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Exploring the intersection between poker & athletics

Poker players are not athletes. Poker isn’t a sport. Poker shouldn’t be on ESPN because it’s not a sport and they’re not athletes. Heard any of these old nuggets before from your non-poker playing friends? Sure, we all have. Guess what? They’re right: It’s not a sport, and a lot of them sure as heck ain’t athletes. But poker players actually have more in common with professional athletes than you might think.

One thing that we need to clear up before we continue: While card players aren’t necessarily athletes, there is certainly some physical ability required to play poker, especially big tournament poker. Being able to sit at the table for 14 hours at a time is physically exhausting. When you factor in the mental sharpness required to not make a mistake when you’re so drained, you certainly have a skill set beyond most armchair heroes. But the similarities between poker pros and sport pros goes a lot deeper.

There are a lot of current and former professional athletes who spend some time on the felt, and it’s probably not because of the money. Winning the Main Event is a year’s salary for an upper echelon professional athlete. A second-string NBA player is going to make more in his career than most of the very best poker players in the world will in theirs. So it’s not the cash that draws them in. The appeal more likely lies in the fact that there are just so many similarities between what makes a good poker pro and what makes a good athlete.

Probably first on that list of similarities is drive. An aspiring athlete on his way up has to have an almost bottomless well of drive and ambition. Kids dream of being a star athlete. And they work hard at it. Ability isn’t enough: You need to live, eat, and breathe your dream. It’s the kid out in the driveway by himself long after dark still shooting jump shots. It’s the young man in the gym still working away on the speed bag after every other boxer has already hit the showers. And it’s the poker player who discusses every hand in endless detail, reads every book and forum thread, and watches every available second of televised poker in the hopes of improving his/her game. It takes some sweat to get to the big leagues.

There’s also a need to master every level on the way. You won’t run into many athletes that weren’t the best player wherever they played, year after year. Best five-year-old in the local hockey league. Best AAA player as a peewee star. Best player in the entire city’s high school hockey loop. Best player on their junior team. Star of their minor league team. And eventually the pros. Is poker different? Not one bit. We don’t jump in and play $500/$1,000 PLO. We start at the micros, and once we dominate at that level, we move up. Some never get out of house league hockey, or out of 5-cent/10-cent poker. But some do.

Aggression and confidence? Crucial to any athlete and to any poker player. I’ve been involved in professional hockey almost my entire life. I have never met an NHL’er who didn’t think he could score 50 goals with just a couple of breaks. And I’ve never met a poker player who didn’t think he could win the Main Event if he could just dodge those pesky bad beats. It’s never their fault if they lose, or they don’t score 50. You have to have that confidence to excel.

You have to be willing to put it all on the line and seize every opportunity. You can’t shrink your way to greatness.

And let’s not forget aggression. There aren’t very many successful passive poker players. And there sure aren’t very many passive NFL cornerbacks. You have to be willing to put it all on the line and seize every opportunity. You can’t shrink your way to greatness.

There are lots of athletes that play poker. Some are good, some not so much. I’ve played with lots of them. Orel Hershiser was a superstar as the Los Angeles Dodgers’ pitching ace, leading them to the World Series. Orel is a friend, and I’ve played a fair amount of poker with “The Bulldog.” He has some serious game. NBA star Paul Pierce plays the WSOP every year. He has some things to learn, but he’s enthusiastic about the game and continues to improve. One of my best friends is NHL scoring stud and leading Olympic scorer Phil Kessel. We play a ton of poker together. He is really good. He’s fearless, aggressive, and studies the game hard to improve. In fact, I’d put my money on him as the best poker-playing pro athlete out there. All of them find ways to put their athletic skill sets to work on the poker table.

But the best example of the similarities between athlete and poker player might just be the legend himself, Doyle Brunson. Doyle was a tremendous basketball player, drafted into the NBA and likely headed for a long and successful career if not for a devastating leg injury. But he’s taken the same skill sets and applied them to poker. And I think that’s worked out okay for him.

I’m never going to make the case that that a poker player is an athlete. But if you’re looking to build a career in poker, it probably wouldn’t hurt to approach your poker career like you were going after an athletic career. At the end of the day, we all want to be holding the trophy in the air.

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