Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Poker, the Least Sporty Sport

The fall semester has already begun, and that means I’m again teaching my “Poker in American Film and Culture” course. I generally like to start the course with an excerpt from the first chapter of Poker: Bets, Bluffs, and Bad Beats by Al Alvarez in which he declares poker to be “The American Game.”

Alvarez begins the chapter comparing poker to various sports that are popular in the U.S., noting how unlike other candidates for the title of “the American game” like baseball or football, poker is a game people continue to play “once they have left school and lost their physical edge.” It’s “a game for life and a great equalizer,” he says, going on to point out how so many who “were athletes in their youth... turned to poker because their desire to compete and win lingered on long after their legs gave out.”

When discussing the excerpt with the class we’ll often address this comparison of poker to sports, and in that context I’ll usually bring up how occasionally some will argue that poker is a sport, or at least has enough in common with other sports for such a designation not to be easily dismissed.

But yesterday I found myself a little less ready to share that observation after my attention was drawn to a chart resulting from a survey conducted on Reddit in which respondents were given a list of more than 50 games and activities and asked whether or not they considered them as a sport.

The list included a few obvious “sports” (to me, anyway) like boxing, lacrosse, wrestling, and golf, as well things like paintball, fishing, chess, and poker about which people reasonably disagree about the designation. If I’m following the explanation of the chart clearly, it looks like there were 460 respondents altogether -- not a huge sample, but enough to make the results interesting nonetheless.

The chart showing the results dramatically positions poker as the activity the fewest respondents said they considered to be a sport, with just a little over 10% saying they consider it as such. Even cheerleading, competitive video gaming, and competitive eating were considered sports by more respondents than was poker.

Here’s the chart, with poker nudged all of the way there on the right-most edge -- to the periphery, you might say (click to embiggen):

Comments on Reddit reiterate commonly made observations that people “don’t consider poker a sport because you’re just sitting there with a deck of cards” -- i.e., the relative lack of physicality involved in the game hurts poker’s candidacy here.

As I’ve written about here before, I am disinclined to call poker a sport -- preferring “game” instead (as the title of the Alvarez chapter has it) -- although I certainly understand and often enjoy thinking about the many affinities between poker and several sports, especially individual ones. Additionally, to some I describe my tournament reporting as being much like sports writing, too, which sometimes helps make the job a lot easier to explain.

While a larger sample size would be helpful, I don’t think it would largely alter poker’s low-ranking status when it comes to this particular survey question. Meanwhile, the exercise brings a couple of other questions to mind.

First, how might the fact that most are unwilling to entertain the idea that poker is a sport affect attitudes toward the game, generally speaking? Also, as many who have taken up the “cause” of poker have tried the tactic of likening it to sports in order to make it seem more culturally acceptable, but does that argument largely fall on deaf ears?

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2 Comments:

Blogger Mark said...

I always enjoy your posts and appreciate the time and effort that goes into them.

Here are my criteria for something being a sport vs. game vs. activity.

If I can drink a beer and smoke a cigar while participating it is not a sport.

8/23/2014 1:40 PM  
Blogger Aztec said...

I wonder if anyone has written about the different attitudes prevailing in different countries. Although I would never claim to have my finger on the pulse, here in the UK I'm not aware of any debate about the merits or dangers of poker except insofar as there might occasionally be some thought given to gambling in general. In the US, poker seems to have a special place amongst vices.
I wonder also how much the attitudes of governments is influenced by where the companies running the poker games are based & therefore where the profits & associated tax revenue goes.

8/28/2014 3:27 PM  

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