In the high-stakes world of poker, fitness is often the last thing of focus when there are six-figure buy ins and the emotional toll that comes when million-dollar pots are on the line. Dan Cates is hoping to help change that through what speaks to all involved in the poker world: competition.

Dan Cates recently won the Poker Players Championship title in July, making him the first player in history to win it in back-to-back years. The Maryland native and fellow poker player Bertrand Grospellier have engaged in a series of fitness bets over the years with the sole focus on finishing the competitions better than when they started. The winnings of these bets are merely the cherry on top for Cates as he wants to begin involving more of his fellow poker players to take part in these high-stake bets to help everyone look and feel their best. Cates and Grospellier’s current bet is getting down to 12 percent body fat in six months with the stakes being 8 Bitcoin, which currently equals almost $190,000.

Dan Cates shared the story behind his current gym staples with Muscle and Fitness. We also spoke with him about how he hopes he can use competition to inspire other players to get in better shape and why the earnings of these bets means less than the results from them.

World Poker Championship poker player Dan Cates thinking about his gym bag
Dan Cates

How did the idea behind this fitness bet come to be?

Neither me or ElkY [Grospellier] is very athletic and we wanted to make bets to motivate ourselves to be in better shape. Some of our past bets included who can do the most pushups. longest planks and who can run the fastest uphill mile? Both me and ElkY also have very complicated lives. I’m traveling all the time and doing a lot of things. We’re trying to use competition to get us to work toward a greater good — to get in better shape. We want to use it to inspire the poker world to get in better shape. The poker world is not renowned for being in great shape. Almost no one in the poker world is in great shape and if you see a table of poker players, it’s not a picturesque site unless you have a certain kind of taste (laughs).

The previous competition wasn’t aligned to get in the kind of shape we wanted. We’re thinking about adding some other goals in addition to getting to 12 percent body fat. I think that’s about where I would look the best and it’s maintainable. Neither of us are in it for the money and we’re just trying to make a bet that leads to us becoming better versions or ourselves. Me and ElkY found that we really pushed ourselves during competition day. When it comes to pushing yourself for health, it’s not nearly as powerful as using competition as an incentive. We’re using competition to be aligned towards the greater good.


With the travel that’s involved in your schedule, what things have you had to change from a dietary standpoint?

As far as changing the diet, I found I really struggled with changing it a lot and I’ve made all sorts of mistakes. I think there’s some barrier of sorts for people to shift their diet with a certain degree of speed. If you’re used to eating junk food all the time, it’s generally going to be tough to go from that to eating really health. I’ve toyed with change in my diet in all sorts of ways and I’ve made mistakes like eating hummus way too much. I love hummus and unfortunately, I have to kick that. I thought I was ok, and I didn’t really lose weight during the last challenge and now I know not to do that.

Intermittent fasting worked really well and it’s sustainable. It’s really important to find something that’s sustainable and not too miserable. There’s a physiological term for creating an environment that nudges you in the right direction toward success. When you’re at home, you don’t want to surround yourself with a ton of junk food. I’ve been getting the [meal kits] sent to my home. One of my mistakes in the past was making things too complicated. I’ll have some sushi but I’m running things by people to make sure I’m on track. I’ll have small pieces of candy, a protein bar and you really have to cut out all the bullshit and keep things boring. Ideally, it’s best to stick with the prepared foods and make sure to eat in a specific window.


Why was bitcoin the currency used for the bet?

We wanted to add an extra element of gambling to the picture. Last time we bet when Bitcoin was about $6,000 and it ended up being like $40,000 and that makes things a lot more interesting. We’re hoping that bitcoin goes up and adding a little extra sweat.


I know it applies in other sports, but can what you eat the night before affect how you perform in poker?

There is some data that suggests that it does. It’s really hard to say because it’s hard to be aware of your mental condition and the quality of your decisions compared to when you’re feeling tired. I can tell you firsthand that lack of sleep definitely hurts my game. The percentage wouldn’t be super high but it’s an edge. I would say it gives an edge of about 10-20 percent is my guess. I think the diet helps for people who tend to be less in their heads like we are. The less someone is in their head, the more it will help them. I’m in my head a lot and that helps me concentrate despite what my body might feel.


With playing in such high-stake games, Is there a way to compartmentalize the stress and anxiety that come with each move you make?

It is possible to get to a state of mind where that level of stress is painless, or it no longer affects you. It can be compared to as you continue progressing in weightlifting. It becomes not really a big deal after a while. The crazy extreme of that is known is as Nirvana or moksha in the Hindu religion. You’ll read about some of these guys, and someone will have their arm chopped off and they don’t respond, period. Losing large amount of money in poker, at some level, is a little bit of an illusion. I’m pretty good at dealing with it but I’m not perfect. If there was some probability that you’re going to lose 300K one day, well that was just part of the grand picture in the first place. A really great place to get to in life is Nirvana, where no matter what happens, you see it as part of the grand picture.

Pleasure and pain are related to one another, and one can’t exist without the other. I wouldn’t say that I emotionally see that totally but that’s essentially the grand goal of yoga and those sorts of practices. Surprisingly enough, yoga and meditation have been the most effective things in dealing with this short term for me. In the longer term, what effects it a lot is a bit related. For example, if all my emotional currency is invested in how well I do in poker, If I do really bad, my emotional stock is going to drop. The longer-term solution that makes things easier along with meditation is investing more in the moment. Poker is a very toxic relationship for you to have if you’re invested in how well it’s going to put out one day because it doesn’t always put out.


Do you see these bets leading to a permanent shift in your lifestyle?

I want to make it an adaption for a lifetime. I want to build up more muscle so I can eat liberally. I don’t really want to give up the snacks totally. I want to look good all the time. One thing I’ve learned is that you can’t get the great look easily – at least, that’s been my experience. I’ve had to work my ass off and I’ve made mistakes along the way. There’s really a lot of discipline that goes into it and I’m becoming better at that part.