This is in response to many who are still in the dark on why poker is recognized by many as a sport. There are many schools of thought that consider anything to do with cards just a mere pastime or a social game. The worst you usually get is "poker is a form of gambling". The unenlightened classify poker as a game of luck or a game of chance, meaning the one who has the best cards wins the hand or wins the pot. That makes sense, right? After all, the result will tell who has the best hand, correct? Let me shed light on why millions of people around the world are now enamored by the "sport" we like to call "The Beautiful Mind Game".
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What are the factors that makes something a sport?
To get to that, I'll introduce you to a term poker players sometimes use: "Bingo Poker". Bingo is a common game sometimes used by churches and religious organizations use to raise funds. You spend money to buy a set of Bingo cards and wait for your numbers to be drawn and announced by the Bingo Master. Here's another term I've only recently encountered: "Lotto Poker". In many countries, people make it a habit to purchase Lotto tickets in hopes that the number combinations they selected will be randomly picked in the draw and they could win a big jackpot. Various churches condone these activities and, in the case of Bingo, even encourage it.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: BINGO AND LOTTO ARE THE MOST ABSOLUTE FORMS OF GAMBLING! Akin to Baccarat, Kara Krus and "Tex".
In poker, when someone goes on a "Bingo Poker" or "Lotto Poker" binge, that person is just going "all-in" wishing that the cards he has connects with the board to give him a win. No skill involved here, just luck. And like Bingo and Lotto, most of the time this player loses. He's leaving it up to luck. How many times have you been paid off in Lotto? How many times have you seriously won anything in Bingo? If you've achieved both already, then you must be among the luckiest individuals in the world. You just got fortunate, that's all.
So I'm guessing the same can also be said, then, about these poker players who consistently make it deep in the World Series of Poker (WSOP) or any other poker tournament for that matter. They always make it deep; therefore, they are the luckiest people, right? All the time, correct? So someone like Phil Ivey who has won eight WSOP bracelets in various events and made 28 WSOP Final Table appearances achieved all of that on sheer luck, eh? How about the biggest name in poker, Johnny Chan? This dude has won TEN WSOP bracelets in 27 final table appearances. Surely, he must be living a very charmed life, huh? Let's look deeper into that.
1. Poker IS a game of SKILL: Recently, a New York Federal Judge by the name of Jack Weinstein ruled that poker is a game of skill and not a game of chance. How could poker players possess skills if the cards dictate the outcome? And if a strong hand gets beaten by a weak hand, the weaker hand got lucky, right?
Here's news for you: the cards don't always dictate the outcome.
For those who have actually played the game, you may have heard of the term "bluff". Bluffing is the act of making another player believe you have a strong hand and entice him to "fold" his holdings.
Let's get technical here for a moment: let's say you were dealt a very strong hand like two Kings (KK). You open for a bet and another player raises you. Now you say to yourself, "I've got a strong hand and I can win this pot," so you decide to "call" the raise. Then the flop comes and there's an Ace (A) on the board. Your strong had can now be beaten if your opponent has an ace. You check (an option you have if you decide not to bet). Then your opponent fires a big bet. What do you do? He might really have an ace because he's showing so much strength now, and your hand could now be behind. The bet he opens with is so big it puts pressure on you. You determine because he bet big he definitely has an ace, so you fold. Makes sense, right? He surely has an ace. Then he shows you he had two jacks (JJ). YOU WERE AHEAD! YOU COULD HAVE WON! But because you were bluffed and you completely bought it, you lost (because you folded your hand). The player that made you fold your KK used his skill, his ability to read that the presence of that A on the board freaked you out and the knowledge that if he placed a big bet to "represent" that A on the board that you would buy it. You were outplayed, by a very skilful and aggressive player. He even showed his hand to you to put you on "tilt"—get you steamed so much that you will not be playing optimally for a while.
The best players in the world possess this skill. In fact, it is said that for one to be successful in poker they must possess at least one of two skill sets: They have to be very good at math or they have to be very good at lying. Accounting lawyers are the worst opponents at a poker tournament because they commonly are adept at both.
Other skills many poker players develop: reading body language, analysing bet sizes, aggression in relation to position and opponents (table imaging) and the ability to disguise strong hands to keep people playing with inferior holdings (trapping/slow playing).
Notice how many poker players wear shades and hoodies? This eliminates some of the "tells" their opponents may be investigating in them. Sounds interesting? Let's move on.
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2. TOURNAMENT Poker is NOT Gambling: How many of you have joined a golf tournament before? How about a badminton tournament? How about a backgammon tournament? Any tournament you join has a corresponding fee, right? In golf, your PhP 5,000.00 "entrance fee" pays for the green fees, caddies, post game meal, giveaways and sometimes even the raffle prizes. What is the incentive to join a golf tournament? Well apart from the juicy CASH prizes at stake, the opportunity to be with your buddies and "bet" on certain outcomes of the game i.e. Skins per hole, last man standing below aggregate, Greens in Regulations (GIR), Fairways in Regulation (FIR), least number of putts, etc. OK, OK, you wanna be in the great outdoors, competing against yourself and the course. That applies to some as well.
In tournament poker, IT'S EXACTLY THE SAME THING, MINUS THE SIDE BETS. OK, that also applies to some as well.
I cannot defend "Cash Game" poker because the chips used in that poker game is equivalent to actual currency. I CAN defend TOURNAMENT poker because the chips in play have no monetary value. They are just accessories essential to the game. They are the bullets or arsenal used in the combat. Unless you entered a "Re-Buy" tournament, the chips you have to start the tournament cannot be replenished anymore (occurring in a "Freeze Out" tournament—the most common form of tournament poker). That's it, pancit. You lose that stack, you're out. Famous lady poker pro Isabelle Mercier said it best: "The great thing about a poker tournament is that everyone starts with the same amount of chips. And from then on, it's all about how you use them."
The object of the game: get ALL the chips in play. You can imagine how gruelling that is in a field of hundreds of players in the WSOP and thousands upon thousands of opponents online. Sometimes, one mistake could cost you everything, and sometimes one big hand can get you "In The Money" (ITM) with now a shot at winning it all. In tournament poker, the buy-in is your only investment, exactly like in a golf tournament. No gambling here.
3. Training is REQUIRED: Let's put you again in a scenario. You're walking around one day and you stumble upon a card room where a tournament is just beginning. It's a one-day only tournament and you decide that you have nothing better to do so you invest in the buy-in and join. Things go well for the first hour. You've actually doubled your stack in the process. But then as the next two hours come, you have no decent hand to join a pot with. You lose a big pot because your KK ran into AA and your moral is starting to dwindle. What happens next? You decide you're too tired to keep up with these bozos and believe you have no chance of winning anyway so you just go Bingo Poker and soon enough you're out—and down the amount you spent for the buy-in. You got impatient, tired and just flat out gave up.
This sounds like someone running a 10k (ten kilometer) race without practice. Same words: Impatient—coz the finish line is so far away, tired—coz the muscles in the legs were starting to ache and the lungs were demanding more oxygen, and then gave up.
Those who invest in themselves in poker "train" very hard before plunging into a tournament just like any professional athlete. Poker tournaments, especially multi-day ones like the present Philippine Poker Tour, and of course the WSOP, require players to be in action for at least ten straight hours. There are a few convenience breaks and sometimes a pause for dinner, but pretty much it is poker most of the time.
My good friend and Asia Poker Academy coach Ron Regis interprets it this way: "Poker players require endurance (like in Marathons and endurance races), situational awareness (like an NFL quarterback or an NBA point guard), betting lines (like moves in Chess), bet sizing precision (like swinging at a curveball or cutting in a shot in billiards) and reading opponents (like in combat martial arts or boxing)." The thing is, you're doing this consistently for at least TEN HOURS.
How is this done? Many of the newer generation players out there are actually very conscious about their health. They exercise a lot, eat foods that don't make them sluggish, read a lot of books, watch a lot of videos and practice for hours at a time; perfecting the moves they will execute during the tournament (I'm sure we're done with the part that the cards don't always dictate the outcome). Many players training for tournament play practice online at popular poker sights, sometimes even 16 tables at a time, for anywhere between four to six hours a day! This will never happen in real life, so it's a great training tool. The players who train very hard are usually rewarded when they outlast and outwit the field. They came prepared and they usually make it deep—like the aforementioned Mr. Ivey and Mr. Chan.
So at the end of it all, those detractors saying poker is not a sport, poker is gambling and poker should not be considered a sport can now be compelled to investigate their views, explain why their opinions are such and maybe find peace instead raising pitchforks and torches against those who may say otherwise.
Poker is a sport. Tournament poker is not gambling. 'Nuff sed. Shuffle up and deal.
Editor's note: The blogger's views do not represent Yahoo! Southeast Asia's position on the topic or issue being discussed in this post.