Monday, February 15, 2010

The Olympics, A Chance to Contemplate the Significance of “Sport”

Poker reporter B.J. Nemeth and Rhapsody in Vancouver at the start of the 2010 Winter OlympicsHaven’t gotten a chance to see all of this poker on TV here over the last couple of days. Too much else going on, I’m afraid.

ESPN has been airing its coverage of the 2009 World Series of Poker Europe all month. They started with a couple of hours devoted to the Caesars Cup in which Team Europe defeated Team Americas, then this month they are having eight more hours devoted to the Main Event won by Barry Shulman. The Super Bowl got in the way early on, and now the Winter Olympics has taken over our crystal receiver, so I have yet to view any of that coverage.

Last night also saw the debut of the sixth season of “High Stakes Poker” with new co-host Kara Scott joining Gabe Kaplan with the commentary. That show comes on the Game Show Network, a channel we used to receive but now requires an upgrade for us to get -- and I won’t be doing that for one show. So as with the WSOPE, I’ll be trying to catch up on HSP soon online, too.

I mentioned the Winter Olympics, which Vera Valmore and I have dialed into the last couple of nights. I know many complain about the way NBC covers things, with all the tape delays and the prepackaged stuff disagreeably mediating the viewing experience at times. But I still find it all pretty compelling, and am often astounded by the focus and drive of these athletes.

Of course, as happens with the Summer Olympics as well, there are events that arise that make one wonder about the definition of “sport.” This weekend that conversation was mostly about the frequently-featured luge competition, which saw the men’s singles play out following the tragic death of Georgian Nodar Kumaritashvili during a test run.

Clearly luge is a sport that involves incredible concentration and body awareness. As does the skeleton, the one in which they ride down on their tummies. Still, for many of us watching it is hard to appreciate the athleticism required not only to perform well, but to avoid injury. Or, as was sadly illustrated on Friday, even worse.

Maybe it looks too much like something we all did as kids on the playground for us to appreciate luge as a sport. In fact, I remember saying something Saturday night to Vera about how it was sort of like a grown-up, much more serious (and dangerous) version of sliding. That led us into a conversation about poker and the oft-evoked debate over its designation by some as a “sport.”

By the way, for those who don't know, that photo above is of poker reporter B.J. Nemeth and his dog, Rhapsody, who were in Vancouver for the start of the games. (Click the pic to enlarge.) The pair is in the middle of an epic cross-continent trip which Nemeth is chronicling both on Twitter and his blog.

Nemeth is one of those who finds it useful to call poker a sport. If you are interested, he discusses some of the reasons why he thinks so in this Pokerati post from a while back. Meanwhile, Vera disagrees, and I, too, am more inclined to call poker a “game.” That said, as Vera and I talked further about the issue, I noted to her how calling it a “sport” has had some legal significance in certain parts of the world.

Indeed, last summer when I went to Kyiv, Ukraine to help cover that European Poker Tour event, I would have never even been there had Russia not decided in July to remove poker from its official list of sports. By doing so, poker was no longer protected from being prohibited by a new gambling law, and thus it instantly became unfeasible for the EPT to stage an event in Moscow. Thus was it moved to Kyiv (and, as it happened, I got the invite to go help cover the event soon after).

The timing was good for Kyiv, because Ukraine had just recently (in June 2009, I think) had a court decision where poker was included in its official list of non-Olympic sports. In fact, at the opening of the EPT Kyiv event, a welcome message from Ukraine’s “Minister of Youth, Family and Sport” was read referring to the decision.

I’m with Vera, though, in saying that poker hasn’t the athletic component to make it a real “sport” in my mind. In luge or skeleton the expression of athleticism is perhaps too subtle for me readily to appreciate, but I’m willing to allow that these are in fact sports I’m watching. I know some want to argue for a kind of non-obvious athleticism in poker, too, citing things like stamina or even (as in luge) body awareness/control as factors affecting one’s performance. But unless it helps us get some sort of legal clearance to play our tourneys, I’m sticking with the “game” designation for poker.

North American Poker TourSpeaking of, I’ll be helping cover another event here pretty soon, the North American Poker Tour (NAPT) Venetian event that starts on Saturday. More on that to come!

Meanwhile, I think there’s a bunch of skiing and skating on tap for today and tonight. Gonna have to check that out. Might be a little while before I get to all that poker watching.

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