Poker bluffing its way into sports fans’ hearts and hands

October 6, 2011

This week has been an interesting one for online poker. Last spring, a number of online poker sites—including Full Tilt Poker, PokerStars, and AbsolutePoker—were sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for bank fraud and money laundering, among other allegations. On Monday, French investment company Groupe Bernard Tapie purchased online gambling website Full Tilt Poker.

Even though poker has gained a lot of mainstream exposure in the past decade, and the game’s competitiveness has risen, it still does not get the attention given to other entertainment sports.

I had no idea that this lawsuit was going on; few people do. High profile gaming is sort of on the cusp of being a mainstream sport, but a negative stigma lingers on. Personally, I don’t see gambling as a “sport”—in fact, I’ve never understood the appeal of it at all.

My earliest experience with gambling was, of course, with cards. It was the early 2000s, and Pokemon trading cards were the social currency de rigueur of the fourth grade. Much like the stock market, these were traded among classmates for value that was based on the perceived rarity or coolness of the card. A Charizard was obviously way more valuable than a Rattata. They were also used as a kind of currency we  could make bets with. As soon as this was apparent, they were banned from school.

The notion of young people gambling has always made people feel uncomfortable. Like kids, grownups can be tricked into making stupid bets and losing all their most valued trinkets.

The grownups continued to try and curb our behavior. In high school wind ensemble, for example, upperclassmen would often play poker while we were supposed to be practicing in sectional rehearsals. I had no idea how to play, and was not going to risk a five buck buy-in to learn how. One day these guys were caught by our teacher, Mr. Flannery, who made an example out of them and gave them detention.

It seemed like wherever there was boredom, people played poker. At the summer camp I worked at, it was strictly against the rules for campers to play poker. Twelve-year-old card sharks were severely admonished if they were caught playing anything other than crazy eights. After hours though, a few younger counselors would play poker for money. I played once or twice, but even when I won, I felt really awkward taking my friends’ money. I didn’t get it.

It seemed that the fun for people wasn’t necessarily in making money. In a cheap house game, people I knew would never make more than a couple dollars. People didn’t play poker because they thought it was economical; they played it because it was fun. These days, some poker players are just as coached as professional athletes. So, if the competitive part is the part that’s most fun, or entertaining, what makes it different than other sports?

Most obviously, there’s nothing athletic about poker. Players aren’t honing a physical skill, and the game will constantly be under a kind of disdainful moral scrutiny. Heck, kids aren’t even allowed to play. If you’ve ever seen an episode of “Poker After Dark” or any other poker program, you’ll observe that physical fitness is not a prerequisite of high stakes play. “Poker After Dark” was relegated to a 2 a.m. timeslot during its six season run on NBC. Photos from the World Series of Poker have large signs in all caps saying “MUST BE 21 OR OLDER TO BE IN THIS AREA.” It’s pretty clearly they want to keep kids out.

Last spring, I saw on Facebook that a high school classmate had played in some poker tournaments after graduating college. I met his parents at a friend’s graduation and asked them how he was doing.

“We just say that he’s traveling,” they responded, and sheepishly walked away.

As different tournaments and leagues develop and attract new players online and off, less people may raise their eyebrows. The purchase of Full Tilt by Bernard Tapie is a sign that the game has a viable audience that can be built upon. But even if poker becomes the next big thing, I still won’t enjoy it.

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