Why poker players should watch the clock – the forgotten element of safer gambling

Maris Catania
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Posted on: February 24, 2023 8:00 am EST

This is the first in a regular series of columns from Maris Catania, Safer Gambling Senior Consultant at SG:certified.

When people talk about the harm that gambling can cause, they’re most often talking about the direct personal and financial impacts. 

Time, however, is a key element that’s often overlooked.

Like money, time is a finite asset that tends to lose its perceived worth as behaviors become more problematic. And despite being one of the most visible symptoms to an observer, time mismanagement remains one of the hallmark indicators of gambling disorder.

So let’s discuss how the simple act of watching the clock can act as an early warning system for an underlying problem.

Time as an indicator of harm

All of us have recreational activities that we willingly allow to suck up our time and our energy. Social media is one of the major culprits for many people, with Facebook and Twitter becoming their own sources of compulsion for a segment of the population. Too much of anything can be bad.

That’s certainly true for gambling. But what about poker? Are you spending more time playing poker than you should be? Do you play more often than you admit to your friends and family? Does poker keep you from fulfilling other commitments? What about your desires? Are you pursuing the goals and activities that you want to?

These are the sorts of questions you should be asking yourself in order to preserve the poker equivalent of a healthy work-life balance.

Poker players are especially susceptible to this time suck because of the nature of the game. 

That’s not to say poker isn’t a fascinating game of strategy and nuance. It is all of those things in spades. But the mechanical repetition and the pacing of individual hands does work against your brain in a specific way, muting the portion of your subconscious that alerts you when you’ve spent a long time doing any one thing.

An hour or two of blackjack is typically enough for most people to feel satiated. But an hour of poker? That’s just a couple orbits, barely enough time to get a feel for the table. Sessions of eight, 10, or 15 hours are perfectly normal, even a routine part of the process for many players. All-nighters are practically a rite of passage, and anyone who leaves a good game before it breaks is just flushing equity down the toilet. A long time is part of the game.

Again, this isn’t an indictment of late-night poker games or dense tournament schedules built around long days. But it might be worthwhile to keep an inventory of the hours you’re dedicating to the game, because it’s far too easy to lose perspective without noticing.

Just pay attention to how you’re using your time.

Poker as a stressor, stress as a weathervane

Let me wrap this up with a quick story from my time at Kindred.

I was ultimately the Head of Responsible Gambling and Research, but my role in the company started by fielding phone calls in the Customer Relations department a decade prior. Speaking to players on the phone every day, I eventually came to realize that many of those with whom I had the most frequent, most aggressive exchanges ended up having their accounts closed due to responsible-gambling issues. 

So I went searching through the numbers in a way that nobody seemingly had before, and a clear correlation began to appear in the data. Interactions with customer support, as it turned out, were an early indicator of a larger problem developing beneath the surface.

In that vein, it’s worth noting that poker players deal with a level of perpetual stress that is well above the baseline – certainly higher than you’ll find in most other forms of recreation. And it’s not hard to understand why. Poker is perhaps the most challenging form of gambling there is, a psychological and mathematical puzzle with short- and long-term complications that few games can match. It’s physically taxing too, for that matter, particularly in the context of long sessions and dense tournament schedules.

Hourglass on the beach with sun setting

So just beware of this link. Monitor your interactions while you’re playing poker. Do you snap at the dealer or the cocktail server for a simple mistake? Have you thrown cards or smashed a keyboard? These are indications that you’re not managing your stress in a way that fosters good decisions at the table. 

Make sure you’re scheduling some time for yourself, for your body and your brain to recover from the rigors of the game. Take breaks to help rebalance your emotions and maintain a proper perspective on the role it plays in your day-to-day life. 

Carve out a few hours to help someone else. Take a hike, spend one morning this month reading a novel in your local park. Better yet, deliver some meals for a charitable organization in your community. Volunteer for a couple hours at a local animal shelter if you like being around cats and dogs. See if, after the fact, you find these things to have been a valuable use of your time. See how your brain responds to the change. Just try it. It could make you a better player when you get back to the table, too. 

At the very least it is useful to take an occasional step back to purposefully evaluate the time you spend playing. There’s always a game running in the poker room, after all.

Play Safer is brought to you in association with SG:certified, the compliance platform for simple certification in responsible gambling, sustainability, environmental and other ESG standards.