Does poker qualify as a sport?

poker chips and cigar

One of the world’s most successful poker professionals, Daniel Negreanu, has called for poker to become an Olympic sport. While to some this idea may seem ludicrous, to the poker-playing world, it seems a perfectly reasonable proposition. And for the millions of people who can’t sprint 100m or dribble a ball, but can play and win poker, it opens up a world of future possibilities. Thanks to the popularity of poker, well-known online gaming brands such as, 888 and Sky have brought poker into the mainstream. The fact that so many people now have an interest in playing poker recreationally means they would be more likely to tune in to poker playing if it did become an Olympic event.

The question for many people is not really whether the Olympics of the future could see players getting a gold medal for poker; it’s more whether we can really call it a sport at all?

When is a game a sport?

The common definition of sport is ‘an activity that usually involves endurance, competition within a set of rules’. The use of the word usually is key here – as it seems to suggest that endurance doesn’t always need to be involved, so therefore some sports can be played without needing to demonstrate endurance.

There are several recognised sports that could probably be challenged as to whether they are sports or games. Darts is one example. The game of darts hasn’t made it into the Olympics yet, but it’s certainly perceived by most people to be a sport, even though it doesn’t require a lot of physical endurance.

Similarly, snooker is viewed as a sport but again doesn’t require physical fitness to play it. Although it’s not an Olympic sport, it received full recognition as a true sport from the International Olympic Committee in February 1998. The World Confederation of Billiard Sports applied for snooker to be included in the 2004 Summer Olympics, but although it was considered by the Greek Olympic Committee, it wasn’t selected.
Golf is yet another example of a sport that doesn’t require much in terms of physical endurance. It used to be an Olympic sport, but the last time golf was played in the Olympics was in 1904. On the flip side, shooting and archery, are both Olympic sports that don’t require physical strength or endurance to be played more than any other of the sports mentioned above.

Poker’s sporting credentials

There’s no denying that while poker may not require physical strength, it certainly takes a lot of mental stamina to sit through the number of hands that it takes to win the World Series of Poker Main Event, for example. Many athletes would struggle to maintain this level of endurance over a similar period of time.

Poker players train in order to improve their concentration over long periods of time in the same way that a runner would improve their speed through training.

And a poker player has to play consistently well, without making a mistake in order to make it through to the top of a tournament. A poker player will have to make difficult decisions and choices to apply their strategy hundreds of times during a tournament, and each decision could result in their progress or defeat in the tournament, much in the same way that a football team can be knocked out of a major tournament during the elimination stages.

But when someone plays poker, it’s not like being a member of a football team or basketball team. If they lose, not only do they not get paid, they also have to forfeit the entry fee that they paid to get into the game in the first place. Most of the major tournaments have high-stakes entry fees and a player can sit and play for a number of days and then lose, going home with only a lighter bank account to show for their efforts.

To win a major poker tournament is no easy achievement. There can be over 2,500 players who start off in the tournament, all with the aim of the being the last person standing at the end of it all. And that’s what makes poker tournaments so popular for spectators as well as the players.
When you compare poker with sports such as snooker, golf, darts, shooting and archery, there are some compelling arguments as to why poker could be called a sport too. But at the end of the day, the big difference between these sports and poker is that poker is the only one that promoted and marketed by gambling companies, and that may be what prevents it from ever becoming an Olympic event.