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Poker - the Game Versus the Sport

Is Poker a game or sport?

by Tom McEvoy |  Published: Aug 08, 2006


The Las Vegas Sun newspaper recently published an article about poker "the game" versus poker "the sport." In the article, Mori Eskandani was discussing this aspect of poker with Jeff Haney, a reporter for the Sun. Haney has done many articles covering the poker scene, and Eskandani has been a successful high-stakes professional player for many years. He now is the coordinating producer of High Stakes Poker on GSN.

"I could take any one person in this restaurant," Mori said while sitting in the coffee shop at the Red Rock Resort, "work with him for a day, and give him a legitimate chance to beat Doyle Brunson in a heads-up no-limit tournament." Mori qualified that by saying, " ... as long as the blinds and antes were to increase at regular intervals, as they normally do in tournament poker. That ensures an element of randomness, enough to allow an average guy to have a chance at beating a poker legend." Mori made it clear that Doyle would still be a substantial favorite in a heads-up match, but would not be a lock to win. "That's the game of poker," he went on to say.

Now, what happens if the ground rules are changed? "Could I take anyone in here and give him a legitimate chance to beat Doyle not in a tournament, but in a cash game?" Eskandani asked. "No way. Doyle would grind them right down. That is the sport of poker, rather than the game."

Mori loves his involvement with GSN because it highlights poker the sport and not the game. Remember, in a cash game, the blinds and antes stay the same. This allows the various abilities of the players to be on display. The subtle maneuvering and pure card skill are what fascinate Mori, as well as TV audiences. The luck factor is downgraded compared to tournament poker.

Many television viewers don't quite understand that with the high blinds at the final table of a tournament, lots of risky all-in moves with subpar hands is the norm, not the exception. This means that many of the major tournament winners got there by being lucky at the right times. This is not to downgrade their accomplishments, however. I have often said that anybody who wins a tournament has to have two things going for him: luck and skill. If this fabulous game of ours were only skill, the best players would win all the time, as they do in many sports. It's the luck factor that gives hope to the average man and woman. They know that on a given day, in a given tournament, they can knock off a famous player, even a world champion.

What does this all mean? It means that there is a high luck factor in tournaments, and a lot of TV drama. The best player sometimes wins, but often a newcomer takes the top prize. To quote another former world champion, "I am trying to prove that luck can overcome skill and science." I did not say that first, but I have often said it since I first heard it. But remember, we are talking about the game of poker.

What about the sport of poker? That is what separates the men from the boys, or from their cash, at least. Skillful play wins out in the long run: learning how to make the right decisions, learning to read players, knowing when to push marginal hands and when to fold strong hands, knowing how to squeeze out extra bets when you have the best of it, and how to save bets when your hand is beat. These are the abilities that make a successful professional poker player.

Think about this: If the game were all luck, there would not be any such thing as a professional poker player. The rake would defeat everybody in the end. I have made a living playing poker since 1978. That would not have been possible if the luck factor was too high.

Is poker really a sport? Well, it certainly is not an athletic contest. Just look at the overweight players who don't get enough sunlight, much less exercise. In tournaments, stamina can become an issue - obviously favoring younger players over older players. Experience can help overcome some of the younger players' advantage in this area. I think poker is a mental sport - just like chess, for example. So, should poker be called a game or a sport?

Who cares what it's called? As Linda Johnson says, "Now, let's play poker." spade

Tom McEvoy is a representative of He also is the voice of ProPlay, a new and innovative way to learn winning poker strategy. Find out more at