Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Playing Games, Watching Sports

Saw someone refer in passing to this whole “sportifying” poker idea that has come up now and again over the last several months, usually in the context of the Global Poker Index and some of the ideas and stories related to their method of ranking tournament players and associated ventures.

It was an unsympathetic reference, insisting -- as I tend to do -- that poker is really a “game” not a “sport,” although not elaborating on the point much further.

This debate or conversation starter or whatever you want to call it comes up occasionally in my “Poker in American Film and Culture” course, thanks largely to a reading I assign early on, the first chapter of Al Alvarez’s book Poker: Bets, Bluffs and Bad Beats titled “The American Game.”

In that chapter Alvarez makes a good case for why poker is, in his opinion, the “American national game.” In fact the first move he makes as he launches into the argument is explicitly to distinguish poker from baseball and football -- i.e., a couple of other games which might spring to mind as candidates for the title he’s bestowing on poker.

The difference, says Alvarez, is that “baseball and football are spectator sports, and, airtime and column inches notwithstanding, not many people go on playing them once they have left school and lost their physical edge. Poker, in comparison, is a game for life and a great equalizer -- what the young gain from stamina the old make up for with experience -- and it is played by at least sixty million Americans.”

The book was published in 2001, when about 285 million lived in the U.S. Today the population is edging toward 320 million. You continue to see estimates of the number of poker players ranging from 40-60 million, although that’s obviously a hard number to pinpoint.

In any case it’s probably safe to say there are more people playing poker in America than are playing baseball or football. According to one report, there were a little over one million football players in high school last year and a little under half a million playing baseball. You could extrapolate from that how many total players (older and younger) there might be in each sport, but I think the total would be well below the 40-60 million poker players.

A lifelong sport like golf might be a better comparison, actually. It sounds like there are about 25 million golfers in the country at present, a number that has held steady for the last three years or so according to another report.

Stepping back from all of this (and perhaps getting a little abstract as I do), it occurred to me that calling poker a “sport” rather than a “game” could make it seem more like something you watch than something you play.

Many of us love to play one sport or another, but don’t necessarily look upon all sports as providing opportunities for participation. Or any, even. Each sport requires some specific set of physical skills that can potentially limit involvement for those who lack them. Meanwhile playing a game of cards also requires some skills (more so mental than physical), and to play cards well requires even more, but the game of poker is nowhere near as exclusive as are sports like baseball and basketball.

I know the idea behind “sportifying” poker is to make the game more accessible (and acceptable), but could calling poker a sport and championing its most successful players as superior mental “athletes” actually make the game less inviting to new players? That is, could it make the game seem more exclusive as far as participating is concerned, though (perhaps) more inviting to spectators?

Another way of posing the same question: Today the International Federation of Poker (@IFPoker) tweeted “#Poker is a game where the best players think about the way hands are played at a level most people couldn't even imagine! #mindsport #skill.” That’s a view I imagine most of us who have studied poker and who take the game seriously can readily appreciate to be true.

But does that make poker a more inviting game to play? Or less?

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