The Truth About Playing Poker and Blackjack with Autism

Thanks to Dustin Hoffman’s performance in it as charming and autistic savant, 1988’s Rain Man movie is often credited with bringing autism awareness into the mainstream. It also introduced many to the concept of counting cards in blackjack (albeit not in an entirely accurate manner).

An action-shot from the film Rain Man
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Nearly 30 years later, most people now know (or know of) at least one person with autism. Even still, because of that film and others about people with autism having superhuman math skills, many correlate having one with the other.

But movies and prime-time TV segments aside, the idea that having one of these conditions automatically makes someone a card shark is mostly a bluff.

Can Autism Make Someone a Better Card Player?

The symptoms of autism span a very large spectrum, but a few specific ones have led to the misconception that those with the disorder are automatically talented at playing cards.

The typical symptoms of autism
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Mostly, this belief comes from autistic behaviors like an unusually intent focus on certain pieces of a system (e.g., cards in a blackjack shoe or ones that are revealed during a round of poker). Other symptoms that might make a person with autism better than average at cards include a preference for routines (mental and physical), improved pattern recognition, and obsessive interest in something.

In at least one study, research has suggested that the unique brain patterns of those with autism help them process math problems better than their non-autistic peers.

On the other hand, other autism symptoms are many forms of communication difficulties which can make playing poker in-person extremely difficult. These include difficulty understanding cues from body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice as well as taking joking comments (common at a poker table) too literally. The inability to stop voicing internal thoughts is another, and would be a massive liability in most card games.

All Autism Is Different

Studies like these as well as society’s averseness to nuance can lead to many ignorant expectations on what a person with autism is capable of. Most probably realize that all individuals with autism are not card playing savants and that many are high-functioning enough to live a seemingly ‘normal’ life.

A woman talking at an event surrounding autism
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Of modern media’s portrayals (including Rain Man and Abed Nadir’s character in Community) of those with autism, Jolanta Lasota, chief executive of the charity Ambitious about Autism, says that “Anything that helps to increase awareness about autism is to be welcomed, but it has to be balanced by portraying people on different parts of the spectrum. As the saying goes, ‘If you’ve met one person with autism…you’ve met one person with autism.’ No two people are alike.”

Card Players with Autism Disorders

Despite the stereotype, there aren’t really any known (or at least publicized) cases of someone with an autism disorder being a pro-level player at poker, blackjack, or similar.

poker players Daniel Cates
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For a while, rumors were abound that poker pro Daniel Cates (known as jungleman12 in online play) had autism. In 2015, Cates was involved in an incident where he threw chips and swore at an opponent after being knocked out of a tournament.

Similar encounters, Cates’ ‘distant’ manner of speaking that is often void of much eye contact, and what he describes as a lonely and aloof childhood,have led many on poker message boards to speculate that the two-time World Poker Tour money finisher has autism.

Others disagree with this diagnosis, citing that Cates has many varied interests besides poker, does seem to have a filter on his thoughts in interview, and doesn’t verbalize his internal monologue. Autism specialists, however, would probably call both arguments overly-simplistic.

Daniel Tammet is a well known autistic savant
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One certified savant that has tested their mental talents and deficits in card playing is Daniel Tammet.

A World Memory Championship finalist that has also accurately recited pi to 22,514 digits, the Englishman decided to try his hand at blackjack while being filmed for a 2006 documentary about him called The Boy With The Incredible Brain. Despite his previous mental feats, Tammet was frustrated trying to count cards according to his own system.

After giving it up and relying on his own system, he played much better, even splitting one of his hands twice for a big win.

In many ways, how autism expresses itself is random. According to a Telegraph interview for instance, Tammet can, “raise a number to any power but…is no good with square roots, or algebra, which substitutes letters for unknowns and therefore makes no sense to him. He also has difficulty putting on a DVD and calling a taxi.”

Thus, it’s fair to say that those without autism are just as likely (if not more so) to possess super-natural card playing ability as persons with autism are. As the number of autism diagnoses continues to increase, expect more and more people to finally start understanding that the disorder is not some sort of superpower.