Back in the old west, poker players in a saloon might have been entertained by a piano player or dance hall singer while they played.
A little later, in clubs and poker rooms of the mid-20th century, there might have been a jukebox cranking out songs to keep the atmosphere lively.
Then forty years ago the Walkman was invented. At which point some players chose tunes over table talk.
And when online poker came along twenty years ago, anyone playing cards had even more options to choose from.
For me, choosing music to listen to while playing poker is very similar to finding appropriate “soundtracks” when doing other activities that require some intellectual effort like reading or writing.
My personal preference is for calming, slower-paced tunes that tend to remain just below conscious thought — music I am aware of to the extent that it is pleasing to the ear, but that doesn’t demand the attention I need in order to focus on the task at hand.
When I play poker I’ll often listen to music categorized as ambient or electronic or even experimental. Actual film soundtracks can be good as well, as long as they aren’t too dramatic or noisy. I like to listen to a lot of jazz, too, ranging from the cool classics to fusion, as well as some prog rock, post-punk, and even some classical.
More often than not I prefer to listen to instrumental music so as not to be distracted by lyrics, although sometimes having something to sing along to (even just mentally) can help with the occasional tedium of tournaments.
All of this is very subjective, though, the product of a lifetime spent curating a music collection according to personal taste, then the last decade or so following recommendations produced by online algorithms and clicking those “you may also like” links.
For most players, their “poker music” represents a subsection of music they already like and with which they have positive associations. That could mean anything — classic rock, R & B, pop, jazz, blues, country, hip-hop, reggae — you name it.
Like wearing the right clothes or having the right snacks and beverages nearby, the right music playing in the background forms part of a context of comfort that helps improve the mood, reduce stress, and enable clear thinking at the poker table.
Just as you have to find the right style and approach to suit your poker playing skills, the music you choose to listen to while playing will also probably have something to do with your personality and preferences. Thus while Team PokerStars Pro Liv Boeree might be just fine blaring Finnish metal while she plays, that might not work as well for me.
A short while back Lex Veldhuis of Team Online shared a lengthy Spotify playlist of “Deephouse/Techno” tracks with his followers. Check it out:
Finally, I can’t very well bring up “Poker Music” without also talking a bit about poker in music, a topic which happens to feature in one of the chapters in my new book Poker & Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America’s Favorite Card Game.
In that chapter (and in a few other places in the book), I discuss dozens of songs in which poker comes up in a meaningful way. Of course “The Gambler” and “Poker Face” get attention, but there have been many other examples and I try to discuss a number of them.
I gathered together 50 of the songs I mention in Poker & Pop Culture and created a playlist of my own. Kenny Rogers and Lady Gaga are in there, of course, as are Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, and Motörhead. But there are a number of artists and songs I’m going to guess will be new even to the most dedicated enthusiast of poker in music.
When considering this list, it’s interesting to consider the wide range of genres in which poker songs appear — further evidence of the game’s widespread popularity (I would argue).
There’s blues, pop, rock, folk, country, metal, hip-hop — you name it. In other words, precisely the sort of variety that necessarily grabs your attention as it proceeds from track to track, and thus (in my opinion) does not work that well as background music when grinding online.
It might, however, work nicely as something interesting to put on during the next home game when playing with your friends. Have a listen and decide for yourself: