6 February 2024
Poker is an undeniably fun pastime. But trying to classify it further can cause a debate to break out. Some people argue poker is a sport. Others will insist that poker is just a game. Deciding which group is right is tricky. Both arguments have some valid points.
Let’s look at both sides of this debate so you can judge for yourself.
This is a thin line. Both require players to follow a series of rules. In both instances, competitors are trying to win the contest. Both games and sports tend to require some mental skill.
Often, the biggest distinction comes down to the physical skill required. In sports, players tend to rely on their athletic abilities to win.
By this definition, the debate should be settled. Poker is a game. Players rely on their mental prowess, but there isn’t any athletic skill required. This should make it ineligible to be considered a sport.
There’s just one problem. This definition of sport isn’t always applied. The classic example of this is chess. This is a sport that, like poker, is mentally taxing but doesn’t require a lot of physical movement.
Despite this, according to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), chess is a sport. Around the world, 100 countries have agreed, viewing chess as a sport rather than a game.
If chess can be considered a sport, perhaps poker might also fall into that category. But detractors will still raise some objections. First, some people might object to the gambling-based nature of the game. Bluffing and risk management are integral parts of poker.
But there’s another big difference between poker and other gambling games. Normally, gamblers are playing against the house. But in poker, they need to take on the other players. Beating your opponents is the only way to win.
The next element to consider is the context in which the game is played. Most people seek to play poker recreationally. While no one wants to lose money, it’s the excitement of the contest that counts. When played for fun, it might be best to describe poker as a game.
However, there are professional leagues, like the World Series of Poker (WSOP). These games are highly competitive, with millions on the line. In this context, winning is the primary focus. Because of this, these events could be considered sports.
The biggest hurdle, however, is the randomness of poker. This means that luck has a large role to play. But poker is undeniably a game of skill, especially at the elite level. Players have to keep track of dozens of things.
They need to monitor their opponents, trying to understand their tells to spot when they are bluffing. They need to regulate how much to risk in each play. They have to know the possible combinations to figure out the odds they hold the winning hand.
Plus, they need to keep this level of focus throughout the game. All while being under constant pressure to avoid making a costly mistake. A poker tournament can last for days, so competing requires a huge amount of mental stamina.
The good news is that there are several reasons why poker could be taken seriously as a sport. First, while poker has always been popular, the fanbase has grown considerably in recent years. Televised matches have helped it reach new audiences while boosting the credibility of poker. They’ve also brought a new appreciation of the strategies that players employ.
Thanks to the popularity of poker, plenty of new tournaments have arisen. These have helped to further legitimize poker in the sporting community. Plus, most of these events allow anyone to play as long as you can afford the entrance fee. This accessibility will help poker continue to grow.
This is another contentious issue. Before the IOC will recognize a sport, it needs to pass several hurdles.
First, it needs an international federation. They’ll set the rules. They will also ensure players comply with the anti-doping regulations. It’s the international federation’s responsibility to create the petition to ask the IOC to officially recognize the sport.
The good news is that poker has already started on this journey. In 2009, the International Federation of Match Poker (IFMP) was created. They are working to help bring the sport closer to IOC recognition.
Even if the IOC recognizes poker as a sport, that doesn’t automatically mean it is included in the Olympics. Before a sport is entered into the Olympics, it needs to meet a few conditions.
Many of these stipulations should be easy for poker to overcome. The IOC wants sports that have an active fanbase around the world. They require at least 75 countries across four continents to play male sports before they are considered. Poker can easily meet this standard. Another common stumbling block is that the sport needs to increase the appeal of the Olympics. Due to its large fanbase, poker won’t have any issues meeting this condition.
So far, so good. However, there is one major sticking point that will likely prevent poker from ever being played at the Olympics. The IOC has decided to ban mind sports from the Olympics. This is the reason that chess, despite its popularity and heritage, hasn’t been included in the Games. This classification would likely apply to poker as well, stopping it from ever being featured in the Olympics.
There is still no definitive answer to whether poker is a sport. It all comes down to your definition. It certainly lacks the physical difficulty of popular sports like football or running. However, it places an arguably larger mental toll on players.
Officially, though, if mind sports like chess and e-sports are accepted by the IOC there’s no reason why poker shouldn’t get officially recognized eventually.
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