Smoking and Card Players: Gambling With Their Health

Smoking and playing cards seem to go hand in hand. But with fairly high rates of smoking among gamblers and plenty of associated risks, it’s time to break the link.

When you picture a poker player, there’s a good chance he or she has a cigarette or a cigar dangling from his or her lips as chips are tossed in to call a bet. It seems smoking and gambling are inexorably linked, and the smoking rates among gamblers seem to support that assumption. So why do card players smoke, and how can we help more of them successfully quit?

Smoking and Gambling: Smoking Rates Among Card Players and Gamblers

There is only limited evidence looking at the smoking rates among card players, but it suggests that smoking is at least as big a problem with gamblers as it is in the rest of society. One study published in 2008 addressed the question by visibly counting the number of smokers compared to the number of overall number of gamblers in casinos in Nevada. They looked at three different casinos, finding a 20.3% smoking rate in Las Vegas, a 21.5% rate in Reno/Sparks and a lower rate of 16.4% at Lake Tahoe. In general, the smoking rates in gamblers were comparable with rates across the U.S. at the time.

Other studies looking at smoking rates according to people’s relationship with gambling have shown more concerning results. For example, one study looked at smoking rates and the severity of problem gambling among Connecticut high school students, and found that around 20.1% of those classed as problem gamblers or at-risk gamblers currently smoked, compared to just 12.1% of those at low risk. This suggests a definite overlap between excessive gambling and smoking.

Why Do Card Players Smoke?

For the most part, card players smoke for the same reasons most other smokers do. For example, stress and depression make smoking more likely, because nicotine provides a temporary relief that makes people feel better. This is only a short-term effect, though, and it comes with the burdens of addiction and significant long-term health risks.

Stress Relief at the Table

More specifically, there are other issues that may explain the link between smoking and card players, as covered in an article on The first issue is stress, which is a more general concern (as discussed above), but also an important factor for poker players, because high-stakes betting is understandably stressful. In addition, a stressed poker player is likely to make aggressive moves and probably lose more chips as a result. Players call this going “on tilt,” but taking a cigarette break can minimize the risk of this.

The downside is that the relief from stress from smoking is only temporary, and nicotine withdrawal (craving a cigarette) increases irritability and stress. In other words, the short-term relief from stress is accompanied by greater stress levels overall, which makes tilting more likely.

Nicotine’s Benefits to Concentration During Long Card-Playing Sessions

Another cited benefit is the boost nicotine provides to your ability to concentrate. Since card games (especially large poker tournaments) can go on for a very long time, this offers smokers a definite advantage in being able to smoke as a “pick-me-up” that helps them regain focus.

However, addiction is the downside again. The problem is that after becoming addicted to cigarettes, you experience withdrawal and cravings, which reduce your ability to concentrate. At this point, smoking a cigarette merely brings your ability to concentrate up to normal levels. Thus, the apparent benefits when you start to smoke quickly vanish. So yet again, the link between card players and smoking appears to be built on a shaky foundation.

Helping Card Players Quit Smoking

For all of these reasons, as well as the undeniable risks of smoking, card players should be encouraged to quit as soon as possible. The approaches to quitting are the same as for any other smoker trying to quit, but poker expert Jared Tendler, who’s helped several players quit smoking, emphasizes the importance of tackling the emotional and psychological drives behind smoking.

Behavioral counseling or even calling a quit-smoking line can help with this sort of advice, but it generally involves identifying your “triggers,” or the situations that make you want to smoke, and understanding what it is about them that drives the urge to smoke. He also advises not trying to quit cold turkey, which makes options like nicotine replacement therapy, e-cigarettes, smokeless tobacco or simply just gradually reducing the amount you smoke potentially valuable.

Card players and smoking may be linked due to the stresses of high-stakes card playing, social norms and short-term benefits, but thankfully the link can be broken in the same ways it can be for other groups in society. With an understanding of the risks of smoking, a plan for quitting and support from counseling with or without other stop-smoking treatments, card players can take the all-important step towards being smoke-free.