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Poker – is it a sport?

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After Reading Rich Dad, Poor Dad's post (blog no longer available, it was not affiliated with Kiyosaki's famous book of the same name) on poker being a competitive sport, I found myself writing a comment. It soon got a bit longer than I had intended, so decided to make a post instead.
I may agree on the competitive aspect of poker, but I'm not so sure I'd agree on it being a sport. Usually I consider sports as being played by athletes. Webster's online defines an athlete such as "a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina." I'd through "coordination" in there as well- I don't know why they didn't have that. I'm not sure if a poker player qualifies as an athlete as I don't really see the physical aspect of it. I can imagine Stephen Hawking playing it, for instance.

I see poker as gambling. There are professional gamblers that bet on horses and football games. They are all competitive in the same way that they use their their judgement as their advantage. If a great gambler plays long enough and has a way to make the math work out for them in the long term, it's not really a game of chance.

I've seen complete novices (who have just learned how the game is played) knock out fairly experienced veterans (people who compete at local tournaments). I don't play a lot, really just about 5 times ever and I've seen this twice with different novices and different veterans. I'd say that like anything, there's a portion of luck and a portion of skill. For many, the portion of luck in gambling is high, while in other sports the portion of skill is high for almost anyone playing.

I wonder how many novice basketball players would beat a veteran in one-on-one
I can't imagine a scenario where I could beat Shaq in basketball, but I can imagine one where I beat Moneymaker (or whoever the champion is now) in poker.

Last updated on August 6, 2011.

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14 Responses to “Poker – is it a sport?”

  1. I think poker probably gets to the line where it’s 50-50 skill-luck though. What you describe with the small group is that over a large sample size (i.e. many hands and games) luck evens out and the skill is the deciding factor. However, in the shortest term, say one hand, luck can play an enormous part whether you win or lose. Half of the skill may be to know to lose that hand. However, in my one-on-one scenario vs. Shaq, don’t see him purposely giving up a hoop to me because he felt he got a bad bounce. I’m pretty certain he’d shut me out in a game to 21 if he was trying at all. However, in 21 hands vs. the best Texas Hold ’em player in the world, I bet I’d win at least 5 (probably closer to 9) by just getting better cards to work with.

  2. Trent says:

    There is more skill than luck when it comes to poker. That’s why given a fairly small group of players, the same few people will continually win at poker. The exception is enormous events like the WSoP, where there are so many “random” entrants that eventually blind luck wins out.

    I would say there is more luck at poker than many other sports, but there is no sport that is luck-free. I guess the defining line between a sport and a game of chance is where you judge that acceptable amount of luck to be.

  3. Ken says:

    I agree that luck is a factor in poker. But in the long run the better player will win. If you look at the games in casinos, the house has a distinct mathematical advantage in them all. That’s why they eventually win. When you play a game in which you have an advantage, over the long run you will come out ahead.

    In poker tournaments, it is much tougher for a profession to win than in a cash game. It is because in a tournament, you have one life. An amateur can make a poor play and suck out on a pro, or a pro could be outplayed in one hand both with cost the pro his tournament life.

    In a cash game, when an amateur makes a poor play and wins a nice pot from a pro, the pro can continue to play the amateur. Now I’m no where near being a pro but when I suffer a bad beat from someone making a poor play, I don’t get mad. I make a mental note of their play because I know that they will make the same mistake later and I will eventually get all their money. I only get mad when they get up and leave the table! :)

  4. That’s exactly my point, Trent. In the short term, one hand, it’s largely a game of luck even against a grand master. It take a lot of hands for the luck to even out and the skill to be a deciding factor. However in my basketball comparision (one that Ken initiated by comparing it to other sports), there’s very little luck with each basket against a professional. Basketball is a longer-term game than a single possession as well.

    I believe people refer to poker as a game of luck to differentiate it from events/games/matches/etc. that are nearly 100% skill.

  5. Trent says:

    In response to the second comment, you’re describing a situation where all hands are equal. In most forms of poker, not all hands are equal, and another factor in the skill of a professional is the ability to make his losing hands have less “weight” and the winning hands have more “weight.” Let’s say the winner of a given hand is 60% luck and 40% skill, regardless of the bet on it. On top of that, you have another 30% luck / 70% skill in terms of the weight you make that hand worth.

    Poker is a longer-term game than a single hand, and effective professionals have the skills to turn that longer term into their advantage by adjusting the weight of individual hands through their play.

  6. NLG says:

    I agree, I think poker is almost 50/50 skill/luck. Skill comes into play when you notice certain things about how your opponent plays and can take advantage of that, and also for calculating odds, etc. But, there is always that chance that the other player has a better hand. I think in Hold’em there is less chance of being blindsided by a hand because fewer cards are held back, but it still exists, specifically if your opponent is a skilled better.

    I wouldn’t call poker a sport though. But where do you draw the line? Some people don’t think that auto racing is a sport. In some cases (F1, Cart, IRL, endurance racing), the drivers need to be in top shape to sustain the forces and duration of the races.


  7. I guess I would use my Stephen Hawking analogy as an example. I can’t really see him as a race car driver either. I think the difference is that it requires a lot of coordination and endurance.

    I’d sooner call chess a sport before poker (as it’s 0 percent luck), but I still wouldn’t call it one. I think many people would agree with me on that.

  8. empty spaces says:

    i definitely wouldn’t called gambling a sport.

    however, i have a friend who’s quit his programming job about 18 months after learning how to play texas hold’em. he raked in about 20k-25k/mo play online. he really doesn’t enjoy it but he’s figured out how to win.

    unfortunately, the new bill banned online gambling has forced him out of retirement and he’s now looking for a job. But it was a great 18 months while it lasted!

  9. NLG says:

    Are they actually closing down the online poker sites? I’m in Canada, so we won’t be affected. However, I thought some people were lobbying to consider poker a game of skill where the bill that was introduced only bans games of chance. Any truth to this?

    I can’t understand why it makes sense to ban online gambling, but allow traditional gambling… Except that these online sites are usually offshore and are sucking money out of the country… ahh sweet, sweet greed.


  10. I don’t play poker online, so I haven’t followed the news there. Traditionally, in the US, gambling is legal only on Native American reserves (as a way to say sorry that we stole all this land from you, I suppose) and in Nevada. Lousianna may allow it as well, I’m not sure. I think it’s typically a state’s call and the reason is, as you guessed, that it brings in money.

  11. MiserlyBastard says:

    1. Poker is not a sport, it is a game.

    2. The luck component of poker can be quantified to some extent by measuring the standard deviation for each game’s win rate. Some games have a greater or lower standard deviation. For example, limit Omaha (to the extent that such a game is ever spread), would have a high luck component to it due to the enormous standard deviation. Limit holdem has a much lower standard deviation comparatively, and thus is more “skill based.” No limit and pot limit holdem give the “skilled player” the greatest edge, since he can manipulate the pot size in a way that fixed limit game players cannot.

    3. As somebody else mentioned, tournament poker has a greater luck component than cash game play, because the ability to rebuy in cash games allows the skilled player to continue in the action even after suffering a bad beat. In tournament play, if you get it all in the middle with the nuts on the flop, a good amount of the time you’re still going to be outdrawn by the river (e.g., nut str8 on the flop against nut flush draw or a set).

  12. David B. says:

    It’s funny you wrote about this because I was actually just talking to a friend about this very same thing about 3 days ago. I used to play poker a good bit, but decided to give it up because it’s so frustrating.

    The game is made up of so much luck that I find the skill level to not matter very much. Obviously, skill is a factor, but luck is so rampant in poker that I just couldn’t take it anymore. Phil Hellmuth had a great line in one of the tournaments a couple of years ago. He said something to the effect that if skill was involved he would win everytime.

    When I have pocket Aces and go all-in pre-flop, I expect to win against a queen-ten offsuit. I continued to find myself getting beat when I had the best hand pre-flop. I’d slow play and get beat. I’d play strong and get beat.

    I’m sure that some would say that it sounds like I’m a bad poker player. Truth be told, I’m pretty good. I honestly think that I’ve made money throughout the years. It’s fun to play, but so frustating when you lose against some people that have no idea what they’re doing.

    I basically got to the point where I just got sick of losing to novices against stupid hands. Obviously, there’s a lot more detail that I could go into, such as how you handle the loses and going on tilt, but I’ll end it for now. Just wanted to give everyone my opinion on everything.

    While I thoroughly enjoy playing poker with friends, I got fed up and decided that I won’t be playing nearly as much as before.

  13. dc_publius says:

    I am a cash poker player, albeit not a pro. Several of my friends are pros. Poker is gambling and ‘luck’ can make winners out of the worst players. Pros don’t mind this fact, because if people didn’t think they had a chance they wouldn’t play and the games would be much, much tougher.

    Serious online players continually study and improve their game. We read books, get coaches, and form study groups. We have poker software that analyzes every hand we have ever played. We use this software to spot mistakes and review our hands for mistakes. Poker players are not immediate results oriented. Instead, we take the long term view and know whether we made the optimal play or not. On the internet, one can play multiple tables and the hands go quickly. We play literally thousands of hands every month. With such numbers, variance ( or ‘luck’, as some call it) is minimized and that’s how we have solid win rates at the end of the month.

    The bottom line is that luck swings both ways, skill doesn’t. Poker is a combination of both. Luck/Variance evens out long term, but skill doesn’t and that’s where we make money.

    To any aspiring players out there I will tell you right now that making any kind of decent side income playing poker is *tough*. It takes a lot of study and reassessment. It is harder than it looks.

  14. Hibs says:

    I think there is enough skill in poker that if a group of players play regularly over a long period of time the same winners and losers will keep appearing. Still doesn’t make it a sport though.

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