The World Series of Poker Main Event draws to Las Vegas not only the best poker players in the world, but also anybody with any kind of interest in the game: supporters, spectators and businessmen alike. People from all walks of life mingle in the corridors, cultivate friendships and exchange their new ideas.
Wes Sime has a whole bag of them.
“Wouldn’t you like to get just a little bit better?” he says. “Isn’t there just a little higher level you can get to? There’s always a new game, there’s always a new opponent, there’s always a higher level.”
Sime is a 72-year-old sports psychologist from Lincoln, Nebraska, who specialises in psychophysiology. That means that in addition to a clinic where he treats patients with anxiety and depression, among other things, he has spent a long career examining the relationship between mental and physiological processes. He offers seminars to business leaders, and has worked with the US Olympic athletics team.
He is also a self-confessed “poker nut”, who has, in recent years, been working on strategies for poker players to improve their performance with the help of what he has learned from the world of sports psychology.
For example, Sime carries in one hand a small silver box with a flashing strip of light that measures heart rate and encourages optimum respiration. And in the backpack slung over his shoulder, he has other gadgets ranging from performance sunglasses that black out everything except a narrow field of vision, reducing distractions, to personal massage packs to increase comfort levels wherever a player might be sitting.
“How can you make good decisions when you’re really uncomfortable?” Sime says. “Players have got to take care of themselves in whatever way they need to.”
It has long been acknowledged that successful poker requires a mind and body in its optimum shape. There are plenty of books that focus on mental conditioning, while the top players these days also work out to keep their bodies fit for the long slog.
Sime is interested in the world of marginal gains, the apparently small modifications a player can make to give him or her a slight edge over opponents. Coaches in sports such as cycling and golf have produced startling results by focusing on apparently small aspects of performance.
The heart rate monitor is a case in point. According to Sime, optimal decision-making demands the body to be in a particular state, where a person is breathing at approximately one breath per 10 seconds. The small, unobtrusive box has a pulse sensor on it, which can measure heart rate through a player’s thumb.
A red light means the optimal state has not yet been reached and it can offer a reminder to a player to focus on their breathing. A blue/green light appears when the respiration rate is getting toward optimal, and decision making should also be its best. (It can also be wired to a phone to offer a sonic reminder via headphones.)
“This helps me know when I’m anxious,” Sime says. “I use it at the table. I can have it right on my phone and listen and tell when I’m not in the right state. It’s like a wake-up call: ‘Hey dummy, get your head back in the game.'”
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The sunglasses also address the issue of focus, which is a key area for optimal performance. They resemble any regular pair of sports shades, but the field of vision is deliberately narrowed by means of blackout tint applied on all but a thin strip of the glass. They were initially designed for golfers, allowing players to focus only on the ball or the correct line of a club-stroke, but they work wonders in a setting such as the World Series of Poker.
Not only do players typically have their own cellphone offering a distraction, but there are close to 2,000 other people in the room–including some noisy builders putting together the television stage–that can wrestle a player’s attention from the task at hand. Like blinkers on a horse, they keep a player seeing only what they really need to see.
The headphones Sime wears pipe classical music into his ears–nothing unusual in that–but the band across the top of his head contains a bone conductor that sends vibrations into the brain to quieten it. Even at the end of a full days’ work in the clinic, Sime says that with the headphones, “Within 45 minutes to an hour I am so mellowed out and pain free.”
Sime says, “It’s wonderful to see how well the really experienced poker players do their job, and I wonder if we can discover what inherent qualities they have that the other players don’t have that allow them to be as good as they are.
“For the rest of us out there, we need to train toward that, to become more aware toward it. My goal is to kind of test the really good players, find out what it is about their ability, their skill set and their background that really got them that good and that will help us know what we can train with the average guy who just wants to be able to beat his buddies.”
WSOP photos by PokerPhotoArchive.com.