We all know that poker is a competitive game that relies on an element of skill, strategy, and good fortune. Had we replaced the word ‘poker’ with baseball, football, soccer, polo, or even archery, it's easy to see that the main characteristics of sport are in fact shared with the game of poker.

Aficionados of the game have long debated whether poker is a game, or a sport. Truth be told, rudimentary definitions will not suffice in this discussion. To unravel this great mystery, we must delve deeper into the intricacies of sport on the one hand, and poker on the other. We will examine where poker and sport overlap, and how best to craft an answer that is worthy of this in-depth analysis.

What is the Definition of a Sport?

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines sport as follows:

‘A physical activity engaged in for pleasure… A particular activity (such as an athletic game) so engaged in’

Dictionary.com defines sport in a robust way:

‘… An athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess… Racing, baseball, tennis, golf, bowling, wrestling, hunting and fishing.’

Cambridge Dictionary offers a more compelling definition:

‘… A game, competition, or similar activity, done for enjoyment or as a job that takes physical effort and skill and displayed or done by following particular rules.’

Each of these definitions offers unique descriptive elements about sports, and they each add valuable elements to their definitions of sport, notably: physical activity, competition, skill, and rules.

What is the Definition of Poker?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines poker as follows:

‘… Any of several card games in which a player bets that the value of his or her hand is greater than that of the hands held by others, in which each subsequent player must either equal or raise the bet or drop out, and in which the player holding the highest hand at the end of the betting wins the pot’

Dictionary.com defines poker in the following way:

‘… A card game played by two or more persons, in which the players bet on the value of their hands, the winner taking the pool.’

Cambridge Dictionary offers an interesting definition of poker:

‘… A game played with cards in which people try to win money from each other.’

Each definition differs slightly from the next, but they all have underlying similarities vis-a-vis poker being a game that requires players to bet on the strength of their hand. The objective of poker is to win money. At first glance, the definitions of poker and sport are at best loosely connected.

However, our examination is about to reveal that there is very little daylight between what constitutes a sport and what constitutes a game. Take your seat, get comfortable, we are about to provide answers for one of the most perplexing questions ever asked in the game of poker: Is poker a sport?

The Case against Poker: Why Opponents Refuse to Label It a Sport

Pick a sport, any sport you can think of. The first thing that probably comes to mind is the physical activity involved in playing sports. In fact, it doesn't much matter what sport is under the microscope – most every single one of them requires a degree of physical effort, endurance, stamina, dexterity, skill, and talent. This is true for horseracing, pole vaulting, gymnastics, skeet shooting, volleyball, soccer, cricket, baseball, et al.

Counter Argument – physical activity essentially refers to movement. Precisely how much movement depends on the type of game you're playing. For example, golf is a sport that requires movement, but not a whole lot. The golfer walks and carts from one hole to the next.

This is very different to boxing for 10 rounds, or 90 minutes of soccer where every player (including the goalkeeper) burns up a huge number of calories while defending and attacking from their positions. Some sports are regarded as so ‘sedentary’ that the physical component is barely noticeable. Snooker and pool are fine examples of sports with very little movement required other than walking around a table and using a pool cue.

The Case for Poker: Why Proponents Believe it Should Be Considered a Sport
In poker games, physical activity is largely overshadowed by the skill-based element at play. Yet despite this, there is tremendous preparation that goes into it. Poker players often sit and compete for hours at a time, requiring extensive mental acuity, skill, and staying power. The physical activity is there, albeit at a diminished capacity. Poker players at live events are required to move from one table to the next in MTTs. This level of physical activity is hardly sufficient to qualify poker as a sport, yet there are many other overlapping elements to consider.

All sports are contests where skill, talent, and psychology play a big part in how well you do against your opponents. By this definition, poker certainly qualifies as a sport. In poker, your ability to stay the course, lose battles and ultimately win the war is paramount. Much the same is true in sport. Not every play goes your way. However, by the time the final whistle blows, your ability to consistently outmaneuver your opponents and score a decisive victory will leave your opponents defeated at your hands, a fait accompli.

What Do Professional Poker Players Believe: Is Poker an Olympic Sport?

Dan O’Callaghan is a professional poker player. That is to say he plays poker for money and makes a living from his poker playing abilities. This story is already well documented in the 888poker eMagazine, so we will only briefly refer to it here. When Dan applied for a passport, he told the official what he did for a living, and he was given a title of ‘professional athlete’. This is certainly not an unequivocal answer to the question: Is poker an Olympic sport? but it lends tremendous credence to the notion that there truly is no clear-cut answer that satisfies everyone all the time.

Poker may not be a physical sport in the true sense of the word, but it is already an internationally accepted mind sport. This has been validated by the IMSA back in 2010. This definition certainly plays into the hands of poker players who wish to be considered professional athletes – sportspeople – and rightly so.

However, the lack of physical exertion in poker is evident in the fact that the only injuries poker players may ever endure is a sprained ankle from tripping over something on the way to their seats, or perhaps reflex sympathetic dystrophy from over shuffling, or fidgeting with poker chips for hours on end.

Taking it a step further, there are clear links between mental acuity and the performance of professional athletes. As such, poker players certainly qualify for the label of professionals, since substantial powers of concentration, and skill are needed to overcome the competition. The stamina component is evident in the staying power of poker players in the face of overwhelming pressure from other players at the table.

It takes effort to sit out hands while others are shoving all their chips into the middle, trying to intimidate other players at the table. The best poker players routinely outlast the competition and finish in the money. This is certainly no coincidence. The fact that so much skill and strategy is required in poker most definitely qualifies it as a professional game. Are we getting closer to answering the question: Is poker considered a sport? Yes, but wait there’s still so much more to examine. 

Nuanced Interpretations of Sports and Games

If we venture further into the quagmire, things become murky. The American Heritage Dictionary defines sport as, ‘a specific diversion, usually involving physical exercise and having a set form and body of rules; a game.’ The key word here is usually, which imply sometimes, but not all the time. So, if sport doesn't always require physical exercise, perhaps poker may be classified as a sport because it certainly has a body of rules, and it is made up of lots of different games. 

Beyond physical exertion, most every sport at professional level has TV coverage. The same is true of professional-level poker contests such as the WSOP, WPT, the ANZPT, and other high-stakes contests. The naysayers will argue that people watch sports to see incredible feats being performed. Well, in fairness the most incredible poker players in history are equally memorable.

Consider the performance of Doyle ‘The Dolly’ Brunson who called a raise with 10-2 of spades against Jesse Alto. The game went down to the wire, and ultimately Brunson managed to hit a Full House on the River with a pair of deuces and trip tens. He walked away with $220,000 in prize money.

Fast forward to 2003, and history was in the making. The legendary Chris Moneymaker qualified for the WSOP Main Event through a satellite tournament. He went in against legendary poker player Sammy Farha, and he was holding a King of spades and 7 of hearts.

Sammy Farha was holding a Queen of spades and a 9 of hearts. The Flop was 9 of spades, 2 of diamonds, and 6 of spades. After Sammy checked, Moneymaker checked. The Turn was an 8 of spades, giving Chris Moneymaker an opportunity to form a King-high Flush draw. The fifth and final card was a 3 of hearts. At that point, the pressure started getting to Sammy Farha and he folded to Moneymaker.

Not convinced either way? Good! Our analysis is working. You see, poker may not be a traditional sport as we know it, but it is certainly the sport of Jacks, Queens, and Kings. There is an intense level of competition between players, and each one is continually assessing tactics and strategies in order to gain the advantage over one another. Poker psychology – the mental game of poker – is acutely active during gaming sessions.

Players must continually check their emotions, or risk total failure. The stakes are always ratcheted up a notch whenever real money is involved. Decision-making is easily clouded by irrational thought processes. True athletes are able to soak up the pressure and perform at the best of their abilities. Poker professionals are much the same.

There is a fringe element of poker enthusiasts who believe that poker requires mental and physical prowess. Many mainstream poker players balk at such outlandish claims, believing that the only physical prowess needed for a poker contest is to be able to get yourself to the game, place your bets, play your cards, and stay awake.

The physical component requires elaboration. All successful poker players are required to grind their way through competitions in pursuit of big pots. This means that more often than not, players are required to endure marathon sessions of play. Not only is this mentally draining, it is physically exhausting. Tremendous powers of concentration are required to stay sharp at the highest levels of play. Our bodies cannot maintain that level of intensity unless we are in good shape.

Poker players can churn through hundreds of hands an hour. This is incredibly taxing on our bodies. That's why so many poker players go through rigorous physical exercises
in anticipation of a poker tournament. Since everyone at the table is pretty much on an even keel as far as talent goes, one of the only ways to gain an edge is to improve your health and wellness by being in good shape. The rather spurious correlations between the physical prowess of traditional sports athletes and poker professionals are presented for illustrative purposes. Your own perception of physicality will invariably play a part in whether you deem this a necessary component for the definition of sport to be met.

Semantics Matter: Poker is a Game of Skill & it Pays to Classify it as Such

Across most of Europe, poker is considered a game. Yet in the US, it is considered gambling by the tax authorities. In Europe, it is possible for poker players to capitalize on their skills and abilities by dint of the fact that poker is regarded as a game of skill. This means that winnings are tax-free. Nuances aside, there is plenty to be said for the skills development necessary to become a professional poker player. The best players are astute statisticians, calculating the odds of specific cards, or combinations appearing on The Flop, Turn, and River. 

There are many ways to fine tune your poker game, notably poker odds calculators, strategy charts, poker tutorials, poker coaching sessions, poker articles, and poker games. Poker is a game filled with odds, stats, and probabilities. Every time a card is dealt, the poker pros on TV will inform you of the chances each player has of winning the game. The players understand these odds and they bet accordingly.

And just like sport, all the training in the world will be for naught if luck is not on your side on the day. You may know all the rules of game, perform to the best of your ability, and still lose because the cards didn't go your way. Such is the incredible appeal of this game that anyone who plays it well is automatically considered a good sport! 

After all is said and done, perhaps we can finally answer the question: Is poker a sport?

About the Author

With digital marketing strategies in his blood, Louis Wheeler has traveled around the world, exploring gambling cultures and gaining experience in casino games from 2003. If you are in a casino anywhere around the planet, you may find him right next to you, playing blackjack, roulette or texas hold'em. 

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