In the 90s, Dr Masaru Emoto conducted a series of experiments showing how water crystals react when exposed to various forms of music, prayer, words and phrases. Here is a water crystal responding to the beautiful sounds of Madame Butterfly:
And, it seems water crystals aren't a fan of aggressive musical scores or word and phrases we connect to terror, anger, and hate?
When you consider human beings are 60% water, you need to choose your music wisely, especially if you are playing poker and want to create a state of quiet equanimity.
The Conscious and Sub-Conscious Mind
The conscious and sub-conscious minds are like children let loose in a playground at dinner time. When playing poker, the conscious mind is used to focus on the hand in question, but the sub-conscious mind is working behind the scenes to hit our concentration levels with a blast of a chill.
The sub-conscious mind is always on the lookout for sounds that lie just beyond our conscious awareness. Under normal circumstances, this is a positive thing as it alerts us to danger, but it's not ideal when playing poker.
What you need is a non-invasive sound that occupies the sub-conscious mind’s attention. This situation leaves the conscious mind to focus on the triple barrel bluff, so you can’t hear the idiot at the end of the table telling everyone how they should play their aces from under the gun.
What the Believers/Non-Believers Say
Billy ‘b8chatz’ Chattaway has won over $3.8m playing online tournaments, and his response is straight out of the musical scientist playbook:
"When I am in the zone I always have music in the background. It helps my thoughts on poker become very clear," said Chattaway. "It's almost like an autistic person who needs the fidget spinner to focus, so they're not distracted or trying too hard."
And, what is one of the songs that Chattaway has played the most on his iPod?
Kelly Saxby, Ambassador for the Hippodrome in London, brings music to the table very sparingly:
"I don't listen to music when playing. If I do, it's because I want a distraction, and want to chill/regroup. When this happens, I listen to something relaxing. I have a chill playlist, classical list, and also a playlist called ‘Spa Tunes' which is very ambient and relaxing." One of Saxby's chill-out tune is Love & Hate by Michael Kiwanuka.
The PokerFlowShow star, Jeff Gross, is another player who doesn’t listen to music when playing live poker.
“When I play live I almost never listen to music,” said Gross. “I like to interact with people and be very focused.”
World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelet winner, Ronnie Bardah, also wants to keep his ears pinned back for the table talk.
“I rarely listen to music while I play," said Bardah. "When I do I'm missing out on valuable table talk. It's also hard for me to get individual reads and gauge the situation at hand.
" Katie Swift has won over $235,000 playing live poker tournaments and music has been a big part of that success.
Here are the thoughts of the Grosvenor Poker Ambassador:
“I listen to music when I am playing," said Swift, "But I only ever have one earphone in, so I can still hear what's going on at the table. I only ever listen to one song, on repeat, throughout the whole poker tournament." Swift's single song on repeat idea is a common one in Silicon Valley when entrepreneurs want to create periods of intense concentration. The author of the 4-Hour Work Week, Tim Ferriss, is a huge fan.
And what is that one song, Katie?
"For probably a few years my song choice was "Fireproof" by One Direction, but more recently I have changed to "Be the one" by Dua Lipa. I love both songs equally. They have a happy beat and simple lyrics. Although they weren't designed for relating to a game of poker, I have converted their original meaning, to give me a sense of determination of "being the one" or feeling fearless and "fireproof". The first time I changed from "Fireproof" to "Be the one" was for the PartyPoker Millions event and I final tabled that, so I'm currently sticking with that song choice!"
Swift believes that music touches her life in more ways than just poker:
"Personally, I find it has multiple values, including maintaining a sense of calmness, helps me to stay focused on the end goal, gives me a sense of self-belief and of course it can help with the "pretence" of not being able to hear any table talk from an opponent! "Music plays a huge role, in general, in how people feel and their emotions. For instance, when you go for a run, an upbeat track will usually make you run faster and feel happier. The same applies for my poker routine. I find playing the same song on repeat, on a low volume keeps me consistent, I can control my game, remain focused and happy."
888poker Ambassador, Natalie Hof, is another big believer in the synergy of music and energy.
"Music is the best way to change your mood. It stirs up so much emotion," said Hof. "I listen to feel good music as it gives me confidence at the tables." And “Stronger” by Kanye West is one of those feel good songs.
Other players who listen to music when playing include 888poker Ambassador Parker "Tonkaaaa" Talbot, and the Aussie Millions Main Event winner, Ari Engel.
“I sometimes listen to music while playing,” said Engel. “It helps me relax so I can focus and get in the zone.”
It seems that music can improve and destroy concentration at the tables, and is very person dependent. So, you won't be surprised to learn, of those that like listening to music, their choice of tunes is also very different.
The Type of Music is Important
To advent of the Internet, and online music stores have opened our ears to more lyrical genius that at any other time in history. There is no one tune you can play that will occupy everyone's sub-conscious. It's all down to personal preference.
Music you like will increase performance, whereas music you don't like will have the adverse effect (think water crystals). Lyrical geniuses are also a problem, as your sub-conscious is particularly sensitive to words and phrases, a point that Parker Talbot wants to make.
"I think that in the hardcore sense of what is the most profitable way to grind that music with lyrics is probably detrimental," said Talbot. "I believe that instrumental or classical music could probably be of help."
The vibe of the music is also important. Melancholy music will make you sad, and happy music will make you happy, and these states will affect your poker game.
Kelly Saxby likes to listen to upbeat music to fire her up before a tournament begins, and one of her favourite tracks is “Panda” by Designer.
Jeff Gross loves listening to The Knocks, Drake, and Klangkarussell, but when he gets deep in a tournament, and things get a little crazy, he likes Jon Secada to hold his hand.
Matt Berkey, the founder of Solve for Why Academy, and winner of $3.4m in live tournaments, and countless millions in live cash games has an interesting take on when music has a place in poker, and what type of music makes a difference:
“Very rarely do I listen to music when I play,” said Berkey. “I find it quite distracting when attempting to absorb your environment and process as much info as possible at a high level.
"I almost always listen to music on breaks. I think poker breaks (be it tourney or cash) are mostly toxic where everyone is looking for empathy. I much prefer to seclude myself and lock back in, often music is my way of doing that."
So, who is Matt Berkey listening to when we are all whining about our bad beats?
Video Game Music
Have you ever spent a second wondering why video games always have a soundtrack?
The soundtrack keeps the sub-conscious mind occupied, so you play the game longer and, perhaps, this is why Jeff Gross likes to listen to music when streaming live on Twitch?
“I listen to music when I play online and stream on my Twitch channel: JeffGrossPoker.tv," said Gross. "I have a playlist on Spotify. It is nice to have music going when people watch, and I have multiple tables going, and am not talking the entire time."
And with more and more poker players streaming on Twitch, and their choice of online poker room being of particular importance, maybe it's time for the online poker room to introduce music and set lists into the game?
Thanks to Matt Berkey, Natalie Hof, Ari Engel, Ronnie Bardah, Kelly Saxby, Billy Chattaway, Jeff Gross, Parker Talbot, and Katie Swift for their help with this piece.
Now it's your turn.
How does music affect your game, and what songs do you listen to when you play?