POKER

Poker in the Spotlight: Sport, Gambling, or Both?

By David Huber
March 13, 2024

The game of poker has been enjoyed worldwide for multiple centuries. Due to the combination of skill and luck that play vital roles in determining outcomes, there are any number of reasonable arguments for categorizing poker as both a sport and as gambling.

In this article, we’ll review some of the reasons why poker might be considered gambling or a sport. We’ll also look at various scenarios in which the game might be designated as a multi-disciplined activity that can fall into the categories of sport and gambling at the same time.

poker, sports, and gambling

When is Poker NOT Considered Gambling?

Poker is most definitely NOT gambling in cases where nothing of value is being won or lost while playing. Want to play poker by yourself for practice? Go ahead!

If the poker chips you’re using don’t have any value assigned to them (except for the sake of “example” purposes), then you’re not gambling while engaging in the activity.

This is true for players who practice with AI poker solvers, players who “play for fun” without chips representing anything of value, and for those who win or lose pots that don’t need to be settled with something of value after the fact.

If there’s nothing of value at risk after the dust has cleared (even if chips are being used to enhance the gameplay experience during the course of one or more hands), then there is no gambling happening.

Of course, not all gambling has to be in the form of real money, but we’ll get to that later in the article.

So, you and your buddies can create an impromptu home game and assign “billions of dollars” to each chip in play. But if all players have arrived at an understanding that nothing of value will exchange hands as a result of the hands played, then there is no gambling activity.

Another example of poker being played without an element of gambling is when all players present agree to purchase a buy-in amount for poker training or poker entertainment purposes.

As long as it is understood beforehand that the entire buy-in amount will be retained by a poker instructor or home game host REGARDLESS of the outcome of individual hands, then players are purchasing a service.

Note that this concept is different from a poker tournament buy-in due to the potential for claiming prizes of value depending on one’s placement at the end of the event.

Many aspiring players purchase premium poker courses, and subsequently participate in numerous poker hands for the sake of learning and improving. However, there is no gambling involved if the outcomes of those hands don’t carry real money (or something of value) consequences with them.

Depending on the jurisdiction, there are sometimes cases in which a “charity” poker event may not fall under the category of gambling. Typically, if nothing of value is solicited from players, then there is no gambling element to these games.

However, if something of value IS solicited (as is the case for many “raffle” formats), then a gambling element exists for those games – even if they are advertised as charity events.

When is Poker Considered Gambling?

Poker is considered to be gambling when there is something of value at stake; when winners and losers receive (or lose) something of value based on the outcome of one or more poker hands.

Poker falls under the category of gambling even when said “something of value” refers to a tangible asset that’s not real money (like a house) – or something intangible (like a business referral).

Low stakes poker games – even if they are of relatively non-consequential value to the individuals participating in such a game – are still considered to be gambling.

For example, a $0.01/$0.02 Fixed Limit home game is gambling just as much as a $10/$20 casino poker game is.

As long as there’s something of value being exchanged (or at risk) as a result of one or more poker hands, there is gambling involved.

Is Poker a Sport?

Efforts to categorize the game of poker as a sport have been ongoing for years, especially since the rise in popularity of online poker rooms and their need for cross-promotion with live events.

However, the balance between actual skill-based poker play and marketing has yet to be achieved on a wide, mainstream scale – despite multiple attempts to form poker leagues or even to make poker an Olympic sport.

Classifying the game of poker as a “mental sport” doesn’t override the gambling element that is so frequently present when playing popular variants like Texas Hold’em or Omaha.

And just like checkers, chess, or even turn-based video games, poker strategy is susceptible to artificial intelligence dominance.

Making a Case for Poker in the Olympics

Appealing to a worldwide audience in a way that everyday, non-poker players can RELATE to the game may prove to be extremely challenging.

Plus, issues could arise during the selection process for teams (countries, in this case) that wish to put forth the very best poker talent for whichever formats are deemed worthy of Olympic competition.

One’s skill might not be the only variable used to determine which players will be chosen to represent their country in an Olympic setting. Social media presence, on-air personality, and personal contacts are just a few of the variables that could override one’s skill for gaining a seat at an Olympic poker table.

And what would poker look like at the Olympics?

Olympic poker

Would the games be played in a No Limit format? With players shoving all-in to the roar of a gymnasium crowd while an indoor pole-vaulting event is taking place in the background?

Or maybe a secluded Olympic poker room where all players are sequestered while poker action is taking place?

Would Olympic poker be restricted to Fixed Limit formats for the sake of game speed and point tallies? What about Mixed Games formats? Wouldn’t those be the best way to determine one’s all around poker skill?

Chess at the 2024 Paris Olympic Games?

After becoming formally recognized as a sport by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), various gaming interests have promoted the idea of chess being included as a competitive Olympic sport.

Though there have been conflicting reports regarding whether chess will be included at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, the most probable scenario is one in which the game is included during an eSports Week that may coincide with Olympic dates.

There ARE chess gaming events that carry the title “Olympic,” but that does not necessarily mean the game is (or will be) included as an official Olympic competitive sport.

In comparison, poker has yet to receive any official designation (namely declaring it as a sport) from the IOC.

The Global Poker League and Game Marketing

To date, Season 1 of the Global Poker League – which took place during the 2016 calendar year – represented the most concerted effort to join poker and eSports at the hip.

The GPL boasted an impressive roster of skilled poker players and top-tier poker celebrities, but failed to garner enough mainstream commercial interest to justify another season.

That’s unfortunate, as interest from poker celebrities to become more involved in the promotion of high profile poker events endures.

On-screen talents such as Neil Patrick Harris, Arden Cho, Paul Pierce, Aaron Paul, David Costabile, Bruce Buffer (and many others) can periodically be seen playing in a televised setting while promoting the game.

But serious resistance to handing over the marketing reins to A-list poker celebs persists.

After all, poker IS a game of skill as well as a game of luck, and some of the most highly skilled poker players in the world have been forced to manage the intertwining of those two poker elements with game marketing “on their own.”

Categorizing poker celebs as the marketing “A-side” (with highly skilled poker pros correspondingly taking a “B-side” backseat) has yet to materialize – even during events in which such a designation might make sense for both types of poker players.

Handing over the marketing lead to poker celebs during events such as the PokerStars PSPC or a second season of the Global Poker League could be the wisest course of action.

More celebrities making their way into the game would mean more top names for poker live streams (in the medium to long term), which could provide a much needed spark for putting more “butts in seats” for live games – whether those are cash games or tournaments.

Marketing priority granted to poker celebs could also result in more commercial opportunities for the game that may not be available as long as the highly skilled pros dominate the promotion of select, celebrity-friendly events.

Poker marketing is already dominated by skilled pros during most live streams and poker events. Letting celebs take on more responsibility during the PSPC or league games just might be the difference between being sponsored by a company that makes a container to pour sports drinks into and a company that makes sports drinks.

College Sports NIL and Poker Marketing

A poker league that doesn’t force players to gamble (such as the Global Poker League) could also represent an environment that’s friendly to potential NIL (Name, Image, and Likeness) deals with collegiate athletes.

However, this idea has no chance of working if there is any element of gambling present in the poker games that these individuals are playing in and/or promoting. These potential deals would also be limited to the United States, where NIL monetization is allowed for college sports figures.

And perhaps best of all, there are a number of college sports programs in which women are just as (if not more) prominent than their male counterparts.

So while Women’s Crew (rowing) might not have an ultra high profile figure atop the collegiate NIL rankings at the moment, there ARE prominent, immensely popular female sports athletes within the NIL marketplace who participate in collegiate volleyball, gymnastics, basketball, and softball programs.

But again, this would probably entail handing over a larger marketing and responsibility role to the collegiate athletes themselves (along with quite a bit of planning and troubleshooting) in order to pass regulatory muster and grant the individual(s) marketing immunity from the everyday “hustle and bustle” of poker scandals.

So is Poker Gambling, a Sport, or Both?

As explained above, it really depends on the unique setup of each poker game to determine whether it’s an exercise in gambling, a sport, or both.

Poker is played for fun and leisure by many who participate in regular home games in their area, but it is still a gambling activity when something of value is exchanged by players based on the outcome of one or more poker hands.

The less that the “gambling” element of poker makes its way into mainstream marketing campaigns (at least when a legacy poker audience is not the primary focus of the marketing that’s taking place), the better.

But marketing the game of poker exclusively as a leisure activity is misleading unless any and all gambling aspects of the poker play being marketed have been removed beforehand.

Perhaps one day we’ll see the game of poker make its way to an Olympic stage. Or maybe there will be a poker league like the GPL that hits its stride at an opportune moment and truly introduces a new generation to poker without any gambling elements being involved.

Until then, gambling and poker will continue to be “joined at the hip,” and — as always — the most highly skilled poker players will continue to enjoy an advantage of lesser skilled players.

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David Huber poker author
Written By.

David Huber

David Huber has been involved in the poker industry for close to two decades: initially as a professional online poker player and later as an editor, consultant, writer, and forum manager. Known as “dhubermex” online, David’s poker-related work has been heavily published across numerous websites since 2004.

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