Posted by Ross Jarvis, February 4, 2015
Ever since the first hand of poker was dealt in New Orleans in 1829 it’s been called many things. The most popular label is that poker is ‘a game’ but others have called it entertainment, a mind game and, in the midst of a bad run, words not fit for children too! But, more and more these days you see poker described as something entirely different - a sport.
The movement to define poker as a sport is spearheaded by Alex Dreyfus, CEO of the Global Poker Index (GPI), who is on a mission to ‘Sportify Poker.’ Dreyfus is attempting to take poker into the mainstream sports realm by hosting lavish awards ceremonies, and devising poker leagues and events that only invite the best players. Yet how can something that involves almost zero physical activity be placed on the same pedestal as soccer, tennis and athletics in the world of sport?
Poker doesn’t appear to be a sport, but the Collins English Dictionary casts some doubt with their definition of the word: [A sport is] ‘an individual or group activity pursued for exercise or pleasure, often involving the testing of physical capabilities and taking the form of a competitive game.’ Going by that, poker does fit some of the criteria, but only if you’re a lenient judge. However, when relatively static pastimes such as darts and pool are officially recognised as sports it makes the case for poker much stronger. After all, there can’t be that much difference physically between throwing darts at a board and moving all-in…
Many of today’s top poker players certainly look like athletes, and have training regimens that wouldn’t be out of place in the NFL, UFC or Premier League. Jason Koon, Patrik Antonius and Liv Boeree have all honed their bodies like sportsmen but that doesn’t necessarily make poker a sport either. There are just as many overweight, cigar-chomping players making it to the deep end of a marathon poker tournament as there are those sporting six-packs and 24-inch pythons for arms. Fitness is not a necessity to play poker well. The same couldn’t be said – except for an occasional anomaly – in the majority of popular mainstream sports. However, there is a growing trend for players in poker’s top echelon now to pay as much attention to their body as they do their mind. Growing evidence from sports coaches such as Jared Tendler, author of The Mental Game of Poker, alleges that the fitter your body is the longer your mind can operate at its optimal level. This could be priceless on day four of a high-stakes poker tournament where every tiny decision can have huge ramifications. Perhaps it’s not the GPI that is leading the charge for poker to be labelled a sport, but the players themselves.
For years, poker has existed and thrived while being labelled a game. So, it it a game or sport? And why is there a sudden movement now to turn it into a sport? One major motivation has to be perception and, alongside that, money. The World Series of Poker is already screened by US juggernaut ESPN (‘Worldwide Leaders in Sports’) and TV products that are labelled sports are attracting huge audiences and enormous guaranteed rights fees that are only rising year on year. The mentality is that viewers nowadays record most of their programmes and watch them at a later date – fast-forwarding through the precious adverts – but like to view sports show live. Capturing that live audience leads to more advertising dollars spent, and a higher price for content like the WSOP can provide. There’s no doubt that the GPI, and their upcoming 2015 TV shows, want a piece of this pie. It’s no longer good enough to be a hit niche show on the Travel Channel – like the fledgling World Poker Tour was in 2003 – now poker operators want to be lumped in alongside mainstream sports in primetime hours.
It’s unclear how a regular slot on a channel like ESPN (original poker tournaments are currently only screened during a few weeks in the summer) would go down with the general public. In a recent survey on reddit,460 people ranked 53 different activities with the question, ‘Is it a sport?’ Poker came dead last, behind chess, cheerleading and competitive eating. When stuffing hot dogs in your mouth is considered a more prestigious sporting achievement than winning a gold bracelet, you know it’s going to be an uphill struggle.
The unfortunate answer is that poker falls short of being easily defined. Some of its characteristics would suggest that poker is a sport, but it has even more in common with games such as Monopoly or Roshambo. Some would ask how can poker be a sport when it is gambling – but in truth the majority of games combine elements of skill and luck. For example, in American Football the luck of the coin toss or a referee’s call can realty influence the outcome of a match. Poker is neither skill or luck, it’s a combination of the two where the best players will win over a long enough period of time.
Whether that’s enough to make poker as a sport equal to other sports is up for debate, however, the very fact that poker is even being considered a sport goes to show how much the image of the game (sorry…) has changed in a short period of time. Just over a decade ago, the general consensus of poker was that it was a game played in smoke-filled saloons or casinos by men who couldn’t get a real job.
Thanks to the efforts of online poker, slick TV shows and aspirational superstars, poker is now legitimised and more people than ever before have been dealt in.
Personally, despite the steps it has taken, poker is not a sport in my eyes – and I don’t think it ever will be. But that’s not a bad thing. Poker is compelling, exciting and offers players the opportunity to win money that most other pastimes don’t. That’s all you need, and arguing about how it is labelled is more an exercise in marketing than anything else. As long as our beautiful game is left alone the way it is, you can call it whatever you like.
Ross Jarvis is a 29-year-old professional poker player and journalist living in London, England. He has worked for numerous poker magazines and also presents a live poker TV show on Sky television. Jarvis specialises in playing online cash games at any stakes up to $5/$10 and is a regular on the UK poker circuit. He also enjoys drinking craft beer and watching grown men beat each other up in the UFC.
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