If you happen to be involved with poker, be it as a player or just a fan, you probably know that the debate about whether poker is a proper sport has been going on for quite some time.
Despite valid arguments from both sides, there is no definite answer as of yet. The reason is rather simple, really. Poker is a sport, and it isn’t a sport at the same time.
I’m fully aware this sounds like something you’d write when you don’t really know what to say, but in this case it happens to be true. Poker contains many sport-like elements, but, at the same time, there are certain aspects to it that make it seem like anything but a sport. That’s why it is impossible to give a definitive answer and put an end to this debate once and for all.
The Pro Poker-as-a-Sport Argument
Let’s first look at sport-like aspects of poker. To do this, we first need to briefly define what sport is. One of the definitions defines a sport as an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others.
There are other definitions out there, but they mostly stick to these general principles. So, how does poker fit into that?
The skill aspect
First and foremost, poker most certainly involves a high level of skill. We won’t go into the skill vs. luck argument in this article, as it’s been scientifically proven that skill plays a significant role in poker, particularly in Texas Hold’em, the most popular game variation today. More skilled poker players regularly post better results, especially when observed over a large sample.
Identical tournament format
There is also the element of competition, especially in tournament poker. Players are pitched against each other relying on their skills to outlast the playing field. Some online-based poker websites even literally make teams out of players’ nationalities, not unlike a World Cup football match. Hence, poker competitions resemble any other sports tournament out there. As a tournament progresses, competitors are eliminated until there is just one man standing.
Arguments Against Poker as a Sport
Looking at the same definition there is a mention of „physical exertion,“ and this is where the most nay-sayers are coming from. Since poker doesn’t involve real physical effort, they say, it belongs more with mind games like chess than with proper traditional sports.
Lack of physical exertion
There is no denying that poker players spend most of their active time sitting at the tables or in front of their computer screens. While this can be uncomfortable as well, it can hardly be compared to levels of exertion suffered by professional athletes in sports like football, tennis, or any other officially recognized sport.
It’s all about the Benjamins
Some even argue the competitive element, or at least deny it the qualities present in other sports. The competition in poker is mostly fueled by money. A desire to win the big cash allocated for the first place finisher often outweighs the desire to prove one’s skills. This group believes that poker is tainted by money and as long as players have to put up their own cash to compete, it will never be a real sport.
The Luck Factor in Poker
Although skill outweighs luck, in the long run, the role of luck in poker can’t be denied. It is much more prominent than in most other sports. Everyone can have a bad day, but when there is significant skill difference between two players, the one more skillful will win in a vast majority of cases.
Short-term luck can be a game-changer
With poker, even a really bad player can catch a lucky streak of cards and beat even some of the best players – at least for a while. Things will even out in the long run, but sometimes, especially with tournament poker, the long run doesn’t really matter.
Catching a few good cards at the right moment can turn even a complete novice into a world champion. This just doesn’t happen in tennis, for example. A player can get lucky, in a way, and win a match or two, but if his skills are subpar, he will not win the entire tournament.
When Will the Debate End?
Will we ever have the definitive answer to is poker a sport question? Maybe one day, but some things will need to change for the general public to accept it as such.
Can luck be removed from poker?
The luck element would need to be reduced quite significantly, and that would change the game in its core. Some forms of poker, like the Duplicate Poker, try to remove the luck by having all players play the same hands and seeing who posts the best results. These poker tournaments resemble the game of bridge and are probably a better indicator of players’ skills. However, they aren’t without their faults either.
Does it really matter what we call the game?
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if poker is a sport or not. If you see it as a sport, then it is a sport to you (and vice versa). The odds are it will never be featured at the Olympics or any similar sporting tournament even if it is nominally accepted as a sport, so the whole debate doesn’t really have a meaningful conclusion.
Poker is and has always been a highly individual endeavor. As such, it will be to you whatever you want it to be. Whether it fits some rigid definition or not is immaterial. A sport or not, this is the game beloved and played by millions around the globe and that’s one thing not likely to change anytime soon. And that’s all that matters.