So, first off, as tempting as it might be to do so, this is not an invitation to wax poetic on poker. I actually don't play it, but I know how it works.

The question really is one of etymology. Poker is often referred to as a sport nowadays. A quick google search will reveal over 87 million hits to the query "poker as a sport". It is covered on ESPN, and in the last few days I have heard both NPR and seen USA Today refer to it as such. Full disclosure, I work for Gannett, the parent company of USA Today.

What I would like to know is, "Why?"

To be clear, I find the claim dubious, but if it is being referred to as a sport, there should be some rationality behind it. If not, then is it merely an idiom in the making?

I understand what a game is - it is a test of skill in some fashion. I understand what a sport is, at least in the abstract. Football is a sport and has games. Monopoly is a game, but rarely a sport. Hiking is a sport, though, one rarely hears of "hiking games." So, while clearly there is an overlap between the two, there is also a set of attributes that differentiates the two.

So, ultimately, what are those factors that adhere to the words "Sport" and "Game," that are common to both and those that differentiate the two. Ideally, I'd love a Venn Diagram of sorts that defines the relationship of these words.

But most importantly, I'd like to understand the reasons for putting poker in the "Sports" circle.

4 Answers 4


This is the same reason as why McVities went to court to insist that Jaffa Cakes are a "cake" and not a "biscuit". It comes down to egos, politics and cold hard cash.

Ultimately this comes from a bigger debate about whether poker is, or is not, gambling.

There are many people in society and in government who believe that gambling is something that is basically negative to society. It takes money from people who have addictions and who are often poor and gives the money to corporations that make very large profits. Consequently this sinful activity should be banned, or at the very least taxed along with other addictive but bad-for-you products such as tobacco and alcohol.

Those on the other side of the debate counter that Poker is not gambling. To those who are skilled at it, poker is a contest of skill - not of luck. The house doesn't have an edge - indeed, the house doesn't play at all. It takes a fee from each round in much the same way that a golfing club might take a fee for entry into the competition, rather than rig the competition to make money.

This is why poker calls itself a sport rather than a game. Calling it a game conjures up images of relaxed fun, rolling the dice and leaving winning up to chance. Or in other words - that poker is a bit like gambling, and that's something the government wants to ban or tax.

In contrast, suppose that we call Poker a sport. Well now we have an entirely new image. Poker might be "fun" and "relaxing" at the low-end of the spectrum (like how playing tennis with your friends is fun and relaxing), but at the top end we have determined individuals who train day and night to hone their skills for a battle of wits that people pay to watch sitting on the edge of their seats. And hence, far from being taxed like a one-armed-bandit machine, Poker should be actively encouraged, like how we teach children to play football and tennis "because it's good for them".

So anyway, depending on which side of this debate you find yourself, you'll find that people with a vested interest in poker being cheap and unregulated will call it a sport. Those that want to regulate and tax it will probably call it a game.

  • This would have been a better point if you'd led with an example that wasn't specific to England, and hadn't used English terminology ("biscuit") that means something completely different in the USA (where NPR, ESPN, and USA Today are located).
    – T.E.D.
    May 2, 2013 at 18:41
  • @T.E.D. Reference for you: hmrc.gov.uk/manuals/vfoodmanual/vfood6260.htm
    – Matt
    May 2, 2013 at 19:04

It isn't a sport.

From Oxford Dictionaries: an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment

I don't know of any poker players who actually call their game a sport. I know a few who play online for 8-10 hours a day, every day. Though they may be mentally tired, none consider themselves athletes. You cannot have a sport without athletes.

If ESPN is calling it a sport, it likely has to do more with the S in their name than in the definition of the word sport as we know it today.

  • 3
    Whilst I don't think poker is a sport I don't think darts players are athletes.
    – Ste
    May 2, 2013 at 13:35
  • If darts are a sport (fine-muscle control, eye-hand coordination might qualify?) then dart players (not the ones drunk at a bar, but professionals) are by definition athletes. I mean, I doubt we'll be seeing either the sport or the players at the Olympics anytime soon, but one necessitates the other.
    – pedram
    May 2, 2013 at 13:40
  • "I don't know of any poker players who actually call their game a sport" - you clearly don't know many people in the Poker industry or professional poker players then. I know lots of people who are absolutely adamant that what they do is not a "game" but is most definitely a "sport". And having atheletes doesn't make you a sport (see: gymnastics) and vice-versa (see: Formula-1 racing).
    – Matt
    May 23, 2013 at 17:26

Marketing really. The chess world has this fatuous debate from time to time. I think a sport needs a physical component. In poker (or chess) it's possible for a physically disabled player to have someone else play for them just following instructions. I don't think you can claim as a "sport" an activity where someone else can play for you.

  • Right...poker is as much of a sport as chess...the best players have the physical stamina to support their mental faculties for extended periods of time. Controlling your facial features, respectively sitting for long hours, can by draining.
    – Mitch
    May 2, 2013 at 13:30
  • This is pretty much it. It's a "Sport" because ESPN is branded as a sports network, and poker gets them eyeballs. They'd call "Family Feud" a sport, if it got them good ratings.
    – T.E.D.
    May 2, 2013 at 13:43
  • To provide a different opinion: I consider chess a sport, but not poker. My reasoning is that, as a perfect-information game, chess is entirely skill-based, while a large part of poker is luck. You often see poker tournaments where top players get knocked out early, or rather poor players make it to the finals or even win (the last time I watched a poker tournament, it was won by a high-schooler who, according to the announcers, was making some poor plays, but got really lucky and won anyhow). You will never see that in chess - the top players consistently top every tournament. May 2, 2013 at 20:01
  • 1
    @T.E.D. Wouldn't this have been a better point if you'd led with an example that wasn't specific to the US ("Family Feud"), and hadn't used US terminology ("gets them eyeballs")? ;)
    – Mynamite
    May 2, 2013 at 21:48
  • @Mynamite - 1) The question is about a USA network, so if a response is going to be country-centric, the country ought to be the USA too so the OQ can understand it. 2) This was an offhand comment, not an answer.
    – T.E.D.
    May 3, 2013 at 0:20

I agree with The Mathemagician's basic claim - this is marketing. Poker is very popular in the last couple of years, leading to a lot of potential revenue for showing it on TV. However, sports channels like ESPN have a hard time justifying showing a non-sport, so it was quickly recategorized by marketing people to allow it to enjoy the lucrative side-effects of highly televised sports.

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