Playing poker for long days at the felt is a physically demanding pursuit. Sure, it might not be running a marathon or as gruelling as a physical workout. It’s not really as pressurized as an eating competition, either. Somewhere in between those three activities, however, lies the truth of what is best to consume during a 12-hour day at the felt in a poker tournament.
It’s handy, then, that we’ve spoken to a former ultramarathon runner Dara O’Kearney, one of the fittest players on the circuit in Daniel Negreanu and the king of the roast beef sandwich, Phil Hellmuth. Between them, they might just have sorted out your meal plans for a journey to the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas or Rozvadov or your next poker trip.
What Food to Take to a Poker Tournament
When it comes to pre-planning, what do the best of the best take with them to a poker tournament?
Phil Hellmuth: “I’m on the Keto Diet right now, so I’ll bring Keto candies with me, and stick to this low, low carbohydrate diet.”
Dara ‘Doke’ O’Kearney: “For very long Day 1s, I have some fruit, nuts or protein bar snacks if I get hungry. On the rare occasions that I feel my energy levels dipping towards the end of a long day, I allow myself something sugary so long as it’s near enough the end the inevitable crash won’t come until after play.”
Daniel Negreanu: “When I travel, one of the food groups where Vegans don’t get as many options is protein, so I’ll bring some no-calorie protein bars. I’ll bring protein powder to make with oatmeal and some soy jerky. A few snacks, but really the focus is protein, which is the most satiating. I feel fuller and I can stay on track.”
What are players’ arrangements during the tournament, however? When that crucial pot has gone against them, how do they rectify that situation with food, or do they plan ahead and eat before playing?
Hellmuth: “I press a lot of buttons! DoorDash, Amazon and Whole Foods through the Amazon App. In tourneys, it’s either a mad dash for food at the breaks or I’ll have food delivered to me. Oftentimes, I’ll order two meals, and keep one with me at the tables.”
Doke: “I want to avoid the extremes of being hungry or too full. I try to eat a reasonably sized breakfast 1-2 hours before play starts with an emphasis on slow-release carbs (fructose primarily), protein, and trying to avoid too much fat, which makes me and most people sleepy. I try to avoid sugar completely as that causes energy spikes and crashes. So essentially fruit, a healthy cereal with no added sugar like natural muesli or oatmeal, eggs, and a little dairy, but no added sugar yoghurt or cheese.”
Negreanu: “Years ago I was in Barcelona and I couldn’t find any food, I was angry, titled and all kinds of being a victim to circumstance. I did a course on emotional intelligence, and I thought all these situations I could have been responsible. I could have made sure I called ahead, did research for vegan options, and whether I can organize with the hotel. Instead of getting ‘hangry’ and at a loss, I plan way ahead, often working with the hotels or using an app called HappyCow.”
Do You Play How You Eat?
Every player has a go-to food that during a poker tournament, they crave. Choosing something great to eat that will keep you going but give happiness too is easy.
Negreanu: It varies but it could be something as simple as chocolate peanut butter cups, or pizza. Pizza or chocolate.”
Hellmuth: “Filling foods are best for me. Some folks like a light stomach, but I’ll take a full stomach any day of the week because I burn through tonnes of energy when I play poker.”
Doke: “During short playing days, I don’t eat dinner until after close of play, but if it’s more than ten hours I’ll have a light meal during dinner break following the same principles of avoiding sugar and fat. In Vegas, I usually eat Asian as this seems to be the best fit.”
To Break or Not to Break
When to eat is clearly important to poker players. The scheduling of dinner breaks has, for some time, been a topic of fiery discussion. Our poker heroes have differing desires about when to stock up on supplies.
Hellmuth: “I formulate a plan right before the breaks. Sometimes I’ll miss a hand in order to get out ahead of the impending crowds that head out for meals. Playing when I’m hungry can be an issue for me. When I’m starving, it seems like I’m not as lucky. If you break that down scientifically, then it would make sense that folks make bad decisions when they are hungry. I certainly can; I have blown tourneys when I’m starving.”
Doke: “If there’s no dinner break, I eat something small every break from the second one on. At the beginning of my career, I definitely made the mistake of eating too much and the wrong type (sugar and fat) and found myself very sleepy after it. Sometimes it’s difficult to get the right kind of food at breaks and you can end up hungry, which is also sub-optimal. Having a good support group is important. When my wife travels [with me] she goes ahead to the restaurant and orders for me and the rest of my group so our food is ready as soon as we get there. When she’s not there the arrangement is generally if someone in the group isn’t playing, they sort it out for whoever is.”
Playing poker for a living and living out of a suitcase when you’re not at home can be stressful for the uninitiated, but Daniel Negreanu has been fine-tuning his way of eating at tournaments and beforehand for years. He has found it extremely useful to break it down into those specific time periods.
Negreanu: “I live in extremes. When I’m at home I have a spreadsheet. I create 4-6 days of email plans. I wake up and go This is Monday, it’s pre-planned so I don’t have to think. There are studies of successful people, and they avoid decision fatigue. When things run on autopilot, that’s when I’m home.”
On the road, however, ‘Kid Poker’ is prepared for a more ‘high variance’ style of eating.
Negreanu: “When I’m on the road, I often loose the belt a little more and go with the flow. The way I think about it is getting healthy before I’m going to play the series then being aware my body is going to take a beating; I know I’ll get back on the horse. For a lot of people, it would be scary but I have a lot of confidence that in 6-8 weeks I can get back in shape. It’s formulaic, so whenever I need to, I can have that in my back pocket.”