Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Playing No-Limit Hold’em Reduces Alzheimer’s

My friend Leon Morford ("Sailor Moe" on PSO) is an experienced veteran of life showing no signs of Alzheimer's disease, as can be easily determined by viewing this photo.

For the first meal on the train I was seated in the dining car next to an attorney. At least, I figured, I’d have a chance to think about something other than what to do with pocket sixes first to act in middle position with a medium stack at an aggressive table in shallow money near the bubble. Not that I was obsessed about poker or anything.

“What do you do for work?” he said.
“I retired from a 20-year career in hospital administration,” I replied.
“Oh, well what do you think is the cause of health care costs being so high,” he queried.

I looked him in the eyes to get a good read on him. “How far are you going?” I said.
“To Rochester. Why do you ask?”
“I’ll have to give you the short answer then. The former Canadian Minister of Health put it most succinctly,” I told him. “The problem with Americans is that they view death as an option. A disproportionate share of the medical costs in the U.S. are incurred in the last 90 days of life. Canadians, it seems, are a bit more conservative when it comes to so-called heroic measures to pull out all the stops so grandma can hang on a few more days or hours.”
“What about malpractice and litigation, or advances in technology?” he asked.
“Sorry, we don’t have nearly enough time.” I answered. “Let me know when you are planning a trip to Seattle.”

Somewhere between Schenectady and Utica I overheard the train passengers a few seats in front talking about Alzheimer’s disease. “Recent studies have shown that vigorous mental exercise decreases the risk of Alzheimers,” one of them remarked. They discussed activities like crossword puzzles and Scrabble. Chess, as Grandmaster Arnold Denker often pointed out, is also a good example. Is it a stretch to include poker on the list? I think not. I can see the headline now: Playing No-Limit Hold’em Reduces Alzheimer’s.

There are skills that good poker players exhibit that are similar to chess. That is why many strong chess players are able to do well on the poker tournament trail. Among these skills are the ability to read opponents, calculating actual and implied pot odds, recognizing betting patterns, planning moves that will impact future hands, minding ones “Ms and Qs” (a la Dan Harrington) . As far as I’m concerned, these constitute cerebral gymnastics clearly in the category of vigorous mental exercise.

I had the pleasure of knowing Arnold Denker into his late eighties and, as far as I could tell, he never lost the use of a single brain cell. He was the United States Chess Champion in 1944. Many years later, at age 88, he was still winning tournaments. On a drive from Miami to Fort Lauderdale in 2002 he recounted his prior assertion that beginning when he started playing chess at age 5, and continuing to the present day, he never met a chess master with Alzheimer’s. Other problems, for sure, but never Alzheimer’s.

Look around at the poker world. Doyle Brunson certainly doesn’t have it. Amarillo Slim Preston seems a little off at times but, apparently, he’s always been that way. I had a chance to sit and chat with Oklahoma Johnny Hale, the Gentleman Gambler who is in his late seventies. We talked in Tunica in January 2006. Nine months later in Minnesota he recognized me instantly; no signs of dementia there. Old-timer John Bonetti’s body may be slowing down, but his mind is still sharp. Then there’s Dan Harrington. He has the compound mental insulation provided from chess and poker…and backgammon too.

Prior to leaving home on this trip, I examined my itinerary and noticed that I would have a 10-hour stopover in Chicago. So I sent an e-mail to one of my PSO mentors, David “Hitman” Roemer. “Let’s do lunch,” I said. He graciously sent me his cell phone number so I could contact him after I arrived. After replying with the tongue-in-cheek comment that I would copy and paste his number in the newsgroup, I pressed the print button on my computer. Then I whipped the paper out of the printer and tossed it in my briefcase.

As the train pulled into the station in Erie, PA, I decided to fetch the printout so it would be handy once I got to Chicago. I found it but half the number was missing. The page had torn when I grabbed it and I never looked at it when I was still home. Am I getting dementia? It’s got to be a sign of early Alzheimer’s for sure. Nah, can’t be. I play chess and poker.

The late Jim Fixx, prior to dropping dead from a heart attack in his late thirties, observed that running marathons can make a person permanently immune form coronary artery disease. Could Arnold be barking up the wrong medical tree? Might I become case study numero uno refuting the latest myth about Alzheimer’s disease?

I want to believe that it’s not likely. My friend Harold Dondis once quipped that “if you can still spell it, then you don’t have it.” Well, that’s easy enough to check. Let’s see…A, L, Z, E…shoot!

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