Some sports like soccer, basketball, tennis, and boxing are undisputedly sports. The physicality and skill required are enough to ensure that they are safely considered by all sporting communities as such. However, there’s a trickle of sports that don’t enjoy the same safety as their sporting attributes are often challenged. Poker sits alongside snooker, chess, and darts with debated sporting status. Generally speaking, when we think of poker in the modern era it’s online play on things like US poker sites rather than in-person, so let’s assess why and why not poker should be seen as a sport.
Sports broadcasting deals
Flick through your local sports channels or platform listings. When you’ve done it for enough time you’ll find something which might not be classically considered to be a sport. The fact is that sports broadcasting companies show a wealth of different sporting rights in order to attract and retain customers. The World Series of Poker enjoys a decent amount of viewership on both ESPN and CBS sports. If it held no sporting value then these channels wouldn’t carry coverage of it, therefore indicating that poker holds integrity as a sport.
Another factor adding to poker’s cause to be considered as a sport is the level of skill required. While yes, anyone can pick up a deck of 52 cards and start playing, the level of success may be in doubt. This has a direct correlation with any newbie handling a tennis racket, soccer ball, or a pair of boxing gloves for the very first time. It takes time and dedication to gain the necessary skills to actually succeed at the practice, even if the 10,000-hour rule has been proven to be a myth for mastering a sport, it does take time to really get to grips with poker.
While the skills needed to be successful at poker might differ from other conventional sports (i.e. not needing vigorous amounts of cardio) it will still take a decent amount of effort from the participants. It’s this dedication to get better at it which should be applauded and moves it closer to being a sport. The dedication to learning all the in-game situations, probabilities, and how to react to other players at the table most certainly requires skill.
Lack of physicality
For a moment think about the most popular sports. Soccer fixtures 22 players all running about a pitch for 90 minutes. Tennis is two people moving around a court for an extended period of time swinging a racket with a lot of velocity. Basketball is a fast-paced game where the participants are going full pelt trying to navigate a rubber ball into a net. In all of these sports, there’s a certain amount of cardiovascular resolve needed. Poker doesn’t have this at all, the players are all sat down at their table or at home playing on these trending US poker sites, burning almost no calories per hour. It’s this disparity which causes some people to thrust poker into the non-sport category.
The disparity only gets larger when you consider that other sports are so physical that they require protective equipment to play. Ice hockey and American football for example are at odds with poker as there is a high probability to get injured, while poker records no injuries. Well, maybe a paper cut or two.
Of course, there is a debate that if you exclude poker as a sport because of this there is chess, darts, and snooker also have very little physical nature to them. These sports all enjoy decent TV deals across different broadcasters, so why can’t poker be a sport by the same metric? It also begs the question: does a sport need to be physical?
Dependency on luck and uncontrollable assets
Poker is a game of wild variation and how you react to it. However one of the primary mechanics of poker is that the cards come up without any control of the participants. This can be considered to be an over-reliance on luck-based elements. While even physical sports can feature luck-based events like favourable decisions from the officials or mistakes from the opponent, it’s not like poker. After all, the whole narrative of a poker hand is not controlled by the participants, moreover it is a result of the dealer’s random allocation.
Ardent poker players and fans would argue that this is negated by the skills it takes to deal with each hand as it comes. That bluffing, raising, and folding (reacting to every hand suitably) make up for the randomly assigned qualities and entities within the game. However, this is up for debate among the wider sporting world.
Athlete and Olympic status
When you consider your favourite sports stars, they are often considered to be athletes as well as professionals in their fields. Lionel Messi is a footballer and an athlete. Belinda Bencic is a tennis player, an athlete, and an Olympian too. Belinda even won the Gold Medal at Tokyo 2020. These people are physically fit and command those titles. While poker players can have the same sort of athletic physique, it is not a requirement. Shaun Deeb, while beautiful in his own way, does not possess a classically athletic body.
That brings us nicely to the Olympics. The quadrennial celebration of sports is often a good barometer as to whether something is a sport. Overall there are 40 distinct sports played at both the summer and winter games. Poker doesn’t feature in either which would lead people to think it is not a sport. However, the aforementioned other outliers like darts, chess, and snooker also do not feature.
If not a sport, what is it?
By now you’ll probably have a view on what poker is. If you’ve concluded that it’s not a sport at all, that’s fine. However, what are you going to categorise it as? Labelling it as a competitive hobby seems a little short-sighted. Although, the phrase ‘competitive game’ might be more befitting if not a little long-winded.
Of course, if you downgrade poker to a non-sport moniker, that infamous trio of other sports would probably deserve to be sent down to that tier as well. In conclusion, the definition of what is and what isn’t a sport is a minefield when it comes to poker. However, it’s not nearly as confusing as something like professional wrestling…