Poker in the Olympics

by Dylan Wang

Poker Players may compete alongside Track Stars at the Tokyo Games


Poker, what was once a staple of Wild West saloons in the 1870s as a pastime, is now considered a sport. While some argue that the process of thinking and sitting at a poker table for hours is arduous enough to be a sport, many argue that luck and little physical movement makes Poker a gambling game. As professional poker player Howard Lederer stated, "I don't think poker is a sport. It's the greatest game in the world, but it's not a sport.” Professional poker is a competition requiring focus and physical tenacity; akin to chess or billiards, poker is among a new wave of sports.

To limit the gambling nature of the game, Match Poker, a version of Texas Hold’Em, was invented in 2009 to remove luck from the game altogether. In Texas Hold’Em, each player is dealt two cards face down, hole cards. This round, the pre-flop, is succeeded by the flop, the turn, and the river: rounds that produce shared cards and involve betting. There are two ways to end a game: a showdown, when players turn their cards over to reveal the best hand, or when a bet is made that forces others to fold. Although skill and mathematical prowess are ultimately what decides the caliber of a player, luck can play a role in the short term.

For this reason, Match Poker was created with card equity in mind. One player from each team is seated at a different table in a different position. All players start each hand with an equal number of chips and receive their cards on a digital device. The same cards are dealt at all tables, leveling the playing field.

Of all the characteristics required to be considered a sport, physical prowess seems to be the contentious topic for Poker. However, with players required to play seven or eight twelve-hour days straight, it is not a surprise that a majority of poker players are in their 30’s. Archery, an Olympic sport, requires little athleticism but strong hand-eye coordination. Similarly, Match Poker is barely corporeal but is a competition of mind.

The Global Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF) declared Match Poker a sport, granting it “Observation Status” by the International Olympics Committee (IOC). Despite this, Poker still needs to meet the International Sports Federation (IF) status to become a globally recognized sport. There are numerous rules, including bans on purely ‘‘mind sports’’ and sports dependent on mechanical propulsion: keeping chess and automobile racing out of the Games. More importantly, the IOC has tightened the scope of the Olympics, permitting new sports only in conjunction with the discontinuation of another sport.

With Match Poker yet to become an Olympic sport, it is unlikely that Poker will be seen in the Olympics soon. Even among Olympic sports, the IOC must take into consideration media and public interest, key factors that are likely to deter Poker from the Olympic Games.