What’s In a Game?

What’s In  a Game?

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Nick Wealthall on why poker isn't a sport.

Poker is the greatest game ever invented, but it’s not a sport. Individuals, poker-based companies and online poker sites have all tried to promote it as a sport, and they’re still doing so. They’re wrong, misguided and the notion of poker as a sport is dangerous for the future of the game. I’ll tell you why, but as an experiment, let’s investigate. People want to ‘sportify’ poker, so what if they’re right?

The dictionary defines a sport as ‘An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment’.

There’s some physical exertion if you count the ability to stay awake for a really long time, or the ability to endure your opponent’s body odour. But sitting down is a bit of a reach for the concept of exertion, isn’t it?

We all know that poker is a game of skill. Many of us have been shouting “It’s a game of skill!” at legislators across the globe because, pretty reasonably, we’d quite like it to be okay to play a game of cards. If poker is a game of skill, it can be a sport. Right?

The problem with the eternal question as to whether the game we love is one of skill or luck is impossible to resolve. To be fair, that’s not entirely surprising. By their own definition, eternal questions have a habit of hanging around forever. Some questions will always go truly unanswered, such as the chicken and the egg problem, whether it’s better to have loved and lost, or how Justin Bieber was ever allowed to happen.

Go to England and poker is a game of chance which you need a gaming license to spread. Go to California and it’s a game of skill that is taxable income. Go online and … well, no-one knows! The confusion arises because poker is both skill and luck at the same time.

Over the long run, poker is a game of skill. If a professional plays a beginner over and over again, the professional will get all the money. But in the short term, anyone can win. In fact, in a heads up game with rising blinds, someone who doesn’t even know the rules can win 35% of the time just by shoving all in every hand. That’s not a sport.

If I played Roger Federer at tennis, there would be no way for me to win 35% of the time. There wouldn’t even be a way to win 0.35% of the time; Federer has what I have to admit is a tiny amount more skill than I do at playing tennis.

Now, of course, there is unpredictability and luck in sport but generally, that exists between players or teams of a similar level. There’s almost no situation where an amateur sportsman can play a top professional and hope to win. In poker, however, they can and they can do it more than once.

Poker isn’t a straight-up gamble, either. It is a unique blend of luck and skill. In fact, poker is the most perfect game there is and the most fun you can have legally with your clothes on. Believe me, I have researched this extensively.

Let’s imagine we’re having a conversation with an influential person in poker who wants to sell poker as a ‘mindsport’. Their reasons for wanting to do this are no doubt positive; they want poker to be seen as respectable and legitimate, but they are wrong.

There are two problems. The first is that players have to believe they can win. Unless the poker enthusiast who plays once or twice a week or enters a couple of big tournaments a year feel like they have a shot, they’re not going to play. The dumbest marketing slogan in poker history was surely Full Tilt’s ‘Play with the professionals’. Sorry, why would I want to do that again? That’s like advertising a boxing gym by saying “Come and spar with Mike Tyson. Don’t worry; he’ll be trying his best to beat you up.” I’m fine, thanks.

I’m not talking about deceiving people because, in the short run, anyone does have a shot, and most poker enthusiasts will take time to reach the long run. The second problem, however, is more fundamental. Poker is fun and it should be promoted as such. When players buy into a tournament or cash game, more than anything, they want an entertaining experience. They want fun. What’s not fun is being told that you have no chance because poker is a sport and you’re not a professional at it, before having your brain beaten in by a bunch of incommunicative professionals who take all your money. If I wanted that experience, I’d apply for a small business loan.

If poker constantly promotes the elite, ranks players and forgets the grass roots of the game, it will become chess. Chess is an amazing game but most people don’t see it as fun to play (except Strip Chess™ of course, but I’m still working on getting that more widely accepted – watch this space). They certainly wouldn’t play it for money if they knew someone was better than them.

For some, poker is recreation and entertainment, while for others it’s the ultimate test of their intellect and a regular income. The only thing poker is for everyone is a perfectly unique and adaptable game. Instead of this chronic insecurity that demands that we turn it into something it isn’t, let’s just celebrate it for what poker really is, because that’s what got poker to where it is today. And do you know something? That’s what will take it further.

Tags: Nick Wealthall, columnists, mind sports