Alcohol and Performance 27 Jun 16
by Tony Medley
It’s said that Babe
Ruth used to take the field with a debilitating hangover and belt out
multiple home run games, that Grover Cleveland Alexander was roaring
drunk when he stuck out Tony Lazzeri with the bases full, and that Joe
Namath prepared for a big game with “a bottle and a babe.”
A couple of decades
ago I was scheduled to play a game of duplicate bridge (a highly
competitive form of bridge in which all the players play the same hands)
with my partner, Arlen O’Hara, the wife of UCLA volleyball legend Hall
of Famer Mike O’Hara. We were meeting for dinner before the game. Since
she was late I ordered a glass of wine. I had finished it by the time
she arrived so I ordered another when she ordered one. Then we went to
During the game we
were on defense on one hand and when it was over I said to the table
that our opponents were down two (in duplicate bridge two partners bid
to a contract, like four spades, meaning that they can take 10 tricks,
out of the 13 total tricks available. If they only take eight tricks
they are said to be “down two,” which means that they fell two tricks
short of their contract). Arlen said they were down one. So I counted
them out, one, two, three, four, and said they were down two. I kept
adding in a fifth trick, even though I was counting them myself. Finally
everybody convinced me that we had only taken four tricks and that they
were down one. I sheepishly agreed and the game proceeded.
However, I was
bothered by my inexplicably poor reasoning and realized, immediately,
that it was due to the alcohol I had ingested before the game. After
that I was careful not to drink an alcoholic beverage before I played.
And I noticed that when I did deviate from this policy and had a drink
before playing I was often severely tempted to take flights of fancy and
make uncharacteristic wild, crazy bids, and, also, that I did not play
the cards as well as I usually did.
What was doubly
interesting about this was that I did not feel alcoholic effects
whatsoever. I was not giddy, not lightheaded, and not dizzy; I had
absolutely no feeling that I was having any effect from the alcohol. But
my reasoning was definitely affected.
I had two other
partners, both of whom are excellent bridge players. Both were
enormously affected by alcoholic consumption, after which they would
exhibit wildly irrational and uncharacteristic bidding. One of them was
one of my regular partners and was a fine player. But if she had one
drink she would be bonkers. I finally told her that if she wanted to
continue playing with me she had to promise not to drink any alcohol
before the game.
So I am not alone in
the effect that alcohol has on the brain. What was revealing, and
frightening, to me was the way that alcohol negatively affected the way
I reasoned even though I could not consciously feel any aftereffect of
the alcohol. I felt perfectly fine, but when I tried to reason, my
reasoning was clearly askew.
Recently I was in a
tournament that started in the afternoon. I had nothing to drink
beforehand but I realized during the tournament play that my reasoning
and hand evaluation and play were off, definitely below par. I traced
that to the fact that I had had an alcoholic beverage the night before.
So over the next few months I paid attention to how I played after I had
had a drink 18 hours before playing, and came to the definite conclusion
that even having a drink that long before the actual play still had an
effect on my reasoning. So now if I am competing I refrain from any
alcohol, not only the day of the game, but the day before the game.
I don’t want anyone
to get from this that I’m a big drinker, because I’m not. I drink
socially and often weeks will go by without my having a drink. But now
when I do have a drink I realize that it is affecting my brain and
reasoning, even though I do not feel those effects.
Ruth, Alexander, and
Broadway Joe to the contrary notwithstanding, alcohol has a negative
effect on anyone’s brain and subsequent behavior, regardless of whether
or not they can consciously feel it.