Sunday, July 31, 2011

Should a poker pro be getting punched in the head?

Two separate commenters voiced concerns about the idea of me taking a lot of shots to the head. First, Lee Jones writes:

[I]s there any long-term danger to routinely getting punched in the face? I mean, I understand you can suffer an acute injury, but that can happen doing damn near anything.

My question/concern is if you're (e.g.) scrambling your gray matter over repeated punches to the face?

and "chloepear" (whom I also know irl) doesn't bother to beat around the bush and more candidly writes:

Consider that I say that in light of the fact that I love MMA and that I've trained in multiple martial arts.

I think that[...]from a financial point of view, your particular brain is valuable enough that seven weeks of your head being a punching bag sounds incredibly -EV.

I understand the allure of fighting [but] surely there's another way to be physically challenged and mentally tough without doing irreversible damage to your brain.
First of all, I should say that I am very glad to have friends who are concerned about my well-being. It is very tempting to be sweepingly dismissive of such blessings.

Certainly, everyone agrees it's a bad thing to get hit in the head too much. But I think there is an issue of perception at play here. MMA looks really dangerous and savage and so the presumption is that it is really dangerous. And it is more dangerous than most sports, especially considering that the majority of sports are actually non-contact sports. But it's also probably not as bad as it looks.

Bear with me for a hypothetical. Suppose I were the same person I am now, with a few different characteristics. This version of me smokes cigarettes, and every two weeks I go out to the bar and binge drink until I throw up. I also eat too many sweets and trans fats.

Now, as it turns out, I do none of these things. But if I merely blogged that last night I went out, had two Big Macs and an apple pie, then went to a club and drank all night, would commenters be concerned about my long-term health? (You might be question what I'm doing with my life, but that's a different story.) Probably not. Eating unhealthy, smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol are considered "normal" activities in our society, whereas MMA fighting is clearly still a little bit out there. I would contend though that bad food and heavy tobacco and alcohol use are probably more deleterious than MMA training, albeit in a very different way.

The point I'm trying to make is that every day, the vast majority of people make decisions that fail to optimize their physical (or financial) health. Even very smart people. Yeah, you could, day after day, wake up, jog 8 miles, eat a spinach and salmon salad, go to work, do your weight-training, have another spinach and salmon salad, meditate for an hour and retire for your 9 hours of sleep. Every. Single. Day. Can you conceive of that life? If you're like the vast majority of people, probably not. Don't get me wrong; self-improvement is righteous, but virtually no one maximizes solely for self-improvement all the time.

People will do dangerous or unhealthy things out of the pursuit of mere pleasure. This is a fact of life and a part of humanity. People will choose to ride motorcycles instead of taking the bus. They will run with the bulls in Spain or traverse treacherous mountain passes. They will become investigative journalists in Mexico. They will smoke cigarettes, eat too much refined sugar, listen to their iPods too loudly, or take pills from strangers at parties. When these decisions are met with the corresponding disastrous outcomes (whether lung cancer, obesity, going deaf or being left for dead in a ditch), we call them stupid and say "I told you so." But when nothing bad happens we say, "oh, they had a great time doing that."

Are there risks to fighting and training for fights? Unquestionably. How severe they are is something that is still being studied at this time. But to say to myself, "I will not do this thing about which I am passionate because there are potential negative consequences" is simply not acceptable. What is life, and particularly youth[1] for if not risk-taking? Where would I be now if I had never walked into that south Vancouver casino in 1999 and sat down at the $4/$8 hold'em game without even knowing the rules? I mean, I did lose like $120 that day, but it is hard to argue that decision was ultimately a mistake.

Now, despite what seems like some keyboard bravado, I should probably note that I do consider myself fairly conservative when it comes to life decisions. But the point is not to express my acceptable level of risk/pleasure tradeoff, but the idea that different people will have different such tradeoff values. You think the successful poker player fighting going into cage fighting is a bad idea. I might think being a pro race car driver is way too dangerous, and I would never do that. The race car driver wonders why anyone would become a contractor in Iraq, and so on.

Members of my family have been concussed while snowboarding. I had dinner last night with someone who suffered multiple concussions in hockey and soccer, and is currently a poker pro. I've never been concussed in my training, or even really lost my bearings due to a blow. As I responded to Lee, we don't know the extent to which non-concussive head trauma is dangerous or affects the brain, so I certainly don't want to understate it. But in full consideration of what science does exist, and my own personal experiences, it is a risk that I'm totally and utterly at peace with.

So the main thing I'm concerned about at this point? Winning the fight. :)

[1] I am at least "young" in some context, I hope!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I swear that yesterday I was on the verge of sending a message to you on this very topic. From our days at Stars in San Jose I clearly recall thinking I'd never met anyone so quick, so aware and so capable of multitasking in my life. Your subsequent career as a player confirms that observation.

    There is a lot of science, mostly involving studies of boxers and football players which confirm the long term downside of repeated blows to the head.

    I know you are following your passion and that is generally an admirable thing. That said I'm glad that you are at least considering the risks. My suggestion is more research and a realistic assessment of the rewards before making an EV decision.

    Just two cents from a plodder who couldn't do two things at the same time if his life depended on it!

  3. I think the risk can be well managed and you can happily enjoy both activities. They key (as with most of the health-damaging activities you mentioned) is volume. If you took a high-volume of hard head-shots over a 10 year period, then I'd be concerned (btw I think boxing is more dangerous in this regard than MMA).

    Anyway, sounds like you've got it under control. I hope the training camp goes well, you leave some in the tank, are relaxed on fight-night, and then crush your opponent!

  4. Your reply to Lee (which I didn't see until you linked to it above) indicates to me you've done your due diligence. So I'll chalk this up to a difference in risk/reward ratios and agree to disagree.

    Hope your training is uneventful and you submit the other guy in the first round!