notes on a small piece of paper stored in my shirt pocket. People and dealers often ask me what I am doing. I never apologize. My stock response is we were taught to take notes in school and, likewise, in our seniors’ poker classes.

In summary, I appreciate Karen’s informative report on the importance of physical activity as we age, and I would combine this information with the value of mental exercises – such as playing poker.

“The Engineer,” a noted author and teacher in Greater Los Angeles, is a member of the Seniors Poker Hall of Fame. Email: [email protected].