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Copyright © 2006 USA Today
Sport or not a sport? Pot is split on poker
sport(noun) 1. An activity involving
physical exertion and skill that is governed by a set of rules
or customs and often undertaken competitively. 2. An active pastime;
poker(noun). 1. Any of various card
games played by two or more players who bet on the value of their
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third
In this iPod, Xbox age, the question is no longer under the table:
Is poker a sport?
The dictionary definitions of the two words seem to render the
case closed. They don't belong in the same sentence. But Webster
and colleagues haven't taken into account the effect of television
and the blurring of our cultural boundaries everywhere.
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OK, it won't go down in history with the Lincoln-Douglas debates,
and it doesn't examine the great issues of our day, like whether
the split-up was Nick's or Jessica's fault. But what sports argument
To most folks old enough to have voted for Ronald (The Gipper)
Reagan for president, it's not a sport unless the smell of Ben
Gay is prevalent in the locker room. In their minds, the term
Texas Hold 'Em refers to the Dallas Cowboys' offensive line.
But that thinking has been challenged since poker
started showing up on every cable TV channel except C-SPAN.
The game has skyrocketed in popularity — thanks in part
to ESPN's tightly edited series from the World Series of Poker
(WSOP) — and its proponents are now making a case that it
should be listed right up there with other great athletic endeavors.
Like synchronized swimming. And curling.
Indeed, to many, it's a very simple equation.
"You know what? I guess it is (a sport) because they show
it on ESPN," said Chicago Bears cornerback Charles (Peanut)
Tillman. "So I guess it is a sport, just like the spelling
bee is a sport."
For the record, ESPN has never claimed the game is a sport. And
remember what the "E" in ESPN originally stood for?
Entertainment and Sports Programming Network.
"It's not a sport. How can it be a sport?" said Bob
Chesterman, former executive producer of the shows for ESPN Original
Entertainment. "It's a competition, and the audience likes
The game's stunning growth is unquestioned: The Nevada Gaming
Control Board said casino poker earnings for the fiscal year that
ended June 30 increased 48.3% to $119.6 million, poker's largest
one-year increase in Nevada history.
No one doubts the skill and mental acuity required to play at
the top level, but how can something be a sport if it requires
less physical activity than sports writing? (No wisecracks until
you've climbed the upper-deck ramps at Wrigley Field).
What the jocks say
"The word 'athlete' and the word 'sport' are getting so
watered down," said Bryan Clay, 2004 Olympic silver medalist
in the decathlon, the event that traditionally comes with the
title "World's Greatest Athlete."
The debate would have seemed ludicrous 15 years ago because poker
doesn't seem to meet the minimum criteria for the traditional
"Sweating, at least," said Bears offensive lineman
John St. Clair. "Although you might sweat (in poker) if you're
losing a lot."
"There's absolutely no physical activity at all," added
Dwight Phillips, 2004 Olympic long-jump gold medalist, "except
maybe lifting a beer or lifting a card."
"Maybe if they did full-contact poker," suggested Adam
Nelson, two-time Olympic shot-put silver medalist, who plays poker
You'd think football players in particular would scoff at the
notion, but a sampling of Bears players late last season turned
up a surprising number who were willing to classify the card game
as a sport. After joking there's no good answer to the question,
all-pro linebacker Brian Urlacher said he guesses it's a sport
because it requires thinking, preparation "and sometimes
you have to walk around."
So those guys are athletes?
"I say it's a sport," he shot back, carrying the diplomacy
only so far.
If not part of the club, poker players are at least kindred spirits
with athletes, said poker legend Doyle (Texas Dolly) Brunson,
72. Called the Babe Ruth of poker, Brunson was a multisport athlete
before he shattered his leg in a factory accident. He said many
top professional poker players, like him, are former athletes.
"I think there are so many things that are the same in sports
and poker that you've got to link them together some way,"
said Brunson, a spokesperson for DoylesRoom.com. "You have
to be a mental athlete to play. You have to have physical endurance.
... The last tournament I won (the No-Limit Six-Person Hold 'Em
at last year's World Series of Poker), I played 18 hours one day,
16 hours the next day and 16 hours that last day. That's pretty
"You have to practice like we did in athletics. If I go
several weeks without playing and I go back and play, I'm so rusty
I make a lot of errors," said Brunson, a high-school state
champion in the mile run and a basketball standout at Hardin-Simmons
University in Abilene, Texas, who was ticketed for the NBA before
his injury. The best poker players have the sort of mental toughness
and discipline that you see in top athletes, he added.
Interesting, said long jumper Phillips, but not enough to clear
the hurdle for sports.
"There's a difference between endurance and trying to stay
awake," he said.
Brunson, who often walks with a cane, says many top players hire
trainers to work out and build endurance. Though his leg and two
bad shoulders limit his physical training, "I swim every
morning," he said.
"OK, so some of the guys are out of shape," he added.
"Let some of those guys that are in such good shape come
and try to sit with us at a poker table. ... I'll bet you the
pro athlete folds before the poker player does."
While the debate seems harmless to some, others view the stakes
as significantly higher than a round of beers or points on a sports
columnists' talk show. Affixing the label of sport to poker gives
it broader acceptance, especially among younger viewers who could
be susceptible to gambling problems.
"The more that connection is made, the more dangerous it
is," said Peter Roby, director of the Center for the Study
of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. "A lot of
young kids can't make the distinction between what they see on
TV and what's happening off TV with online gambling."
Added Phillips: "We're supposed to be trying to teach kids
not to gamble."
The flood of poker on television is promoting gambling to a young
audience, and its appearance on a brand like ESPN "makes
it easier for people to make that leap" that it is a sport,
Chesterman, who produced the show from its inception until leaving
ESPN this winter, says the network has been sensitive to the issue
and tries to balance the coverage.
On the other hand, he said, the game has been an American pastime
for generations: "Fifty million people play; it's a lot more
accepted than not."
In addition to concerns that it is fueling Internet gambling
among youths, decathlon champion Clay worries about another trend.
"It kind of seems the things that are becoming more and
more popular take less and less activity," he said, citing
video games and card playing. "It could be very dangerous
to let that go too far. ... I wish people could know you can have
just as much fun running track."
If it's considered a sport, he said, next thing you know you'll
have students lobbying for it as an alternative physical -ducation
class, like coaching poker.
"Imagine having a professor who majored in poker playing,"
Poker's near ubiquity on cable TV is particularly irritating
to track athletes, who are almost ignored on the airwaves until
the Summer Olympics every four years.
"We work our bodies hard and train, and we get less recognition
than a lot of guys playing Texas Hold 'Em. I take it personally,"
said Phillips, the 2005 world outdoor champion in the long jump.
"We don't get a lot of air time. I can turn on TV and watch
Texas Hold 'Em every day of the week."
Clay said he enjoys the game but is disheartened to see sports
networks devote so much time to it compared to more obscure "real
sports and athletes."
"I think it's sad that the things kids are going to see
and look up to are the ones winning a card game," he said.
"I wish kids could learn more about athletes doing things
the right way."
ESPN's World Series of Poker telecasts are actually a product
of the ESPN Original Entertainment branch, which also produces
original movies, scripted dramas and is collaborating with an
independent production company on Giants slugger Barry Bonds'
current series, Bonds on Bonds. WSOP is, in a sense, ESPN's answer
to reality TV.
For 12 hourlong shows of the WSOP main event with the $7.5 million
jackpot, the network shot more than 2,300 hours of tape. It used
23 cameras and took about three weeks to edit each show into a
minidrama in which viewers get to know — and love or dislike
— the players like the participants in The Apprentice.
"That's why it takes awhile to edit, making sure the storylines
are good and compelling," said Chesterman, now vice president
of park strategy and management for Six Flags, Inc.
"They do a great job packaging it," said shot-putter
Nelson. "They've got some great characters routinely in the
running for the big money."
The TV poker season, such as it is, ramps up next month when
ESPN begins airing last fall's United States Poker Championships.
The 2006 WSOP competition opens in June and ESPN coverage starts
ESPN's WSOP coverage went from seven shows the first year, 2003,
to 32 last year. It averaged a 1.3 rating for the 32 episodes
in 2005, including a 2.0 (1.8 million households) for the grand
finale in November. Last year's ratings were higher than the first
year (1.2) but down from 1.7 in 2004.
Fun on the Internet
As the poker/sport debate continues, the next question is obvious:
"Does poker belong in the Olympics?"
A website called pokerinathens.com (sponsored by Full Tilt Poker)
promoted the idea in 2004, presumably tongue-in-cheek, featuring
animated graphics of rhythmic gymnastics, synchronized swimming
and doubles luge over the heading, "If this qualifies, why
not poker?" Last year, another online poker site pushed an
extreme underwater poker game, 30 feet below sea level, as worthy
of the five-ring treatment.
The International Olympic Committee hasn't recognized any poker
federations, but the idea may not be completely as wacky as it
sounds. The IOC recognizes bridge as a sport with its own international
federation, and senior IOC member Marc Hodler has lobbied for
"I'm a believer that the human brain is at least as important
as muscles," Hodler told the Deseret Morning News of Salt
Lake City before the 2002 Games.
Federations representing billiards, chess and ballroom dancing
also have been granted provisional recognition by the IOC.
None, including bridge, is expected to join the Olympics, and
none involves gambling as an integral part of its play. But if
one makes it, we all know what the poker parties will say: All
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