Can We Classify Poker as a Sport?

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As a professional poker player, I do run into the odd occupational hiccup every now and then. Not only is my face too narrow to keep most sunglasses in place during a final table, life regularly grinds to a halt when I have to complete an online insurance or passport application form. Most of it goes swimmingly. The name, address, nationality? That's all no problem. It's when I hit the 'employment' section that things start to get a little sticky.

You see, the title of 'professional poker player' seems to be absent from pretty much every employment list in history, and puts people like me in a really tricky spot. Sure, it's nice to have the choice of being whatever you want to be. But at the same time, it's actually pretty difficult for me to select something that is both accurate enough to validate my application, and respectable enough to prevent me from being pegged as a high-risk, degenerate lunatic, and pulled over and strip-searched at customs. 

So, what did I go for? What did the guy with the big, green stamp of approval eventually accept my passport application as? Well, let me introduce myself properly: My name is Dan, and I'm officially a 'professional athlete.' Exaggeration? Let's compare poker to sports and find out.

Poker versus Sport

A good way to win any argument is by bombarding the other person with facts until they either accept you're right, or get bored and fall asleep. So let's begin by looking at poker's official classification. 

Believe it or not, poker is in fact considered a sport, a mind sport to be precise, having being accepted as so by the IMSA in 2010 (the guys in charge of that kind of thing). Other than this technical tag, though, what else does poker have in common with other, more conventional 'sports'?

Let's take a look at the a dictionary definition of sport, as a start. This one comes from Google's inbuilt dictionary:

Sport: Noun: An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.

As you'd struggle to pick up any injury other than the annoyingly addictive RSD you get from the over shuffling of chips playing poker, it's easy to argue that you'd have to be in pretty diabolical shape to give it the 'physically demanding' tag. Sure, tournament sessions can be long and unquestionably tiring from a mental perspective, but, unless you have a lunging prop bet in place (GG Antonio), playing poker just isn't as physically taxing as sports such as football or basketball.

Does that rule me out as an athlete, though? It's tough to say, especially since we give things like competitive darts and golf the 'sport tag'. 

In spite of any classification, it's clear that poker players benefit from being in peak physical condition. Take a look at top pros such as Mike McDonald, Dan Colman and 888poker's very own Sofia Lovgren; it's clear that they all work hard to eat well and stay in shape. Sofia herself is is very vocal about the edges she enjoys from enhanced levels of stamina and focus, gained through physical exercise.

Former US President John F. Kennedy also saw the same links between physical and mental stamina, observing that “physical fitness is [...] the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity.”

Poker might not tick the 'physical exertion' box in the same, conventional ways that other sport does, but, due to the entangled relationships between mental and physical exertion, I'd argue that it can often be somewhere in the same ballpark (at least off the tables). An athlete's stamina is vital to consistently perform at peak levels, and nowhere is this more apparent than amongst the poker elite, where fatigue can easily cost millions of dollars.

Anyway, even if we ignore the greyish 'physical exertion' part of the above, I'd still class Google's definition of sport as a pretty fair description of modern poker.

Here's why:

Fan Culture, Fun and Fanaticism  

Just as with any other conventional sport, poker has a super vibrant fan culture. In place of football jerseys, match programmes and scarves, poker has sponsored pros, site patches and hoodies, while poker fans can also keep up-to-date through an abundance of television coverage, live streams, and any one of a gazillion websites and magazines (such as this one) devoted entirely to the game.

There are also the same levels of interactivity, with bookmakers taking bets on events such as the WSOP and Irish Open, just as they would the PGA Masters or Wimbledon tennis final.

Entertainment Factor

The advent of Twitch poker has taken entertain one step further too, enabling diehards to support their favourite players, or heckle an opponent, just as passionately as they would a referee's screw up in a football stadium.

Does modern poker offer the same entertainment and social buzz as any other sport?

Easily, though the odd streaker might spice things up a little!

Skill Wins

Even though many poker muggles struggle to come to terms with the luck and skill relationship in poker, there are actually some pretty huge similarities between its role in many other sports. As the IMSA's classification proves, poker is officially a game of skill, meaning we should get spanked when we face superior opposition.

Of course, we might not in the short term, winning individual hands (and even tournaments) here and there, but ultimately, the longer we are outclassed, the more likely we are to be chewed up and politely spat into a tissue. (What? There's no need to be an animal about it, is there?).

The same is true of almost every other sport in the world. Think about it; Federer doesn't win every point he plays, just as I wouldn't win every hand I played against Emily Ratajkowski (mainly because I'd be too distracted). Weak teams may score goals, touchdowns, trys, fours, sixes, stones, points, (and whatever else you can think of), but over the course of an entire game, the best team or player will succeed more often.

Just like any other sport, if we step it up a notch and consider a bigger time frame, looking at things over the course of an entire season or a tournament series let's say, we can be even more confident that the results will favour the most skilled. And, that's how it should be! A champion should be the strongest, the most elite, the best, and although I don't know for sure, I'd be surprised if this isn't why the number of frames required to win a snooker match often increases as the tournament progresses. After all, nobody can be lucky forever, right? Well, unless you're a Leicester fan this season, of course. 

Just like putting a string through two balls of playdough and hitting them together, two things are certain:

  1. The bigger ball will flatten the smaller one most often.
  1. You're going to end up with a big brown playdough ball of doom. Man, I hated when that happened... How can mixing every colour in the world always equal brown?

Sport Wins, or Not?

Anyway, since there are some pretty clear-cut similarities between poker and sport, I'd say you can make a pretty solid case for classifying it is as such. More crucially than its official 'mind-sport' label, is the fact that poker just works in the same as any other sport.

IF poker isn't a sport, it would be a game, and I just can't  think of any game that has the same levels of industry, interest and ethos, like poker. Sure other games may be more active or just as competitive as poker, but I'd argue that the presence of trophies, titles, glory, prize money, fans and (especially) professionals, goes a long way in supporting the notion that poker is, in fact, a sport.

So, with this in mind, where does that leave me and the accuracy of my passport application? Well, here's Google's dictionary definition of an athlete to help you make up your mind:

Athlete: Noun: 'A person who is proficient in sports and other forms of physical exercise.'

I guess your classification of a poker player depends on your approach to the game (or sport) itself. Do you look at poker as a game or sport? Do you play to gamble and/or for leisure, or do you play to be as to be as 'proficient' and professional as possible? 

If it's the latter, then I think you can call yourself an athlete. But even if not, who cares? Much of poker's beauty comes from its flexibility, and so either approach is completely fine. 

Enjoy it, regardless. 

Well, the good news is the employment section of my passport application should check out! Congratulations, Dad! It's confirmed. I may not have grown up to play for Man United or Arsenal, nor have I won gold, or even bronze at the Olympics (yet), but I've done it: Your son's an athlete. You'll finally be able to fire a healthy dose of STFU at the Thompsons the next time they pay you a visit just to gloat about their 'show-jumping starlet' of a daughter.

No sweat day.

You're welcome!

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