Poker and Esports are both games that have previously lived in the shadows of society rather than the foreground, but now form a major part of both children and adults social lives. Gaming is big business, but it is also a salvation to many people who enjoy games such as online poker, and video games such as Fortnite, League of Legends, CS:GO and Dota 2 to name just a few.
Matt Hunt is a successful poker player who has cashed for over a quarter of million dollars at the live felt alone, including a score of $159,000 when he finished 2nd in a World Series of Poker event in Las Vegas in 2018. He’s also a passionate advocate of the power of video games and their benefits to mental health. He correlates a direction connection between the two for him personally.
“Personally I use poker as a surrogate for playing videogames.” He said in a thread on Twitter regarding poker players playing the game as a ‘surrogate’ for another passion.
Personally I use poker as a surrogate for playing videogames. That was the thing I enjoyed most growing up.— Mental Health Matt (@MntalHlthMatt) August 10, 2020
I figured this out recently through therapy, and I encourage other poker players to explore their own relationship to the game in a similar way.
We spoke to Matt Hunt and wanted to know what first drew him to gaming.
“At that time, I wasn’t framing it as mental illness, depression or anxiety, but that’s what it was.”
“My late grandfather introduced me to games when I was very young,” he says. “We played a lot of chess and basic card games together. I think I first played video games when I was about seven or eight on an old SEGA Master System II my mother found. From that point on I was basically hooked on games of all kinds. That led into poker pretty naturally.”
Many players find that poker is a highly emotionally charged game, and Hunt was no different.
“I started out believing that my inability to control my emotions would always be my biggest hurdle in the game. At that time, I wasn’t framing it as mental illness, depression or anxiety, but that’s what it was. As it turned out, I think I was correct in that my fluctuating mental health has definitely held back my playing career, but I think a heightened level of emotional awareness has made me a better coach, so it’s worked out okay.”
“The camaraderie among professionals isn’t what it used to be, and there isn’t the same sense of everyone working to grow the game.”
Hunt now plays poker but also coaches others in the game and his awareness of mental health and the pitfalls any poker player can fall into are the bedrock of his Twitch channel too. Poker has undoubtedly changed in the Twitch era of broadcasting the game, but there are good ways and bad ways that it has done so according to Hunt.
“If we’re talking about since the origin of poker as a profession, it’s definitely changed for the better – as has most of society,” says Hunt. “But if we’re talking the last five years or so, I think it’s changed for the worse. The camaraderie among professionals isn’t what it used to be, and there isn’t the same sense of everyone working to grow their game. There’s more of a sense that everyone is trying to grab whatever they can from the game before the apocalypse hits in a few years and nobody can play for a living anymore.”
While that doesn’t sound positive about poker in general, it’s clear that Hunt has found a way to deal with the anxiety that the game can sometimes bring.
“I have very little anxiety surrounding poker these days,” Hunt says. “I’m in a fairly good place with it. I try to avoid playing when I am feeling anxious, but I do try to be proactive in some fashion to address it. Sometimes playing poker might be a way to feel like I’m doing something productive, so it depends on the context.”
“It’s hard to go from being very closed up about your emotions to being completely open and public about it.”
A huge passion for gaming helps Hunt deal with the variance poker inflicts upon any player for whom the game is more than a hobby. He believes that just like movies or TV, videogames are ‘an art form’.
“Some of the best artistic work of modern times has been done in video games.” He continues. “Art is a necessary part of our lives – it helps us to understand and explore our emotions in greater depth. Playing through a really great videogame can be an emotionally immersive experience that draws us out of our own lives and into someone else’s and when you combine this with the cognitive and tactile elements of the experience, playing games can exercise the mind in a variety of ways.”
While Hunt concedes that – just like with those other forms of entertainment – games can be damaging if there are used purely as a means of escaping the real world, there are advantages too.
“If you use it to enhance your understanding and your experience of the real world, it becomes a benefit.”
Twitch is, of course, a fairly recent addition to the way poker players broadcast their careers and attract fans in the same way that YouTubers did in popular Esports. Hunt broadly believes that any discussion is a good one, including on the popular streaming platform.
“The reason I think Twitch can be particularly good in this regard is that it doesn’t force anyone to talk. Someone can tune into a stream, hear someone else talking about something and still feel part of a community. This can be an important step in helping someone feel like they’re supported and that they have people around them who would listen if they had something to share. It’s hard to go from being very closed up about your emotions to being completely open and public about it, so platforms like Twitch can form an important middle ground.”
“There are a lot of high-stakes pros who may have become a bit more disconnected from the community in recent years.”
Poker, of course, is a solo game, more so than any video game. Poker, Hunt believes, can definitely be better at helping its players cope with the emotional demands of the game.
“It’s really hard to do this collectively in a zero-sum game. The harsh reality of poker is that there are very few collaborative elements – we all tend to compete against each other, rather than working as a team or as a community. But I’d like to see more opportunity for dialogue between different parts of the community, and less of a barrier between ‘pros’ and ‘recs’.”
Hunt has of course been a professional and a recreational player and thinks that everyone knowing that mental health can arise with anybody is something that would help everybody deal with the highs and lows.
“I think there are a lot of high-stakes pros who may have become a bit more disconnected from the community in recent years,” says Hunt. “But I also think that recreational players who struggle with their mental health would benefit from knowing that it happens to professional players as well.
In an era where mental health has never been higher on the agenda in both Esports and poker, it’s a good thing that the conversation has started for many people. Now, the challenge is to keep the dialogue open and helping as many people as possible with their mental health.