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The game of poker is unique and special in many ways. It challenges the brain and provides a workout that stimulates to a degree not available from any other casino game or activity. Slots may be the most widely played game in casinos, but it provides very little mental challenge.

We exercise our bodies in many ways. Participating in physical activities and sports — even a brisk walk —challenges our bodies and muscles. But we still need mental exercise for a healthy brain, which is essential to a happy, enjoyable life.

This is nothing new. Years ago, professor emeritus William T. Greenough, the former chairman of the Neurosciences & Behavioral Biology program at the University of Illinois, told of the benefits derived from playing poker or other brain-challenging games such as bridge — especially for older people. It gives them a feeling of continuing sense of purpose, and they are motivated to depend on themselves and their own resources. Contrast this with “mindless hours staring at the television.”

And who would disagree with Dr. K. Warner Schaie, professor emeritus of Human Development and Psychology at Pennsylvania State University: “It’s much like physical skills. Once you stop using them, they get rusty.”

Dr. Schaie is a retired social gerontologist and psychologist best known for founding the Seattle Longitudinal Study in 1956 that used a “life span” approach to aging and cognition, studying subjects from birth through the course of their lives. He has been cited for the conception of developmental psychology to include the entire life span, and for outstanding empirical contributions to the study of adult development and aging.

Each of us has a choice. We can accept the challenge and take responsibility for our mental well-being. That makes us more alert, more active, happier, and healthier—and able to enjoy longer lives. Some of us believe that playing poker can even help to prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

How does playing poker improve our mental well-being? Here is what I have learned over the years. When we exercise our bodies, the bones and muscles grow stronger and healthier. Likewise, when we “exercise” our brains, the synapses and brain cells (neurons) grow in density and strength. The synapses surround the neurons and serve to transmit information from one to others in the brain.

When playing poker, each hand lasts only about two minutes. You need to think fast and accurately to avoid making mistakes. And, of course, that improved mental health carries over from the poker table and serves us as we participate in the game of life.

We do not mean to imply that games that challenge the brain are the only paths to a healthy mind. You could learn a new language or learn to play a musical instrument. There are many other ways. But I dare say, playing poker may well be the most enjoyable — especially if you have gained the necessary skills to go home a winner. And there are other benefits, such as social interaction and making new friends.

What is the alternative? It would be isolation, boredom and lack of intellectual challenge. That can lead to mental deterioration over time.

So when it comes to exercising your brain, use it or lose it! 

About the Author

George Epstein

A retired engineer, George Epstein is the author of “The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!” and “Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision.” He teaches poker courses and conducts a unique Poker Lab at the Claude Pepper Senior Center under the auspices of the City of Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks and at West Los Angeles College.

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