A while back, a buddy and I had a friendly argument over whether poker should be considered a sport or a game. I have been a professional poker player and poker author for years but, until now, have never given the subject much thought. After some research and contemplation, here is my argument in favor of poker players being athletes.

Is poker a sport or a game? Poker is a sport because it is played for entertainment, is competitive, and almost always requires both physical and mental prowess in order to consistently play and win at the highest levels. Online multi-tabling players are required to have acute hand-eye coordination and both live and online players need physical endurance to play long sessions.

Still not convinced? Let’s break down the definition of a sport into individual elements and see if each can be applied to poker.

Why Poker Is a Sport and Its Players Are Athletes

The Oxford Dictionary defines a sport as “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.”

Put another way, a sport is defined as a competitive activity done for entertainment that requires both physical ability and skill in order to excel.

Let’s start with the easy stuff and work our way backwards.

1. Poker Requires Skill

This is an important distinction that a large portion of the population doesn’t get. There is a reason that the same poker players win again and again over the long term.

Making Profitable Decisions Requires Skill

In poker, everything you do requires a decision. There are multiple of these small decisions in every poker hand you decide to play. In fact, deciding to play a hand is one of the biggest decisions.

Every action you take in poker takes the skill to realize whether it has a positive expectation and will win money over the long term. This is the part that most people have trouble grasping. Is that short term luck can see a winning decision lose money and a losing decision make money.

But if you play hundreds of instances of the winning decision you will almost certainly profit. Whereas, the more iterations of a bad decision you make, the likelihood of being a net loser increases as well.

A Basketball Gambling Analogy

Take basketball for example. If a point guard makes a difficult pass across the lane during a breakaway, sometimes the pass will succeed and end in a lay-up. Other times the ball will be stolen by an opponent or go out of bounds.

No matter what happens, the player has made a calculated “gamble” based on the situation at hand. At the root of his decision on whether to pass or not was what action would score the most points in the long run. If the risk of passing was too great, then perhaps he might take the slightly more difficult 16 foot shot.

The experience and knowledge gained through practice and experience allow a basketball player to make better and better decisions throughout an entire game. Playing poker is exactly the same thing. Experience, knowledge, and practice allow a poker player to make more profitable decisions while avoiding losing ones as much as possible.

This is how skill works for every single sport in the world, including poker.

2. Poker Is Played for Entertainment

Coutesy of flipchip • lasvegasvegas.com [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This one is easy. Anyone who has played poker for a matter of minutes understands how entertaining it is. The first time that you get all-in versus another player and hit that miracle river card, you will probably be hooked.

For many people, the fun part of poker comes in deciphering the many puzzles which must be solved. What hands could my opponent have? Is he bluffing? Can I pull off a bluff? Those are but a few of the thousands of possible decisions points that could happen at any time during a poker hand.

What If the Definition of “Entertainment” Only Means Fun to Watch?

Even if you get a bit nit-picky with the definition of a sport, poker does really well by this iteration of the word “entertainment” as well. The World Series of Poker (WSOP) continues to get good rating year in and year out. People love to watch the game because they want to be the people winning that huge amount of money.

I think that’s the reason people watch a lot of sports on TV. They like to see a pro golfer win because they aspire to be a champion golfer themselves. Or they love to watch the 3-point contest in the NBA because they want to be a great shooter (or think they already are one).

I would call this phenomenon entertainment by proxy, due to the vicarious enjoyment achieved by watching a sport. Put simply, it’s fun to watch because it’s fun to imagine being the one doing it.

3. Poker Is Competitive

Competitiveness is another area that poker obviously qualifies as a sport. In fact, the entire definition of poker is built around being competitive. At the root of the game is having one poker hand compete against another poker hand to find out which one is the winner.

Beyond the obvious, the best poker players in the world are not the ones who are geniuses at playing their cards well. The biggest winners are the players who most efficiently recognize what their opponents are doing and build a winner counter-strategy.

In other words, being good at competitiveness is what defines who the best players are.

4. Poker Requires Physical Ability

I am sure I will get plenty of push-back on this one. But please, hear me out.

At face value, it seems like little physical ability would be needed to sit at a poker table for hours upon hours playing a mentally challenging “game”. However, if you reread what I just said, you will gain a clue as to what I am talking about here.

Poker Is Physically Demanding

In order for a poker player to make money, they must put in the hours “grinding” at the table. They also have to play at the times when the weaker competition is at the tables, whether it fits into their ideal schedule or not. These sometimes marathon sessions are both mentally and physically draining. The fact is, that the better shape a player is in, the better he or she will perform.

Case-in-point. Take a look at the average age on the World Series of Poker final table every year. It’s really rare to see any player above 30, much less 40 make it all the way to the end. Why is this? Are younger people just smarter? No way.

Younger people just happen to be in better physical shape more often and thus have the mental and physical fortitude to play 7 or 8 twelve hour days straight. Those in poor physical condition tend to eventually break down mentally as well and make a huge mistake that costs them their tournament life.

Online Poker Takes Physical Dexterity

Let’s not forget about online poker players. There’s more to the game than just sitting in front of a computer and clicking buttons with a couple of fingers.

In order to succeed as an online player, it is almost imperative that you play multiple tables in order to maximize your hourly win-rate. This requires acute hand-eye coordination and physical dexterity, as well as a strong mind-body connection in order to minimize errors while playing 600, 1000, sometimes 1500 hands an hour or more.

Over the long term, players with better physical fitness will simply outperform others with similar abilities. In fact, I had a section in my book back in 2012 about the importance of a workout regimen for poker players.

I believe that, as parody becomes more prevalent between the top pros, the players will look for an edge anywhere they can get it. Don’t be surprised if the WSOP final table is mostly made up of players with 6-packs by 2030.

Some Well-Known Sports Require Little or No Physical Exertion

If you have ever watched American baseball then you have seen some of the seemingly out of shape players involved in every game. In fact, there was a former major league ballplayer who was asked by a reporter, “you don’t look like an athlete.” The player responded, “I’m not an athlete, I’m a baseball player”.

Yet, do you ever seen anyone asking the question, “is baseball a sport?” Of course not, since there are some physical elements to the game.

What about golf? Sure, it takes physical ability to hit the ball. Even so, I have seen so pretty large men win plenty of pro golf tournaments. Think Craig Stadler or John Daly. It’s because they have great hand-eye coordination and timing, like good online poker players.

I’m sure if you take a moment, you can think of a few other sports where there are players or positions where great physical ability is not manditory.

But Poker Can’t Be a Sport Because It Has Gambling?!?!

I would argue that all sports have elements of gambling or just flat out bald-faced gambling.

We already discussed how decisions made during a game is akin to poker decisions. That’s not what I am talking about here. I am referring to any sport that has leagues where there is a buy-in.

Most Sports Require Up-Front Costs

We have already established that sports are games of skill. What I think is the biggest travesty of how people view poker is that they are okay with people putting up hundreds, or thousands, of hard-earned cash each year to play in golf tournaments, bowling tournaments, billiards tournaments, football/soccer leagues, etc. while they turn their nose up at people who buy into poker tournaments.

Aren’t you really just placing a bet on yourself no matter what sport you are putting your money into to play? Isn’t there a prize for winning these leagues or tournaments, no matter the sport? I think you can see where I am going with this.

What About Other Casino Games?

If the game is played against the house or doesn’t have a way of being beaten, no matter how skilled someone is, then it is not a sport. If the game is played against other players and skill is involved and not just luck, it is a sport.

Why Does All This Even Matter?

There is a negative connotation in poker due to the gambling elements found within the sport. People believe that just because you usually play it in a casino, and it is played with cards, it must be gambling.

My hope is that this article will help shed some light on the true nature of poker. That it is a fun, skill-based sport, that deserves to be in the light of day and not looked down upon.

Related Questions

Is online poker illegal?  The legality of online poker all depends on where you reside. In the United States, it is legal to play in all states except for Kentucky and Washington State. Please be sure to do some research on the legality in your local jurisdiction before playing.

Where is the best place to practice poker? The best place to practice poker is either at home with family or friends, or on a poker site that has play money. For US players and a few other countries, Ignition Poker is a great option. For the rest of the world, I recommend 888 Poker as a fun place to play.

What is the World Series of Poker? The World Series of Poker, or WSOP is a live poker tournament series that occurs annually from late May to the middle of July. Currently, the event is held at the Rio in Las Vegas, Nevada. Anyone who can afford the buy-in can play in the events.

Jim James

Jim James is well-known as the world’s leading expert on playing short or mid-stacked poker. He has over 15 years of experience playing poker professionally, has written extensively on the topic, and is the author of the best-selling poker strategy book Automatic Poker.

Using a no-nonsense mathematical and logical approach to beating the games, he has won 7 figures at the poker tables. His innovative simple poker charts make the game easier for everyone willing to learn. Today, he helps other players demystify what it takes to win money in No-Limit Hold’em and has helped countless people become winning poker players through his Online Poker Academy.