Bizarre Theory: Music Artists Can Actually Benefit From Playing Poker

There’s a fair amount of overlap between music and gaming, and it takes a number of different forms. We’ve seen plenty of musicians contributing to soundtracks for video games for instance, such that huge numbers of gamers wind up with real songs stuck in their heads (as opposed to just standard video game jingles). We’ve also seen something of a reverse of this practice, with artists making music inspired by games — something we spoke to, in fact, in an artist review this past March. And finally, on top of these music-to-gaming lists, there’s the whole poker branch of the gaming world to consider. Here, there’s essentially a whole history of links, largely thanks to musicians embracing the game itself. From Frank Sinatra, to Nelly, to Steve Albini, there have been a lot of famous figures in music who have made themselves regular at the poker tables.

For the most part, all of these examples represent what we might think of as inevitable crossovers. Gaming of all kinds, from mobile downloads to the Vegas poker tables, is exceedingly popular. It stands to reason that now and then, the subject will make its way into musicians’ lives in one way or another. At the same time though, it’s interesting to consider whether musicians ever gain anything from a connection to gaming.

More often than not, the answer is probably no. Where poker is concerned though, there might actually be some subtle benefits for musicians….

Learning How to Read Others

More than anything else, playing poker forces people to learn how to read others. It’s not always as simple as determining what someone’s “tell” is (as it’s sometimes portrayed in the movies), and it doesn’t always mean an intense stare down over a massive pot of chips. But poker is still a psychological game in which player develop the ability to communicate silently, recognize signals, and understand unspoken dynamics. These skills can help a lot of different people in regular life, but musicians are certainly on the list! Whether through negotiations with studio reps, wordless communication with bandmates during sets, or even attempts to read the audience’s mood, this sort of psychological savvy can make a lot of situations more manageable.

Sharpening Memory

Memory isn’t always talked about as an attribute poker players need to succeed. Yet most decent players actually wind up relying on recall quite a bit. First and foremost, they have to remember the poker hand rankings and the odds of securing each one in a given situation. Then, they have to remember what the right decision is from a numbers standpoint in an endless variety of betting scenarios. And on top of that, most good player also make an effort to remember recent hands, opponent decisions, and so on — logging games in real time in order to gain and press advantages. Through all of this, poker can actually sharpen memory, which can certainly help musicians (and just about anyone else!). Remembering lyrics and/or musical notes, recalling set lists in high-pressure environments, and even taking mental notes of names and faces for networking purposes all make memory a bigger part of success than some consciously recognize.

Handling Highs & Lows

Playing poker inevitably means gaining experience handling highs and lows. Winning a competitive hand can be a thrilling and invigorating experience that can make a player feel temporarily unbeatable; losing the same hand can be agitating and disheartening, and can make a player just about despondent. Players who succeed, however, learn not to give in to either extreme, but rather maintain steady approaches to the game regardless of results. This same steadiness can be useful in a lot of different walks of life, and can certainly help musicians — who deal with more highs and lows than just about anybody. Whether in songwriting, live performance, or broader career trajectory, musicians go through a lot of positive and negative developments. Those who can stay steady are more likely to ride it all out and find success

Mastering Pressure

This is a similar point to that about handling highs and lows. But in a more general sense, poker is an excellent teacher concerning the managing and mastering of pressure. Last year, a poker pro hyping a book put it well, suggesting that her story isn’t about playing poker so much as playing life. This reasoning is largely about how she and other poker players overcome pressure to truly master the game, and clearly it’s another concept that can be helpful to musicians. Overcoming pressure in any activity or environment prepares a person to handle similar challenges more effectively. A musician who’s had some success in poker will in therefore, in theory, be better equipped to overcome certain challenges in his or her primary pursuits.

None of this means that musicians need to play games or hone in on poker specifically of course. But perhaps, given these benefits, it’s not such an accident that lots of prominent musicians over time have enjoyed the game. At the very least, the skills listed here comprise a pretty intriguing set for some in music to master.