Sift your way through the 15,490 pages of the Oxford English Dictionary and you’ll read the following as a definition of the word sport:
“An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.”
Based on this description, it is difficult to argue that poker is a sport. The only real physical exertion comes when players suddenly jump up from a chair to bemoan a bad beat or collect a winning pile of chips.
And if poker is not a sport, then it makes it impossible for the card game (can we call it that?), to one day appear among the line up for the Olympic Games.
However, the International Olympic Committee has a different take on what defines a sport and it is the IOC that gives the final sign off on which sports are worthy of a spot at the Olympics.
“Olympic sports are all the events sanctioned by one international sports federation and may be divided into several disciplines, which are often regarded as separate sports,” according to the IOC.
Something that boosts poker’s chances is that the IOC does recognise the World Chess Federation, with chess being similar to poker in the sense that they are both sports of the mind.
In fact, back in 2010, the International Mind Sports Association accepted poker as a mind sport, where it joined the likes of chess and bridge.
It was the International Federation of Poker, as it was known then, that pursued this membership, having only been established for a year at the time.
Anthony Holden is its president and he may be better known as the author of ‘Big Deal: A Year as a Professional Poker Player’, which is considered a cult classic among poker literature.
The IFP has since become the International Federation of (Match) Poker and is the governing body of sports poker, with its membership stretching to 43 national Member Federations.
Most recently, the IFMP was granted observer status by the Global Association of International Sports Federations, which is the next step towards being added onto the official Olympic Programme.
To move another rung up the ladder, poker will need to be judged on seven criteria, including universality, popularity and its public image.
Word from the pros
Poker arguably already has its own Olympic Games, although the World Series of Poker is held annually, rather than every four years.
Instead of medals, players are awarded a bracelet if winning one of the many different events. Some 74 events made up the 2017 WSOP, featuring poker variants including Texas Hold’em, Omaha, H.O.R.S.E and seven-card stud.
The discussion of poker being added to the Olympics is not a new one. Back in 2010, ESPN poker columnist Gary Wise asked 50 players for their thoughts on the matter.
Barry Greenstein quashed the idea by suggesting that “sports involve athleticism”, with Daniel Negreanu and Mike Sexton agreeing that the Olympics is for “physical sports”.
Antonio Esfandiari was in the positive camp, highlighting how it was a good opportunity to “send players to represent their country”, while author Nolan Dalla believed poker is as much of a sport as synchronised swimming and far more popular worldwide.
But, perhaps the best response was provided by Greg Raymer, who answered: “No one should be winning medals based on one tournament because the results of one tournament have no bearing on who the best player is. Poker’s a game of long-term skill. To find a valid winner, we’d have to play for months.”
This is very much true and no current sport at the Olympics is so reliant on luck. Although skill is certainly required, a player has no chance of winning if suffering from a cold deck. At some point they will need strong hole cards or fortunate flops to increase their chip count.
Match poker attempts to minimise the impact of luck, focusing more on the mind sport’s strategic skill element.
Of all of the poker varieties, match poker follows the rules of Texas Hold’em, although it is played pre-flop at pot limit and no limit for all betting rounds that follow.
However, the major twist is that this is a team game and it is played on a mobile device.
Each team consists of four players, with one player from each team all taking a seat at different tables. The hand is then set so that the hole cards and community cards are identical at all tables.
At the end of every hand, points are given to each team based on their combined number of chips. Before the next hand begins, all players are re-stacked with an equal amount of chips.
After a set number of hands, the best team and best players can be determined by the digital data collected through the mobile devices.
Table football, pole dancing, footgolf and kettlebell lifting are the other pursuits to have recently been given observer status towards one day appearing on the Olympic stage. Although for them all, there remains some way to go.