Is Poker a Sport?

With poker’s popularity soaring, the debate rages on: is poker a game or a legitimate sport? There are reasonable arguments on both sides:

a.. Those sporting purists seeking to keep poker out of the pantheon of traditional sports argue that a sport by definition requires ‘physical exertion’ not evidenced in a typical poker game.
b.. Those arguing that poker is a legitimate sport cite the sheer skill, experience and mental tenacity required to consistently win at the highest levels of the game. First off, let me say that those who claim that poker requires no physical exertion have never see Phil Hellmuth’s histrionics. : )

Secondly, while this argument may never be settled satisfactorily, one thing is abundantly clear: if poker is indeed a legitimate sport, its reigning Duke has achieved something of true historical significance. I am referring, of course, to Annie Duke’s victory in the inaugural World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions. In defeating nine of the top ranked poker professionals in the world (all of them male), Annie became only the second woman to win a major professional sporting championship in a head-to-head competition against top-flight male competitors.

Think about that.

It’s the equivalent of Annika Sorenstam winning the Masters or Serena Williams winning the men’s seed at Wimbledon.

Don’t buy it? Think Annie’s victory in a made-for-TV event is more along the lines of Billy Jean King’s victory over Bobby Riggs in 73?

Consider this.

While King’s victory over Riggs was similarly historic, it was an exhibition match, not a Championship Tournament pitting her against the likes of Rod Laver, John Newcombe and Jimmy Conners-the top ranked male players of the era. Riggs was one of the best players of his generation, but he was long past his prime when he took the court against Billy Jean in their infamous ‘Battle of the Sexes.’ Moreover, the tennis twosome didn’t have a $2 million pot riding on the match!

While sporting history is filled with examples of women competing favorably in men’s professional sports leagues (Manon Rheaume, the aforementioned Annika Sorenstam, etc.), none have been crowned the reigning world champion of their chosen sport, with one notable exception (more on that in a second ; ).

Wait a minute you’re saying, what about Juli Inkster? She won the only professional golf tournament in the world in which women and men competed head-to-head, winning an Invitational Pro-Am at Pebble Beach in a one-stroke victory. Another laudable achievement to be sure, but once again this accomplishment suffers in comparison to Duke’s because of the invitational status of the event. No offense ladies, but you can bet if it had been the PGA Championship, all of the boys would’ve shown up and they would’ve brought their ‘A’ game.

This is what sets Annie’s accomplishment apart from the rest.

She beat the best men in the world at their own game in a true championship caliber event featuring the world’s best. By doing so, she has achieved a truly memorable feat, and in the process joins the only other woman to accomplish this feat: Shirley Muldowney.

A winner of not one, not two, but three NHRA Winston Top Fuel championships, Muldowney is regarded as one of the most important athletes of the 20th century and one of the finest drivers in Top Fuel history. Of Muldowney, Motorsports journalist John Jodauga said, “Her pioneering efforts for women could be compared to the racial barriers that Jackie Robinson broke in Major League Baseball.” The 1983 film ‘Heart Like a Wheel,” profiled Muldowney’s career and her quest to become the reigning champion in a sport dominated by men for close to a century.

A sport dominated by men for close to a century – sound familiar?

The question is not whether Annie’s accomplishment is historically significant or whether it’s one that all women should be proud of. That’s a given. The question is whether or not it’s a ‘sporting’ achievement.

Now, I’m certainly not going to denigrate the amazing accomplishments of Shirley Muldowney, but in my books, taking on the likes of Phil Hellmuth with $2 million staring you in the face takes every bit the mental toughness and skill of facing “Big Daddy” Don Garlits for the checkered flag. For anyone who considers poker a sport then you may also be interested in football betting. If so, we recommend reading this football tipster for the latest tips before you place a bet.

C’mon you sporting purists, if driving a dragster for a scant 5 seconds is enough to qualify as ‘physical exertion,’ then putting on the world’s best poker face for 8 hours has to qualify too. Furthermore, if it isn’t a sport, someone should tell ESPN. Last time I checked they were televising it every once and a while ; )