Winning Poker: 13 Signs You’re Too Tired to Play

7 min read

I’m part of a circle of poker players who, pre-pandemic, used to meet every week for a tournament followed by a cash game. We used to drive to nearby Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Atlantic City or fly off to Las Vegas, California, Florida, the Bahamas, and other tourist destinations to compete in large poker tournaments.

Sadly, the pandemic chilled our poker travel, even after we moved our tournaments to the internet. Now, with Covid beginning to abate thanks to the vaccines, it seems like we’ll be traveling for big tournament action once again.

Sleeping at the table
If this is how you’re trying to prevent your opponent from getting a read on you, it may be time to leave the table. (Image: Thrillist)

With that in mind, one of our crew recently sent around an ad for the Wynn Classic, with just two additional words, “I’m ready.” Another topped him with an ad for the World Series of Poker, with just one word, “Finally!”

Yes, large poker tournaments are back. And with them are these big trips to those tournaments where we are sure to push the very limits of our endurance, staying up and playing into the wee hours, fueled as we will be with adrenaline and the surrounding environment that never sleeps. And therein lies the rub; how do you know when it’s time to get some sleep when you’re playing your favorite game in a city that never sleeps?

Too tired to play well?

Just so we’re clear, I know there are times when you want to stay in a great game, even if you have to prop your eyes open with toothpicks. But playing when extremely tired carries with it a great amount of risk. This is chiefly so because the symptom of exhaustion is often obscured by the lack of self-perception caused by exhaustion.

Being extremely sleepy, we often lack the very ability to notice how tired we are. And, to make matters worse, when we’re really tired, we lose the discipline to leave the table even as we may conclude that we are exhausted. In short, we lose our self-control just at the time when we may need it the most.

To help you notice the signs of stack-crushing weariness, I’ve put together a simple checklist of signs that can help you determine if you’re too tired to play. If you’re experiencing any of them, it’s highly likely that you’ve pushed yourself too far and should leave the table right away.

You’re resting your head on your hands or the back of your chair (or, worse yet, the table)

Your head weighs approximately 25 pounds — nine pounds more than a bowling ball. Our neck and shoulder muscles are conditioned from early childhood to hold it aloft with no noticeable effort. But when we’re extremely fatigued, we begin to feel the true weight of our head, and our body seeks out other supports. When you’re having trouble holding your head up, it’s probably time to leave the game in search of a nice, soft pillow.

Frequent blinking

The eyes are like the canary in the coal mine, as they’re the early indicators of our weariness. Even as we may think we are still awake and alert enough to play poker, once we start blinking frequently, our eyes are telling us that we need sleep — and that we need it badly.

You keep rechecking your hole cards

Good players all know that they should look at their hole cards exactly once, and then have them face down for the remainder of the hand. We know we shouldn’t recheck them, lest we give off tells. Even so, when we’re extremely tired, we may find that it becomes increasingly difficult to remember them. And so, we may sneak a second or even a third look as the hand progresses. This is a powerful signal that we’re just too fatigued to play our best game.

Losing track of the action

Brand new casino poker players sometimes frequently (and annoyingly) ask, “Is it to me?” When a good player fails to notice that it’s their turn to act, it’s often a sign that it’s time to call it quits for the session.

You can’t recall the last few hands

Try to remember who won the last three hands. Usually this should be easy. If it’s not, it’s a sign you’re too tired.

Thinking you might be too tired to play

It’s tough to admit that you’ve been weakened by weariness. It often takes a good long argument with yourself to accept the fact. Recognize that just beginning the internal dispute is itself a strong indicator that you’re too tired to play. If you were fully alert, you wouldn’t be raising the issue with yourself. Just concede the point. Don’t continue the debate.

Turning your head instead of glancing over

The eye muscles are an early indicator of how tired you really are. When they shut down, the head and torso tend to compensate. So, when the server comes by and says, “Sir, your coffee,” and you turn your whole body rather than just moving your eyes, that’s an indication that you’re ready for some sleep.

A desire to close your eyes when not in the hand

Your conscious brain wants to keep playing, but your body is screaming for sleep. So, you compromise with yourself and figure you’ll rest in between hands. Bad move. Just leave.

Frequent yawning

When we’re extremely tired, we sometimes get an almost uncontrollable and repeated urge to yawn. If you’re yawning a lot, take the hint.

You’ve been awake for 20 hours in a row

Want to throw out the subjective criteria? Just look at how long you’ve been awake. Did you get up at 8 am? If it’s 4 am, you’re probably ready for bed, no matter how much Red Bull you’ve had or how alert you may feel.

Making obvious mistakes in perception and/or judgment

Anyone can misread the board once in a while. But, if you’ve done it twice in the last hour, misread your own hand, or if you can’t recall who raised on the last round, you’ve been playing too long and should walk away from the game.

Being bothered by typical sounds and actions in the room

When we’re extremely fatigued, we become more irritable and sensitive to sound. If you find that you are getting into arguments, getting bothered by noises, or are just generally more ticked off than usual, it’s often a sign of extreme tiredness. (Even if it’s not because you’re tired, if you’ve become irritable and bothered for some other reason, it’s probably a good leave to leave anyway).

Napping at the table

No explanation necessary.

With Covid restrictions winding down, and travel to Las Vegas and other poker destination cities revving up, it’s easy to lose sight of the importance of proper rest. Playing poker on vacation is one of life’s great treats, and getting caught up in the rush, with all-night sessions, is part of the fun. Not to put a damper on things, but just keep in mind that when your vacation comes to a close, you’ll have enjoyed it even more if you return a winner, rather than completely wiped out.

Leaving the game when you recognize you’re too tired to play is one way to help you achieve that goal.

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