Poker shares many similarities with both gambling and sports. Some people categorize poker as either a sport or a gambling game, but in reality, poker falls somewhere in between. There are many similarities, but also some glaring differences between poker and these two different pastimes.
Is Poker a Sport?
The proper definition of a “sport” is widely debated. Some people draw the line at the level of physicality involved. Others define a sport as simply a competition where two or more people play against each other for points. When examining poker, you can go either way. Poker is much like chess in this way. Both games require mental fortitude and strategy, both games embody competition, and both have a clear winner and loser. However, neither require a high level of physicality.
On the other hand, you can also compare poker to baseball. One is a team sport while the other is an individual competition. In both players compete for points, runs in baseball, and chips or dollars in poker. Both have some degree of physicality, although baseball requires much more than poker. I could go on for hours listing similarities and differences between poker and other competitive endeavors, but it is clear they are related, yet not quite the same.
Is Poker Gambling?
Since people wager money on poker, many assume it is just another form of gambling. But is poker gambling? Of course, there is a gambling element to poker. You are betting money that your hand is better than your opponents’, at least when you are value betting. But poker isn’t in the same ballpark as the rest of the casino floor.
Take slots, for example. Slot machines require no skill. Slots are purely a gamble on a game of chance. Many other casino games, like baccarat or roulette, are also games of pure chance. The player does nothing to influence the outcome of their wager. These activities are purely games of chance and are gambling in their purest form.
There are also games of chance that have some player influence but are still mostly ruled by luck. Blackjack or Spanish 21, for example, have clearly defined strategies that statistical analysis has proven to be effective. However, these games are still a gamble, as you cannot guarantee your outcome. Even the sharpest card counters in the world have sessions where they get crushed.
You may think that poker is the same, as you can make all of the correct moves and still have a losing session. But in the long run, we see the difference between a game like blackjack and poker. In Blackjack, if you follow basic strategy perfectly, never making a single mistake, you are still expected to lose. Against basic strategy, the house edge is roughly 0.5%, meaning if you play an infinite amount of hands perfectly, you should expect to see $0.95 for every $1.00 you wager. In the long run, this is a losing game. Poker, however, is not the same. While you can’t put an exact percentage edge of playing “perfect poker,” your expected value over time will be positive if you consistently make the correct decision according to game theory. For that reason, it’s critical to be able to master poker statistics.
While blackjack is a game someone could reasonably play perfectly, poker is not. There are millions of different combinations of starting hands, board textures, and opponent’s actions. There will never be a book on how to play poker perfectly that considers every scenario. The best you can do is study and make as few mistakes as possible to approach that positive expected value.
5 Ways Poker, Gambling, and Sports are the Same
While poker shares similarities with both sports and gambling, the trio have their fair share in common as well. Here are five ways the three are similar:
Luck is Involved
Luck plays a key factor in all of these pastimes, to varying degrees of course. Gambling certainly has the highest luck factor, with a large number of games that are pure luck. No skill is needed to play slots or roulette, so these games rely solely on luck. Poker has a lower luck factor. You can get your money in good as much as you want, but sometimes the river is going to kill your 80% equity in the hand. Luck is part of the game, but if you put in enough volume (at least in cash poker), it has a relatively insignificant impact.
Many people don’t view conventional sports as involving luck, but they certainly do. With baseball, the bounce of a ground ball has nothing to do with how a player approaches it. A baseball can take a weird jump after hitting a pebble and even if the shortstop was in the perfect position to make a play, the ball can race by. In football, a sudden gust of wind at the wrong time can send a game-winning field goal wide of the uprights.
There is a Competition between Two or More Parties
The core of all of these activities is competition. Without competition, you don’t have sports. To play soccer, you need two teams. Poker offers competition as well, with each player competing for themselves against the rest of the players at the table. In a multi-table tournament, you may be up against thousands of competitors. In a cash game, you can be against as few as one and as many as nine. Gambling offers competition as well, although it may not be glaringly obvious. The gambler is playing against the house. The house could be a casino in a game like blackjack or betting on sports. It could be a neighbor if booking some side action on the Super Bowl. No matter who you are wagering against, it comes down to a competition.
Practice Makes Perfect
Any athlete will tell you that games are won during practice. The same is true for gambling and poker. The top poker players today spend hours working on their game. Whether they study with highly sophisticated solvers or simply recount hands with other good poker players, the best poker players practice. Working on your game off of the felt is crucial to having success in poker. Certain forms of gambling involve practice as well. Sports bettors can analyze statistical forecasts of games, and blackjack players can use “the book” to make sure they are making correct moves. Practice makes perfect for any endeavor, but especially poker, sports, and gambling.
Mental Fortitude is Required
Mental fortitude is a term thrown around the locker room a lot. In football, knowing all of the blocking schemes, pass coverages, routes, blitz packages, trick plays, and everything else in the game requires an immense amount of mental strength. Not is the memorization important, but also not losing your composure. Baseball pitchers need to be mentally strong and confident to avoid the yips, and all athletes need to have a short memory when it comes to their mistakes.
The same can be said for poker players and gamblers. Both need to understand the expected value of their bets. Poker players need to pay attention to betting patterns, recall previous hands, and adapt to new information.
Everyone involved needs to be mentally tough enough to avoid going on tilt. While much easier to see in poker or gambling, athletes can go on tilt, too. If a hitter is angry at themselves for a strikeout they might start wildly swinging for the fences. We’ve all seen poker players and gamblers go on tilt, making absurd bets and playing terrible hands trying to get even.
Anyone Can Try, But Few Are Successful
All of these activities are relatively easy to begin. A quick Google search offers all of the rules you need for any sport, gambling game, or poker. All you need is equipment and opponents. Sports may have a higher barrier to entry, but almost anyone can get a basketball or soccer ball and find a nearby park to play in. Anyone of legal age can walk into a poker room or casino and find willing participants to play. However, finding success is much more difficult.
Only around 10% of poker players make enough money to be considered real winners, meaning they could call poker a side hustle or even their profession. Most gamblers lose in the long run, but some sharps out there who can count cards or handicap a sport can have varying degrees of success. Sports are much harder to make it in. Millions of athletes try to make it to the professional level, but very few do. Even then, the average NFL career is only 3.3 years, so finding success in sports is incredibly rare.
3 Ways Poker, Gambling, and Sports Are Different
While these activities have many similarities, there are some glaring differences. Here are three ways in which poker, gambling and sports are different.
Public perception of athletes remains pretty positive. If you are an athlete, whether professional or not, there is no real negative perception. You are likely a health-conscious individual who is skilled at a sport. There is no reason to look down on someone simply for being an athlete, and in most cases, athletes are looked up to.
Gambling has a negative connotation for many people. People who gamble strictly on games of chance are either seen as losers or unreliable. If you find yourself at a craps table or your local racebook often, it is safe to assume many people look down on you for this activity.
The public perception of poker players varies greatly. Those who don’t know the game might view poker players as loser gamblers, or predatory angle shooters. Those who do know the game may see them as statisticians or just good players. Either way, the perception of a poker player varies greatly depending on who you ask.
Level of Physicality
Sports have a large physical component. You can be the smartest quarterback there is, but if you can’t throw the ball more than 15 yards you will never have success on the football field. While the mental game of sports is important, it means nothing if you don’t have the physical skills.
Poker requires some physicality. Long days at the table require one to stay alert and think clearly. It is hard to do that if you are in bad shape when grinding 12-hour days in large-field tournaments. While being in good shape may help you, it is not as necessary as in sports.
Gamblers need to stay alert, but there is much less stamina required than for a poker player. You can gamble from your couch on professional sports and not need any physical fitness at all. You can also sit at a slot machine mindlessly hitting buttons.
The legality of the game you choose varies as well. You can play pickup sports with anyone; there are no legal issues whatsoever. Aside from underground boxing or MMA, you shouldn’t run into any legal problems with conventional sports.
Gambling, by contrast, has many legal precedents that must be followed. It is illegal in the US to host a game of chance or take sports bets if you are not licensed for it. Any form of gambling on chance outside of licensed properties is strictly forbidden and is subject to harsh legal penalties.
Despite what many believe, live poker is not illegal to play outside of a card room. As long as you are not raking the game, anyone can host a poker night. Once you start raking the game, however, you’re breaking the law. Raked poker games can only be run by licensed operators, so if you want to host a home game, keep all the chips in play. The legality of online poker currently varies from state to state.
In conclusion, then, poker, sports, and gambling are all incredibly popular. With the growth of social media and legalized sports betting, the three will only increase in popularity. While the games have many similarities, they have their differences as well. No matter what you prefer, there are plenty of opponents out there to play against.