Is Poker a Sport or a Game (Or Both)?

Is Poker a Sport?

As poker has grown in popularity over the decades, questions have risen about classifying the unique and complex game.

Like other games involving betting like blackjack and roulette, poker is a game of luck. But like strategy games like chess and Magic: The Gathering, poker is also a game of skill that awards good decisions.

And like traditional sports like football, baseball, and basketball, poker can require serious physical and mental endurance.

This PokerNews article will look at whether poker should be classified as a sport, a game or both.

Is Poker a Sport or a Game?

The quickest way to figure out whether poker is a sport or a game is to look at the dictionary definitions of both and break it down from there.

Sport Definition - What is a Sport?

Merriam-Webster defines a sport as a "physical activity engaged in for pleasure" or "a particular activity (such as an athletic game) so engaged in."

Oxford Dictionary provides a more detailed definition of a game as "an activity involving physical exertion and skill, especially (particularly in modern use) one regulated by set rules or customs in which an individual or team competes against another or others."

Is Poker a Sport?

Based on these two mainstream definitions, we can break down whether poker can be categorized as a sport, either in the cash game or tournament format.

Let's break down the Oxford definition. Poker not only requires physical exertion but also skill, a crucial factor that distinguishes poker from most gambling games. While luck is a large element of poker, it is indisputably a game of skill as demonstrated by the thousands of professional players who have generated long-term results.

Frank Stepuchin
Frank Stepuchin is one of poker's more colorful characters

Additionally, poker is always "regulated by set rules or customs," whether it's a home game, a casino cash game, a bar league or a World Series of Poker (WSOP) event. These include rules against string betting, betting out of turn, collusion or speaking a different language at the poker table.

Some universal poker customs include etiquette for tipping, avoiding slow rolling and angle shooting against angle shooting and not berating your opponents.

Finally, poker is always an activity "where an individual or team competes against another or others." Whether it's a heads-up match between two players, a one-table sit & go or a multi-table tournament with thousands of entries, poker players are constantly competing against one another.

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Why Poker is a Sport

Poker, and live poker in particular, is a physical and social activity that millions of people play around the world. Tournament flights and cash game sessions can stretch into the early morning hours and it requires both physical and mental stamina to stay alert at the table, meeting the Merriam-Webster definition of a sport.

And poker can also be a team activity as demonstrated by Tag Team events at the WSOP and the Los Angeles Poker Classic.

2022 WSOP Main Event Bubble
Thousands of players competed in the 2022 WSOP Main Event

Online poker also meets all of these criteria and can require immense physical and mental stamina for long multi-tabling sessions. Live multi-tabling can also be a physical effort, as Shaun Deeb showed at the 2022 WSOP when he sprinted back and forth between two events.

Given that poker is an activity involving physical and mental exertion with a set of rules and customs where players compete against others, poker clearly meets mainstream definitions of a sport.

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Game Definition - What is a Game?

Let's now look at the definition of a game to see if poker qualifies. Meriam-Webster defines a game as a "physical or mental competition conducted according to rules with the participants in direct opposition to each other."

The Cambridge Dictionary defines a game as "an entertaining activity or sport" and "a particular competition, match or occasion."

Is Poker a Game?

Let's use these definitions to determine if poker is a game. As established earlier in this article, poker requires physical and mental stamina and is a game where participants play against each other. This is especially true of zero-sum games (including poker) where there are winners and losers, whether in a tournament or a cash game session.

Poker is certainly an "entertaining activity" as demonstrated by the popularity of live streams and the epic WSOP and World Poker Tour (WPT) coverage that contributed to the Poker Boom of the early 2000s.

The personalities and televized antics of poker legends like Phil Hellmuth, Phil Laak and Daniel Negreanu, as well as more recent characters like Alejandro Lococo and , Ren Lin and Steven "Cuz" Buckner, are colorful reminders of how entertaining poker can be.

Steven Buckner
Steven Buckner

Furter evidence of poker's entertainment factor is the success of poker movies like Rounders, Molly's Game Mississippi Grind, as well as poker's presence in mainstream films like Casino Royale and video games like Red Dead Redemption.

All forms of poker can be thought of as a "particular competition, match or occasion." A poker tournament clearly meets this definition, but the same is true for cash game sessions.

Based on the above definitions, it is clear that poker is a game in addition to being a sport.

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Are Poker Players Athletes?

Should poker players be considered athletes? Let's turn to Merriam-Webster, which defines an athlete "as a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina."

While poker may not require the physical strength of sports like football or basketball, it certainly requires agility and stamina. And while poker players vary in skill, every player is "trained or skilled" to some degree, even if they are just learning the game for the first time.

It is also worth noting that several former professional or collegiate athletes have enjoyed careers as poker pros, including former college runner Chris Brewer, former college football player Alex Foxen and former basketball pro Joao Vieira.

Alex Foxen
Alex Foxen

Much like traditional athletes, the best poker players are the ones who study the most, practice the most and put in the most work off the tables. Being a top-tier poker player requires physical endurance and the ability to concentrate for hours at a time with thousands or millions on the line.

Is Poker Luck or Skill?

Poker, like many other games, is much more luck-based than traditional sports, where players typically need a lot more skill to determine who the winner will be. That said, poker is very much a skill-based game and has been thought of as such since Doyle Brunson's Super System was first published in 1979.

Jonathan Little
Jonathan Little is a popular poker coach

While luck may determine the outcome of any hand, session or tournament, players making decisions with positive expected values will find themselves profitable in the long term, although it may take a lot of volume to get there.

There have also been legal rulings affirming that poker is indeed a game of skill, including a 2012 New York opinion stating that "increased proficiency boosts a player's chance of winning and affects the outcome of individual hands as well as a series of hands."

However, it should be noted that there are other legal rulings categorizing poker as a non-skill game and legal precedents aren't the best benchmark to look at since they vary so widely by jurisdiction.

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Will Poker Ever be at the Olympics?

While it may not have seemed possible a few decades or even a few years ago, there's a real chance poker could make its way into the Olympics by 2028. However, it may not be the traditional poker tournaments we've seen on TV for years.

According to The Sporting News, there are efforts to get the Olympics to recognize Match Poker, a format where all players are given the same cards, flops, turns and rivers and will be judged by how they play their cards.

Main Event EPT Prgue day 3
2022 EPT Prague Main Event Day 3

In order to make it to the Olympics, any form of poker would have to be approved by the International Olympic Committee and meet game requirements, including how popular the sport is and how it would add the the Olympic legacy.

Poker may join skateboarding, snowboarding and karate as the latest non-traditional activity to make its way to the Olympics.

  • Could poker be classified as a competitive sport and become a part of the Olympics? Read more here.

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