Why tournament poker is a sport

Noel Zarate

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Shuffle up and deal - tournament poker is a sport and not gambling.

For many, poker is gambling. 

The Philippines’ Roman Catholic Church has instructed the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR) that poker establishments are to have a 200-meter aerial distance from any church. Poker cannot be used as a fund-raising method benefiting any Catholic institution such as schools. Poker is gambling.

Standard tournament poker stacks have 20 chips each 

In California, the world’s largest poker room – the Commerce Casino, was born out of a state resolution declaring poker as a game of skill and not a game of luck, as most games that promote gambling are. Hence, California is now known as the poker capital of the world. In many parts of the world, poker is recognized as a sport with entities such as the World Poker Tour making various stops globally to crown poker champions. Poker is a sport.

Gambling or sport

Many on the outside looking in are now confused with this concept. Is poker gambling or is it a sport?

It depends on what form of poker is at play.

The two most common variants of poker are cash games and tournaments.  Most people can’t tell the difference.  In cash game poker, the chips in play represent real currency.  In tournament poker a “buy-in” is required, hence also requiring money.  It is on this premise that the separation becomes even more evident.

The view. Witness the flop from behind a wall of chips.

Cash game poker is gambling because the chips are actual money. Tournament poker is not gambling because the buy-in represents an “entry fee” into a tournament. This is how tournaments around the world operate – golf tournaments, tennis tournaments and even the most basic barangay basketball leagues.  A team pays a tournament fee which they may or may not even get back after winning the championship, depending on the organizers. In cash game poker, the object is to win as much money as you can.  In tournament poker, the goal is to win all the chips.

Not just a game of luck

No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em (NLHE) is the most popular form of poker on the planet today. It is played on Facebook and even in homes. It is how the World Series of Poker (WSOP) determines the world champion. It is also the form played in card rooms across the archipelago. In the late 1990’s, sports giant ESPN invested in covering and broadcasting the WSOP – introducing poker into the mainstream.  Unknown Tennessee accountant Chris Moneymaker became an instant multi-millionaire in 2003 after winning the WSOP Main Event and the phrase “anyone can win” transformed poker forever.

Final Table. World Poker Tour Main Event Runner up and Asia Pacific Poker Tour PAGCOR Cup Champion Binh Nguyen, Team PokerStars online phenomenon Terrence Chan and professional player Victor Chan

The irony of it all is that poker – as a general term, is still considered gambling because of the nature of its gameplay. It is still viewed as a game of luck because of the randomness of dealt cards. It is also perceived as gambling because chips need to be put in a pot for the chance to win more chips.

People quickly overlook poker icons such as Phil Ivey, Daniel Negreanu and the legendary “Texas Dolly” Doyle Brunson who have won multiple tournaments. Can these gentlemen be the luckiest people in existence? If they make a living “gambling,” shouldn’t their luck have run out by now?

Negreanu said it best, “Poker is a game of cards played with people… or a game of people played with cards.”

He and countless others have proven that you can win without even having good cards – just intuition, excellent mathematical skills and sheer courage. Negreanu has the uncanny ability of sensing weakness in people—he knows when he is being bluffed. Brunson—a former highly recruited collegiate basketball player, brings his primal competitiveness to the table. Ivey is a master of intimidation.

These are skills. Skills used to gain advantages over the opposition. Poker aficionados often equate these high caliber poker players with some of the best athletes in the world.

What makes an athlete

You might even start thinking – “how can a poker player be an athlete?”

They do many things similar to professional athletes.

Gone – in most places, are the days of smoke-filled rooms, overflowing whiskey and grease burgers. The new breed of poker player – such as Patrick Antonius, Tom Dwan and Liv Boeree are all gym rats. 

They lead healthy lifestyles by working out daily and following a strict diet to assist in their mental game.  They do not smoke and do not do drugs.  They play a lot of tournament poker and have been quite successful, especially in their online sorties.  They read many books, watch a lot of videos and analyze the tendencies of some of their stiffest competition.  This is what professional athletes also do.

Heads up. Nguyen faces off with Scot Gordon Huntley, an investment banker in the championship

Most professionals need to average a certain amount of tournaments in a month and play a certain number of hands a day so that they can chart their progress. The more practice and exposure goes into to what they do, the better they become.

Golf legend Gary Player was once quoted as saying, “The more I practice, the luckier I get,” and that can equate to Michael Jordan’s jump shot, C.C. Sabathia’s slider and David Belmonte’s wicked split conversion average.

The sport of poker has evolved so much over the years that coaches are now prevalent and many either accompany their protégés to actual tournaments or tutor them online.

Poker is not just about winning money but about being a winning player. For poker players immersed in the sport side of it, it’s about how to win and not just the prize.

Fist bump. WSOP bracelet winner Isaac Galazan and local poker player Don "Pusang Gala" Carmona share a light moment

10 ways poker is like other sports

  1. Basketball. Luck helps you win in poker just like in basketball when you to hit a contested fade away jump shot at the buzzer.
  2. Football. Or luck helps you make an aerial combination kick shot to hit the only goal of the match.
  3. Golf. Practice, focus and a little luck helps when you chip it in from the fringe to save par.
  4. Chess. Winning in poker also requires patience – particularly when two Grandmasters face off.
  5. Archery. Chips are ammunition – much like in archery. When chips are won, the holder gains more artillery.
  6. Judo. A player with a humungous lead can get crippled in one swift blow.
  7. Bowling. An amateur can come in to a tournament, win against a professional and walk away with everything.
  8. Mixed Martial Arts. An opponent can tap out from being outplayed like in poker when an opponent folds from sheer agression.
  9. Billiards. The etiquette of making a lucky shot compared to apologizing for making a “bad beat” – or unintentionally outdrawing an opponent.
  10. Track and Field. In a marathon like in poker, you have to keep your mental focus, finish first among hundreds, pace yourself – some runners or players prefer an early lead, but it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.


Total Redemption. Australian Van Marcus was the 2008 Asia Pacific Poker Tour Manila Tournament Champion

The bottom line? Any which way you view it, this is enough to prove tournament poker is not gambling – it is a sport. – Rappler.com 

Noel is a musician by education and a sports broadcaster by profession and counts online poker, running workshops and cooking as hobbies.  Follow @NoelZarate.

(All pictures are courtesy of Lightchasers Photography.)

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