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Friday, June 11, 2004
Updated: June 18, 11:37 AM ET
Does poker qualify as a sport?

By Jay Lovinger
Page 2

Is poker a sport?

Before I attempt to answer that question, here's another one: What difference does it make?

A couple of times in the past few weeks, Tony Kornheiser of "Pardon The Interruption" has questioned whether the current poker boom will have legs. Kornheiser obviously believes it will not, based on the notion that people who watch poker on TV cannot expect to see any spectacular physical feats and so will necessarily become bored and stop watching.

In other words, in Kornheiser's opinion, poker is not a sport.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that Kornheiser knows absolutely nothing about poker, doesn't have the slightest interest in whether or not the poker boom will continue, and is "concerned" about the future of poker only to the extent that it provides a chance to tweak Norman Chad, ESPN's poker color man and a former colleague of Kornheiser at the Washington Post.)

(In the interests of full full disclosure, I should also mention that Kornheiser and I not only worked together at the Washington Post but went to the same school -- Harpur College in bucolic Binghamton, N.Y. -- and that Kornheiser is largely responsible for my journalistic career, such as it is, because he introduced me to the man who gave me my first real editing job. Therefore, under the Fairness In Commentary Act of '99, I am obligated to publicly insult and demean Kornheiser whenever I have the opportunity.)

Vote: Sport or Not a Sport?
Poker requires agility, strength and stamina -- well, of the mental variety. It's on ESPN. But is it a sport? Click here to vote on poker and nine other activities.

OK, let's see if, just this once, Kornheiser might be right about something.

When it comes to proving a dubious point, dictionary definitions are often the last refuge of a scoundrel. So, according to "The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language," here are the first two definitions for "sport":

1.) An active pastime; diversion; recreation.

2.) A specific diversion, usually involving physical exercise and having a set form and body of rules; a game.

So far, so good ... except for a teensy bit of a problem with the phrase "physical exercise." Now, if one defines "physical exercise" as something involving:

1.) Strength; or

2.) Speed; or

3.) Coordination; or

4.) Reflexes; or

5.) Physical endurance; or

6.) Ability to play through pain; or ...

Okay, poker doesn't require any of those, unless you consider the strength needed to push large piles of chips into the middle of a pot, or maybe the manual dexterity necessary to see your hole cards without letting anybody else at the table get a clean look.

Ask Jackpot Jay!
Got a poker problem or want more details about Jay's Vegas adventure? Send in your questions and comments.
However, we have a major out -- the adverb "usually," which, if taken literally, means "sometimes not."

Plus, let's be fair: How much more "physical exercise" is required to play, say, bowling or golf or pool than poker? And nobody would question whether bowling or golf or pool are sports.

Another thing poker has going for it, sports-wise, is that ESPN and the Fox Sports Network both cover it regularly, and magazines like ESPN The Magazine and Sports Illustrated both write about it. (Of course, SI once regularly covered bridge and yachting, too, but it seems unkind to make too much of that.)

In any case, is it really true, as Kornheiser contends, that most people watch sports on TV to see incredible physical feats?

While incredible physical feats are a regular feature of some popular sports -- notably basketball -- there are many popular sports in which incredible physical feats are quite rare, and even those seldom determine the outcome of an event. Just two of many in this category would be baseball and auto racing.

While it is true that baseball has its share of web gems, for example, most of the key moments in a game are noticeable only because of the results. The difference between a swing by Barry Bonds and a swing by, say, Rey Ordonez is perceivable primarily because of the results of those swings -- in Bonds' case, often a home run; in Ordonez's case, almost always, at best, a weak ground ball.

Similarly, what's the difference between a slow curve from Mets' lefty Tom Glavine and a similar pitch from the Yankees' Gabe White? One winds up in the catcher's glove, and the other in outer space; but until those fateful moments, to the naked eye, they look pretty much the same.

In auto racing, everybody goes round and round and round and round, and the only thing that differentiates one guy who goes round and round from another who goes round and round is which one arrives at the finish line first. True, an occasional driver will show an occasional flash of other-worldly reflexes in avoiding a multi-car pileup, but I doubt whether that's why people tune in to watch. In fact, you can make a better case that they tune in to watch, hoping to see multi-car wrecks. In other words, if the vast majority of race-watchers appreciate anything that has to do with incredible physical feats, it is most likely the absence of them.

No, people watch sports for one reason: to see who won, to see who can exhibit the most grace under the most intense pressure, and then to celebrate the winners, often by cashing a bet. (Yes, football fans, I'm talking 'bout you. Be honest now -- would you rather see a week's worth of incredible physical feats, or collect on one meaningful wager from your local bookie?) And the reality is that big-time poker provides just about the most intense pressure the fertile mind of man can create -- not to mention an endless stream of meaningful wagers.

Larry Brown
Coaches have to make lots of intense decisions -- poker players do, too.
First of all, the money is huge. Greg Raymer, the winner of this year's World Series of Poker, took home $5 million; and to do so, he had to play thousands of hands that took 60-plus hours over six days -- without making a single major mistake.

(In that sense, I suppose, great poker players resemble great coaches more than great athletes -- they have to make constant choices, any one of which could cause the entire enterprise to collapse. Consider, for example, Larry Brown's options at the end of the second game of the NBA Finals: Guard the inbounds pass? Foul Shaq? Foul Looooo-ke Walton? Foul Kobe? Double-team Kobe? Play Kobe straight up? Poker players have to make decisions like that hundreds of times in a tournament -- and there's no third and fourth and fifth and sixth and seventh game if they are wrong.)

Second of all, in poker, if you don't win, not only do you not get paid -- unlike baseball and football and basketball players -- but they take money out of your pocket. (The entry fee for playing in the WSOP, for example, was $10,000, so you can sit there for four or five days and go home with only a huge hole in your bank account to show for it.)

Third of all, in major tournaments, there can be 2,500-plus players trying to be the last man standing -- or sitting -- and they all will do almost anything, including lie viciously and repeatedly (in poker, we call it "bluffing"), to send you home a broken husk of a man (or woman).

In other words, win and be a champion toting a life-changing roll of bills big enough to choke Shrek, or lose and go home a chump with a giant hole blown through your life savings. As the Clint Eastwood character -- a lone gunfighter, the ur-American sports figure -- tells the Scofield Kid in "Unforgiven": "It's a helluva thing, killing a man. You take away everything he's got in life, and everything he'll ever have."

Now what can be more pressure-filled, more sporting than all that? And does anybody believe the American public will ever tire of watching?

I say, "No way." What do you think?

Jay Lovinger, a former managing editor of Life and a founding editor of Page 2, is writing on his poker adventures for ESPN.com and also writing a book for HarperCollins. You can watch the 2004 World Series of Poker starting July 6 at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.