Headphones have become ubiquitous in our culture. Take a subway, and half the riders are plugged in. Walk down a city street, and cords are flapping in the breeze. Even attend a high school music performance, and you’ll see younger sibs with headphones firmly implanted in ears. (Although that final choice may reveal precocious wisdom). Headphone use at the poker table has become part of an archetype of a specific kind of player. We’ll label this breed “poker headphones”. Most, but not all poker headphones players are under 30 and wear them throughout their sessions along with sunglasses and a hoodie or ballcap.
Can these players not be alone with their thoughts? Must they desperately block out the comments of other players in order to think? Do poker headphones help or hurt focus? Debates have raged about the etiquette of headphones at the poker table and whether their use is beneficial. Norman Chad, the great poker commentator and wit, comes down firmly against poker headphones, throwing them into the same category as hoodies and sunglasses. However, many top pros like Phil Hellmuth and Phil Ivey, frequently wear headphones at the poker table.
In today’s Throwdown, we take on the poker headphones phenomenon. We have played tournaments both with and without headphones. Which is better?
Paul: I generally like poker players, but sometimes hate what comes out of people’s mouths. Short friendly interchanges allow me to think the best of everyone. Too much exposure to others’ insights makes me want to take up crocheting. Enjoying my poker session is as important to me as winning. Listening to Elvis Costello assures that I will enjoy my day, however the game plays out. Listening to a poker genius telling everyone else how they are misplaying hands assures I won’t.
Heather: Ah, the “I hate humanity” argument. Fair enough. However, I find that I get a lot of information from listening to others at the table. Not only through direct communications, but also from side banter with the dealer and with each other. I lose those insights about other players’ habits and their games if I am tuning out to the music of Hamilton.
Paul: Sure some “poker talkers” occasionally reveal something, and I may sometimes sacrifice a single earbud to eavesdrop for a moment. But some devolve into talking baseball, ex-wives, and gossip about other poker rooms. I can’t contribute to the first, have PTSD about the second, and could care less about the third. 99% of the talk at the table is more distracting than helpful. But observations of behavior and thinking about betting patterns – now that is useful. And I achieve that much better when I am tuned out of the distractions.
Heather: I can see how capacity for multi-tasking might affect the headphones decision. I definitely am more comfortable with split attention than you are.
Another reason I don’t love the headphones is that, for me, part of the joy of live poker is the social interchange. You and I spend pretty much 24/7 with each other. Not that I don’t enjoy every minute of it, but it’s nice to get out and interact with other human beings. Especially when we’re playing at Hampton Falls where we’ve gotten to know a lot of the other players over the years.
Paul: So what you’re telling me is you’re scouting for a back-up plan at the tables? I think the “enjoy every minute” comment revealed your plot!
Don’t get me wrong, most poker players are really good people, and many are more interesting than people I run into elsewhere in my day-to-day life. I enjoy seeking out some of the regulars to chat with at break, or before or after tournaments. The headphones are really about my own distractibility. The music helps to reign me in. I also use music to tinker with my mood during tournaments. I listen to relaxing, slowly paced music in the early stages when the deep stacks require a patient approach and I’m gathering information as much as trying to win hands. Then I move to more intense uptempo music in late stages when more aggression is needed.Being the old guy at the table wearing headphones may call unwanted attention or perhaps psychiatric evaluationClick To Tweet
Heather: Goodness knows, anything that helps you focus can’t be a bad thing.
I admit to occasionally plugging into headphones if someone at my table is being particularly loud and obnoxious. But I also hate that sunglasses and hoodie association that headphones carry. In the rooms where we typically play, I might be the only player at the table wearing headphones. I’d rather not call the extra attention to myself.
Paul: Being the old guy at the table wearing headphones may call unwanted attention or perhaps psychiatric evaluation. I’ll live with that stigma. Better than being the guy who suddenly blurts out “Will you please shut up!” to the verbose, drunken player next to me. That will be remembered forever, and potentially get me banned from the room.
Patience, peace, and focus. That’s what I’m looking for when I play. Poker headphones are an invaluable tool toward meeting those ends.
Heather: Whatever I might decide, I have to agree that it’s probably for the best if you block out the world when you play poker. Headphone away.
If you enjoyed this Throwdown, you might enjoy our recent discussion about whether I could ever handle a long trans-continental flight.
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