By the turn of the 21st Century, poker games blew out of proportion, with events like the WSOP being streamed worldwide. But even with more people understanding the game, it can be challenging to classify poker. Is it a sport, a hobby, or just plain gambling?
Poker is really a sport as it requires significant skill and is played competitively. While poker games may seem stationary, they reflect many of the elements that define competitive sports.
In this article, we’ll further explore how poker is similar to a sport and why it should be classified as one.
Why Poker Is a Sport
Those without any knowledge of the game tend to write poker off as a game of luck and gambling, played in the hope that someone will win money in the end. These people don’t understand enough about poker to make a sound judgment.
While poker can be a hobby (like playing soccer on the weekends), it’s best classified as a sport. It would be unfair to reduce such a complex and exciting match to a mere game of luck or a hobby to be indulged in when one feels like gambling.
To understand how poker is a sport, we need to look at the elements that define sports. By examining these elements, we can find similarities, making it clear that poker is more than just a hobby.
Sports Require Skill
Sports involve learning and developing skills to improve your game, and poker is no different. It’s easy to prove that poker requires skill since you’ll notice the same players at the final tables in tournaments because, typically, they’re better than the other competing players.
Plus, playing at the highest stake takes remarkable skill. Players must be able to read hands, count probability, learn the opponent’s style of play, and make quick decisions based on limited information.
It can be challenging to see the aspect of skill involved in poker. For example, you might see a player make a good decision but end up losing the pot. In contrast, some players make terrible decisions and end up winning the hand due to luck.
And while there’s always room for error, players who consistently make better decisions tend to improve their game and win money in the long run.
You may say that the element of ‘luck’ takes away from the skill aspect of this game. However, if you look closely, luck plays a significant role in every other sport as well. Players with greater skill levels beat the odds more often, but the element of luck never entirely disappears.
Let’s take soccer, for example.
When a defender decides to pass the ball to a player out front, his skill level will determine how accurately he can transfer the ball to his teammate. In the defender’s mind, passing the ball a certain way is a calculated attempt at the best possible outcome.
However, a number of things could happen when he attempts the pass.
- An opponent may get in the way and steal the ball
- He may kick the ball an inch off the mark, causing it to go in a different trajectory
- A rival player may steal the ball from him while he tries to make the pass
These probabilities don’t take away from the fact that the pass still requires a certain level of skill and focus from the defender.
Similarly, in poker, a player tries to make the best decision based on the information he has.
Luck always plays a role, but as you play and gain experience, your skill level increases, and you can make better decisions, leading to better outcomes in the long run.
Just like chess, poker is also considered a sport. Similar things hold true for both. But did you know that poker is harder to master than chess? The best players in poker also make more money than chess players.
Sports Are Played for Entertainment
While sports require skill, discipline, and focus, people primarily engage in sports because it’s an entertaining way to spend their time.
Anyone who’s played enough poker (especially community games like Holdem and Omaha) knows how much fun Poker can be. Several aspects of the game provide fulfillment and make players want to come back for more.
While the term ‘entertainment’ differs between people, it could generally mean a sense of satisfaction we derive from engaging in an activity. Several aspects of poker require active engagement, making the game exciting while allowing you to test yourself.
- Figuring out your opponents’ hands. Poker involves trying to understand the cards your opponent is playing with, why they bet when they do, and what they’re expecting as the hand progresses. These elements make the game a puzzle that the player must fit together.
- Bluffing out an opponent. Bluffing is a technique used to make your opponent believe you have a stronger hand, and they should concede the round to you. While it requires significant skill to pull off a good bluff, the attempt is exciting and can be quite addictive as well.
- Winning the pot. Perhaps the most entertaining aspect of poker is the winning bit when you have the best cards at the table. Going all-in on the river and coming out on top can be just as exhilarating as running down a basketball court at break-neck speed.
Some may argue that poker is entertaining for those engaged in the game but not for those watching. However, tournaments like the WSOP have shown us to what extent people enjoy watching poker games.
The stadium is typically packed, especially during the final table, and the event is live-streamed by people all over the world. If you think about it, the skill, knowledge, and uncertainty involved create an exciting atmosphere for viewers to engage in while rooting for their favorite player.
Just like when people watch golf on TV to see someone win the championship, people watch poker tournaments to see their favorite player take home the cash prize. And to those who understand the intricacies of the game, poker can be extremely enjoyable to watch.
Sports Are Competitive by Nature
Competition is an essential element of any sport, and poker epitomizes this concept by allowing you to compete with up to eight other players (in Texas Holdem, at least). In gambling, the odds are typically in favor of the casino, or you’re playing against the dealer.
Each player has a pretty good shot at getting the winning cards. However, more importantly, your hand is meant to compete against the other players to determine a winner.
People typically engage in hobbies and games for fun or as leisure activities. And while you can play poker for fun, most people play to win real money or an attractive prize.
Aside from simply squaring off against other players, you also have to gauge their style of play, watch their actions, and develop strategies to beat your opponents. All these elements involve gaining an edge over the competition, which is what competing is all about.
Sports Require Discipline
The disciplinary aspect of poker is perhaps the most misunderstood because of its association with casinos or gambling arenas.
However, being successful at poker or even properly playing one game or tournament requires extraordinary discipline.
Professional players regularly spend hours learning the game and developing counter-strategies to certain moves. They buy into games that will elevate their skills and take them to the next level in their career.
Exceptional players take this a step further and work on their sleep, diet, and other aspects of life to ensure they’re playing their best game.
Aside from a disciplinary lifestyle, poker involves discipline while playing the game. Bad beats happen to even the best players, and they must retain the focus to bring themselves back to a neutral standpoint. They’ll make bad decisions without this rationality due to emotional tension.
Players must also be able to fold or sit out hands when they notice themselves slipping up or holding poor cards.
Sometimes it can be challenging to back out of a hand when you’ve already invested a certain amount. But the best players know that making the right decisions will improve their win rate in the long run. Making good decisions consistently takes significant discipline.
Sports Require Physical and Mental Fortitude
It can be tempting to dismiss poker as a card game requiring players to ‘sit’ for hours without any physical activity. From the outside, it might seem as though poker players need little to no fitness to play the game.
However, professional poker requires a certain kind of fitness, especially at the highest levels of competition. The term ‘grind’ is often used in poker, which means to sit for hours at a table and build your bankroll so you can play at a higher level.
Sitting through a marathon game lasting eight to ten hours requires immense physical stamina. Most players who typically lose at the later stages of a tournament get knocked out because they’re exhausted and begin to make bad decisions.
Staying physically fit is essential for a poker player to remain mentally alert after hours of tournament play.
The best part is that working out helps to build mental fortitude, which is an inextricable part of being a poker player.
Your mental endurance for the game will determine your wins and losses in the long run. You may be incredibly skilled and able to read opponents after only a few hands.
However, if your mental faculties start to tire after a few hours, you’re sure to make bad decisions and misplay your hands. With mental fortitude comes the ability to withstand the boredom that creeps in after playing for a few hours.
Mental fortitude also allows you to stand your ground when faced with aggressive bets or fold when you have a good hand, but the odds are stacked against you.
It’s crucial to mention that certain sports also require little physical exertion from some players. For example, cricket is classified as a sport, but most players are either standing on the turf or sitting on the sidelines.
But Isn’t Poker a Type of Gambling?
Poker is misconstrued as pure gambling as it is primarily played in live casinos or online platforms that offer other casino games. But by its very nature, poker is unlike games of chance like Roulette, Blackjack, or slot machines.
However, no matter how skilled you are, casino games are often played against the house and set up so the casino makes more money in the long run.
As discussed, poker is a game of skill, and if you’re consistent, you end up winning in the long run.
More importantly, every sport involves gambling to a considerable extent. As mentioned in the soccer example, players must make calculated guesses with incomplete information. While their skill plays a significant role, there’s an element of luck involved as well.
Let’s take a soccer goalkeeper during a penalty kick as another example. In most instances (especially pro-level games), the keeper dives in a direction that he ‘thinks’ the player will kick the ball.
This dive is based on incomplete information, and the keeper is taking a significant gamble to try and block the goal. Poker isn’t so different and involves several calculated guesses over the course of a hand.
More than the gambling aspect, people have an issue with the fact that there’s a buy-in involved in poker. The idea of spending money to play a sport makes some people uncomfortable.
Well, most sports at higher levels require up-front investments to play. Entering golf, soccer, football, hockey, and any other official sport requires an investment that goes towards the cash prize. How is this any different from poker?
In essence, poker is a sport that takes skill, patience, and regular training. It is easy to learn and hard to master. It would be straightforward to classify poker as another card game, and most people still do. However, the fact that some players repeatedly appear at the top level is evidence that poker is a sport requiring competence.
Most importantly, people associate sports with physical activities while sitting at a table for several hours does not count as one. However, without being fit and having physical strength, you can’t sit for so many hours at a table and stay alert.