It comes down to skill
To determine if poker is in fact a legitimate sport, what exactly makes a sport needs to be defined.
Is bowling a sport? Is cheerleading a sport? Is golf a sport? Is NASCAR a sport? Does Anna Kournikova look good in a tennis skirt? Does she play a sport?
What makes poker different from the hockeys, basketballs and footballs of the world?
The obvious answer is because competitors don’t run around and sweat. But do you have to be involved in physical activity to justify what you’re doing as a sport?
The next question is why do we watch sports? People watch sports because they are fans of the players or teams, because their fathers or uncles or friends do and some watch sports just to piss off their girlfriends.
But if you only had one answer as to why you watch sports, what would you say?
The truth is we watch sports for the same reasons we watch low brow reality shows — because we love the drama and the epic storylines.
There’s something magical about watching Michael Jordan catch the mesh over top of Byron Russels’ head in the NBA finals or watching Sydney Crosby bang home the gold medal winner against the Americans or watching the hometown favourite Roughriders fight through overtime to squeak by the B.C. Lions.
So, if these are the real reasons then what makes poker so different?
What can be more dramatic than watching Tom Dwan three-bet Phil Ivey in a pot worth half a million dollars? Or watching professional poker player Joe Cada shove all in with pocket nines to take home the World Series of Poker title? Or how about Daniel Negreanu reading the minds of poor opponents and calling out their cards before they even place a bet?
The biggest difference is that a professional poker player is not as athletic as the traditional sports player, but perhaps the comparison should be applied to that of a head coach instead of a player.
A poker player is constantly making tough decisions and planning a strategic advantage over an opponent, similar to a head coach. Like a coach, a poker player attempts to gain the edge over their opponent by using their mind as opposed to their athleticism to accomplish this task.
Poker has the strategy, it has the drama, the applied skill, the televised coverage, the superstars and the fans.
The question remains, is poker a legitimate athletic activity? I say yes.
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Where’s the physicality?
Let’s face it, gambling is fun — unless you have an addictive habit or it’s prohibited by your religion.
Tossing around some poker chips with friends over drinks is a primitive ritual guarded jealously by the modern male.
Yet poker remains a high-stakes card game and not an athletic endeavour, something television and to some degree, the Internet, have been claiming it as. Prior to poker becoming a televised spectacle, most people would not have considered it a sport. Sports channels’ increased broadcasting of the card game has surely fueled the inferno that is poker’s identity crisis.
A pastime, a hobby, a gambling outlet, a card game — call poker what you want, but it’s not a sport.
Dodgeball, curling, ultimate Frisbee, snowball fights, even cheese wheel rolling competitions — all of these obscure athletic activities require an exertion of effort and are sweat-inducing activities. If you’re not sweating, it’s not a sport. And no, perspiring at the poker table because of the TV crew’s warm lights doesn’t count.
Physicality is an essential element of sports, a potent ingredient of athleticism that can be traced back centuries. The Romans had their gladiators, chariots and enormous sporting coliseums. The Mayans had varying versions of sacrificial sports which required throwing decapitated human heads through small rings. Would such ancient civilizations view poker as a sport? Likely not. They would burn your cards, take your money and enslave you for a lifetime of servitude.
With the exception of celebrity poker tournaments, the jacks and kings of the card deck are often more physically sculpted than the actual people playing poker. Unless you’re a NASCAR driver, a sport that solely revolves around sitting on your buttocks is not a sport. Employing a duck-duck-goose approach is surely the only path televised poker could take to become more of a sport.
The level of skill needed to play poker and the extensive amount of practice required to become an effective player is baffling; however, it’s unfair to group poker alongside sports like hockey, football, baseball and basketball. Players who make it in these worldwide sporting markets deserve to be there.
From a young age, excessive physical conditioning, insane amounts of pressure and performing on the road are the hurdles that compose the essence of athletic development. Such barriers are not prevalent or are non-existent in the development of a poker player —with the exception of travelling.
Despite poker’s illegitimacy as a sport, it is a skilled trade that is not always about luck. Gambling a few hundred thousand dollars on a single hand takes balls and is a risk most people aren’t willing to take. Gambling such lucrative amounts of money is romanticized, but if that’s the aspect that gets televised poker fans hot and bothered why not subscribe to Bill Gates or Donald Trump’s Twitter account?
I’m not saying poker shouldn’t be televised either — that’s all fine and dandy, but it should be televised on the Game Show Network, not TSN, ESPN, Sportsnet and the rest; doing so would eliminate the countless misconceptions branding poker as a legitimate sport. The only valid reason as to why poker has wiggled its way onto such networks and become as popular as it has, is the colossal amount of money sunk into such tournaments.
And yes, poker has its fans. However, fans do not legitimize what is and what is not defined as a sport. Ferrari sports cars, unicorns and Hugh Heffner also have fans — yet they are the furthest away from what qualifies as a sport. Like poker, these things merely appear on TV. Fandom is an ineffective and ambiguous term in analyzing the validity of poker as a sport.
And what’s the deal with the sunglasses these poker players wear? I understand poker players need to deceive their opponents, but this trend has bordered on just plain tacky. They’re not even fashionable sunglasses! When these so-called poker athletes you see on TV begin to resemble the crew of Dog the Bounty Hunter there is something horribly wrong. I’m just waiting for one of those televised poker players to bust out some bear mace, leap across the playing table and inform an opponent that there is a warrant out for their arrest.
No, I don’t consider myself a high priest of what determines a sport, but when it comes to televised poker, such a spectacle is an industry-wide blemish on the trade of sports broadcasting.