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Online Poker News Archives - November 14, 2005

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Copyright 2005 The MSJ

November 14, 2005

Poker as a legitimate sport

Author: David Cho

Poker has recently had a meteoric rise in popularity. For all practical purposes, people treat it like a real sport. This Tuesday night during primetime, ESPN will broadcast the ending of the 2005 World Series of Poker Main Event. In case you're not familiar with the World Series, this year 5,619 individuals paid $10,000 each to play in a gigantic game of no-limit Texas Hold'em where the winner walked away with $7.5 million.

Mostly because of ESPN and the Travel Channel's coverage of the World Poker Tour, the world's best poker players are now household names. Phil Hellmuth, the youngest winner of the main event is an ESPN favorite. If you haven't heard of him, perhaps you've heard of some of the people he plays with. In early October, New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodrigues was spotted in an illegal poker parlor in lower Manhattan playing Hold'em with Hellmuth.

Regardless of whom A-Rod is playing with, more and more people are playing poker at home, at casinos, and online. If you were to classify poker as a sport, it would be the most popular sport in the U.S. with some estimates approaching 100 million participants. With all of this growth and attention, the debate about poker has intensified. Is it really a sport?

Poker is a sport. It might just be the perfect sport.

Look at the actual playing of the game. Poker might be the easiest game in the world to learn. How many times have you heard a novice say, "I'll play with you, all I need is a list of what hands beat what." And even if it only takes a minute to learn, it takes a lifetime to master the rules and strategies of all the different versions of poker. Some people argue that there is too much luck involved because people can experience tremendous success after only playing the game for a short period of time. Chris Moneymaker (yes, that's his real name) won the 2003 Main Event after playing the game online for three years. Keep in mind that online players often play multiple games at the same time to see as many hands as possible and much more action than they could ever see at one table in person.

You can play poker with any number of people. You can play heads-up against your roommate for beer money, you can play in six-person Thursday night game with co-workers, or you can play against 5,619 people for the World Series Main Event title.

You can play poker anywhere. You don't need a field or any specialized equipment.You need a deck of cards, but the table, chairs and chips really are extras.

You can play poker forever. Two-time Main Event winner Doyle "Texas Dolly" Brunson is still playing competitive poker at the age of 72. Seventy-two makes Jack Nicklaus' win in the 1986 Masters at the age of 46 sound like something he did in his prime.

Men and women can play poker competitively against each other at any level from beginner to pro. While no woman has ever made the final table at the Main Event, that's probably more a function of the disproportionate rate at which men and women enter poker tournaments. Last year Annie Duke won the World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions, a ten-person invitation-only tournament including four past Main Event champions. Duke was the only woman at the table and beat out her older brother Howard Lederer, Hellmuth, Brunson, and six other poker legends to win the $2 million winner-take-all event.

Anyone can experience the feeling of playing a perfect hand. Most people will never know what it feels like to throw a 95-mph fastball, much less hit one out of a major league ballpark. However, anyone can get dealt two aces in a game of Hold'em, make a big bet and watch everyone fold. If you're sitting at the right table, you could even do it against a World Series champion. Luck can play such a huge role in the game that even a beginner can take a hand from a pro. It might only be one hand, but it's a lot better than a beginner would do against a pro in any other sport.

Poker, even at the highest levels, is open to all. It's an incredibly inclusive sport where all you really need is a chip and a chair. The pinnacle event is open to anyone who will put up the $10,000 entry fee. Last year, $10,000 wouldn't have gotten you a good ticket to some of the Red Sox World Series games in Fenway Park. In poker, $10,000 gets you on-the-field for the game's yearly championship.

Those are some of compelling arguments for considering poker as a sport based on the actual playing of the game. However, one can also make the argument that poker is a sport because it has all of the secondary cultural characteristics of a sport in our society.

Every real sport has a great book written about it. Baseball has "Ball Four" by Jim Bouton and more recently "Moneyball" by Bill James. Poker has "Super System" by Doyle Brunson, the original how-to poker book, and "Positively Fifth Street" by James McManus, the real-life story of a writer's experience navigating the field of the 2000 Main Event.

Every real sport also has at least one great movie about it. Even wrestling has "Vision" "Quest." Poker has "Rounders," a movie starring Matt Damon as a law student who dreams of going to Las Vegas to play in the World Series. Damon's character shares the ultimate poker lesson for beginners: "Listen, here's the thing. If you can't spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker."

Every real sport has cool-sounding sport-specific jargon which separates the real players and fans from everyone else. Most casual football fans know that "cover two" is a style of defense where the two safeties split the deep part of the field into halves. More hardcore fans might know that the middle linebacker is referred to as the Mike. Poker may have more insider lingo than any other sport. One example of this is all of the different nicknames for the different two-card starting hands in Hold'em. Some are obvious: K-K is cowboys, Q-Q is ladies, 8-8 is snowmen, and 7-7 is hockey sticks. Some are non-poker cultural references: A-A is American Airlines, 9-9 is Wayne Gretzky, and 9-5 is Dolly Parton. Some are historical poker references: 10-2 is Doyle Brunson because he won two World Series titles with that hand. And some serve as social commentary: A-K has traditionally been called Big Slick but has recently been called Anna Kournikova. Why? Because it looks good but it never wins.

Some have tried to split the difference on the debate of poker as a sport by saying that it's a game. Proponents of this argument say that it takes a tremendous amount of mental endurance to play poker like other highly competitive games such as chess. Others are happy just arguing that poker is the greatest card game ever invented.

Regardless of whether or not poker is a sport or a game, it has become a multi-billion dollar business. Poker is always on ESPN. Casinos have all raced to build new poker rooms and they are always packed. Online poker is a two-billion dollar per year business. Last October,, a publicly traded British sports betting and casino-gaming site, spent $300 million to purchase, which only has a 10-percent share of the online-poker market.

And what business would be complete without an MBA? Greg Dinkin is the author of The Poker MBA. His book suggests how poker principles translate into business success. Poker stories teach readers how to apply game theory and use the traits of a poker professional to become better decision-makers. Poker concepts such as how to read a person's poker face and how to identify a person's tells help you to become a better negotiator, manager, and risk-taker.

And what MBA program would be complete without an executive version. Phil Hellmuth commands $10,000 fees for leading poker tutorials at corporate events. Here are his poker takeaways-good for card or boardroom tables.

1) Bluff when you can, not when you have to. Bluffing is a strategy, not a last resort. Think of Steve Case, who bluffed Time Warner's Gerald Levin into believing that 30 million dial-up subscribers were worth Time Warner's decades-old media empire.

2) Don't speak when you can nod. Don't move when you can be still. And when you are the player with the action, never, ever raise your gaze across the felt. PeopleSoft CEO Craig Conway wisely let the courts deal with Oracle's $7.3 billion hostile bid for his company, while stealthily going about his own business.

3) Always be willing to fold a strong hand. In his pursuit of PeopleSoft, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison stubbornly stuck to his initial all-cash, $5.1 billion bid, even after it became clear that getting the deal done would cost almost 50-percent more than his bankers thought it was worth.

4) Always be willing to call with a weak hand. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos called Wall Street in 1999 for a $1.25 billion debt offering even as Amazon was bleeding tens of millions of dollars in cash. The bankers folded and Bezos got his deal.

5) Patience is the highest virtue. Consider Dell, which has made a business of letting other computer companies bring innovative technologies to market, then pouncing with its own lower-cost direct-sales model.

Shuffle up and deal!

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