Since the explosion of poker after the turn of the century, there are many that have tried to categorise poker as a ‘sport’.
Certainly, those involved with televising poker, especially the WPT, have been the most prominent in promoting poker as a sport. Even though I was with the WPT for 15 years, my feelings regarding poker as a sport are pretty much similar to Vince Van Patten, my co-commentator on the WPT all those years.
Vince has played poker all his life and was a professional tennis player for 10 years, reaching the top 25 in the world. Obviously, if there were such a thing, he would qualify as an ‘expert witness’ on the subject. Vince simply says, “If it’s not physical, it’s not a sport.” (Some would argue – and they have a point, especially people my age – that it is physical if you play 10-12 hour days in multiple day events.)
Steve Lipscomb was the creator/founder of the World Poker Tour. Before the show found a home on the Travel Channel, he went to all the major networks preaching to them that he had the newest TV sensation, the newest ‘sport’ on TV – poker. Poker certainly has similarities to most sports – risk, reward, psychological warfare, performing under pressure, and intense competition. It’s also proven that it can draw large ratings on TV, more than a good number of existing sports. That’s because poker, whether you consider it a sport or not, is riveting TV. It’s reality TV at it’s finest. The drama, emotion, and reactions of the participants are real. It’s people who put up their own money to play and, in a number of cases, the turn of a card could determine whether or not they win life-changing money! That’s exciting! And the best part – the viewers live vicariously through the players. They’re sitting at home saying, “Damn. I can play better than him. I should be there playing for a million dollars!” Gotta love it!
No sports is more mentally demanding than poker
One thing I do believe is that there is no sport more mentally demanding than poker. None. The mental toughness you have to have to be a tournament regular is hard to describe. You can play perfect poker, get outdrawn, and ‘bam’, you’ve wasted your time and money. That’s tough to take. You could also make a crucial error at the wrong time and you’re out – tapioca pudding. To most players, that’s even worse than having bad luck because you continue to beat yourself up for your mistake(s). In poker, I like to say, “You can’t control the luck factor but you can control how you react to it.” That’s easier said than done. (Incidentally, I believe poker has the perfect combination of luck and skill to make it the great game it is – where in a given hand, session, or tournament, anyone can win.) Many say you’re supposed to feel OK if you played well but just got unlucky. That sounds good, but when you get unlucky several tournaments in a row, it’s really tough to take as you’re out entry fees, hotel, food, and travel expenses as well as being morally depressed.
I have the utmost respect for all professional athletes, especially tennis players and golfers, and certainly, for poker players.
I believe the stress on a poker pro is more than that of a pro athlete. That’s because poker pro’s don’t get salaries. They put up their own money to play! If poker players don’t cash (and at least 80% don’t in tournaments), they’re out a portion of their bankroll, and a bankroll only goes so far. IMHO, dealing with pressure to win, the real possibility that you can go to work all day or all week and come home with less money than you started with, creates stress for a poker pro that far surpasses that of pro athlete. If a pro athlete’s team loses, they still get paid. Pro tennis players and golfers are most similar to poker players because if they don’t perform, like poker pro’s, they get zippity-do-dah! I have the utmost respect for all professional athletes, especially tennis players and golfers, and certainly, for poker players.
Many great poker players were good athletes prior to entering the poker world, including our very own Team partypoker members Boris Becker and Carl Froch. That’s where they garnered their competitive spirit which most likely led them to poker. I look back at poker legends like Doyle Brunson, Amarillo Slim, and Puggy Pearson and I can tell you, they were all superb athletes. Many players over the years like Huck Seed were heavy into high school or college sports and later became world class poker players.
Today, I see a number of retired pro athletes taking up poker on a serious level. Richard Seymour (3-time Super Bowl champion for the New England Patriots) loves tournament poker is a regular on tour today. Great athletes like Ronaldo, and Usain Bolt have been signed as ambassadors for online sites. Others like basketball star Paul Pierce, baseball icon A-Rod, tennis stars Yevgeny Kafelnikov, James Blake, and Pete Sampras, as well a number of others prefer cash games (high stakes) to tournaments. And all these guys play pretty good! The point is that many ex-athletes love poker because it continues to fuel their competitive juices. It’s also something they can do the rest of their lives.
Some people are campaigning for poker to become an Olympic sport. I don’t see it. Too many decision makers would consider it a ‘game’ rather than a sport, meaning you could win purely on luck (at least in their eyes). Truthfully, you could pull anyone off the street and they ‘could’ win a gold medal in poker. Olympic purists would not welcome poker for that reason. Can you blame them? If they were selecting a card game, I believe bridge should/would have a better shot of getting in the Olympics than poker due to a far less luck factor. I do recognise, however, that there would be no comparison to the viewing audience between the two. Poker would win hands down. That fact alone could/would be a reason to put poker at the front of the line if/when it ever comes to consideration.
Rather than sport, I put poker in the ‘games’ category.
Rather than sport, I put poker in the ‘games’ category. Backgammon, like poker, is also a combination of luck and skill. (But for the record, recreational players would have a far better chance to beat the top 100 poker players in the world than the top 100 backgammon players.) Most consider chess a game of strictly skill. That’s true. It’s mostly non-competitive in that the best players almost always win. Unlike poker, average Joe has no shot against Grand Masters. You have to be super intelligent to play chess at the top level, thus eliminating interest for most people. All games have different skill levels.
“The Moneymaker Effect”
The beauty poker has over all other games is that “anyone can win”. Remember how poker took off when an accountant from Tennessee, Chris Moneymaker, won the main event of the WSOP in 2003 – and did it by parlaying a $40 online satellite into multi-millions? His win was fantastic for poker. He was the every man and most players were thinking, “If he can do it, I can do it.” As an industry, we need to embrace that. I’ve always said the best thing that could happen to the poker world would be a woman winning the main event of the WSOP.
Main stream media would do stories on and about poker. She would be on every talk show, get numerous endorsements, a book deal, and I’ll bet a movie would be made about her life. A woman winning could literally bring hundreds of thousands of new women into poker. In my mind, nothing would bring more publicity to poker. Girls, you really do have a huge overlay to guys playing the main event (and more reason to play). Good luck! I’m pulling for you!
Vince would say, “Games are not physical, thus shouldn’t be considered sport.” My suggestion, whether or not you consider poker a sport: Before we campaign to get poker in the Olympics, how about we first get it legalised around the world – starting with the U.S.!
September 1947 – September 2020