Ace in the hole: how poker boosts your brain

Full house: Jennifer Shahade is both a professional poker player and a chess grandmaster. © Getty

Can a card game teach us the truth about life? Today, the online poker world is looking forward to a landmark match. But some believe that games offer much more than short-term thrills.

One grim December afternoon, science writer and amateur poker player Alex O’Brien sat at her kitchen table and entered an online game.

Three and a half hours later, to her astonishment, she had defeated 1,666 other players and won £10,000.

News of O’Brien’s victory spread quickly through the poker world. A few hours later, she was invited to a one-to-one battle with Dan Bilzerian, a fellow amateur who has been accused of holding misogynistic views.

The poker community is now awaiting their clash with bated breath. But O’Brien is untroubled. “I know that if the cards go my way, I can beat Bilzerian. If the game goes the other way, that’s OK too.”

Keeping calm in the face of adversity is just one of the lessons that O’Brien learnt from poker. Her upcoming book, The Truth Detective, argues that the game can teach us much more.

For one, it can help us think quickly and strategically. O’Brien compares poker to chess, one of the world’s most popular games of strategy; at least one professional poker player, Jennifer Shahade, is also a chess grandmaster.

According to O’Brien: “Being able to ask the right questions when we have little information to hand, while also operating under duress, is a real skill we could all use — and not just in poker.”

The game might also increase our resilience. “Poker,” says player David Lappin, “is a good metaphor for the chaotic randomness of the world.” A player’s career will be full of wins and losses, many of them out of their control. Poker prepares us for the ups and downs of life itself.

Games have attracted intellectuals for centuries. The Renaissance polymath Gerolamo Cardano used games of chance to develop a system of probability. Vladimir Nabakov composed chess problems.

In their 1944 book, Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour, John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern introduced the world to game theory. It claims that economic situations can be understood as a game whose players make decisions for self-interest, based on how they believe their opponent might act.

Quickly accepted by economists, game theory has come to influence many other disciplines, including evolutionary biology, psychology and computer science.

Critics of game theory hold that it assumes all humans behave rationally, and so fails to account for the messier aspects of existence.

O’Brien’s thoughts about poker might be falling into a similar trap by assuming that the world runs on fair, logical lines like those of a game. Rather than revealing something about the fundamental nature of the world, card games might actually distort our understanding of it.

Can a card game teach us the truth about life?

Place your bets

Without a doubt, say some. Poker is not just a fun game. It is about making decisions while accepting risks. It is about learning to change our mind when faced with a fast-moving situation. And it is about considering all variables: the game’s structure, your own skills and intentions and those of your opponents. It teaches us the ways of the world. There are no truths more important.

Not quite, say others. Card games might teach us many things. But they do so within limits. What can poker teach us about the human heart, the reason for our existence or the limits of the cosmos? Even allowing for the element of chance, all card games are based on a mutually agreed on set of rules. For good and for bad, life does not follow such hard and fast regulations.

You Decide

  1. What is more exciting in poker: the gameplay itself or the risk involved?
  2. Should you always take part in a game with the intention to win?


  1. In pairs, design a 52-piece deck of playing cards for the present day, choosing suits, the names of the face cards and an illustration for each card.
  2. In groups, create a new card game, clearly writing down rules. Once finished, switch rules and test out another group’s game.

Some People Say...

“Humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.”

Ralph Ellison (1913 — 1994), African-American novelist and literary scholar

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
People have enjoyed card games for over a millennium. Historians have traced the first playing cards to 9th-Century China, following a contemporary text referring to the “leaf game”. By the 11th Century, cards had spread across Asia to Egypt. The earliest confirmed mention of them in Europe is a 1377 ban against playing card games in Florence. The standard 52-card deck used today evolved in France, while its design was developed in Tudor England.
What do we not know?
We do not know whether playing games can increase a person’s overall intelligence. Research suggests that card games can augment concentration and motor skills, and chess players have been found on average to possess superior cognitive ability than non-players, including faster reasoning and more detailed memories. But there is much countervailing evidence. A recent study by the Institute of Education, for instance, found that playing chess had no noticeable effect on educational attainment.

Word Watch

Strongly prejudiced against women. In a 2017 tweet, Bilzerian told professional player Cate Hall: “I want to bet against you because you are a woman and women can't play poker.”
Bated breath
To hold one’s breath in excitement. The phrase was first used in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.
The highest title awarded to chess players by the International Chess Federation. Once honoured, a player is a grandmaster for life.
A person whose knowledge spans numerous different subjects, from a Greek term meaning having learned much.
Vladimir Nabakov
Russian-American novelist often regarded as one of the sharpest and most precise writers of the 20th Century.
John von Neumann
Hungarian-American mathematician, physicist, computer scientist and engineer nicknamed the “last of the great mathematicians”.
Oskar Morgenstern
German-American economist. Overshadowed by Von Neumann, he further developed their theory after his collaborator’s death.
Based on reason or logic. In philosophy, the rational is often contrasted with the empirical.


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