Sports stars share traits with tournament poker stars

Nov 6, 2012 3:00 AM

Watching sports on TV, I have learned that great competitors in individual sports such as golf and tennis have many traits in common with tournament poker stars. There’s endurance, poise under pressure, shifting gears when conditions change, a positive attitude, and making key shots that significantly affect the outcome of the contest.

But many of the world’s best competitors have never picked up a racket, swung a club, or been dealt a hand—the weekly warriors on television’s popular game shows. Like poker tournament players, these aficionados of gamesmanship must combine skill and luck to win in a short time in front of millions of people. Here are some strategies these do-it-now-or-never contestants use to surmount the obstacles of time, notoriety and stress.

Timing. The third contestant on Wheel of Fortune was not a happy camper: He had controlled the wheel only three times in 20 minutes, first spinning it to “Lose a Turn,” then guessing a wrong letter, and finally landing on “Bankrupt.”

As the three-way game neared its end, Pat Sajak gave the wheel one final spin to hasten the end of the final round. It landed on the big one, $5,000. Tension mounted as each contestant took a turn at choosing correct letters, which would be worth $5,000 apiece to the anagram player who solved the puzzle.

 “N,” said No. 3. “There are four Ns!” Sajak chortled. “You have five seconds to solve the puzzle and win $20,000.”

Not only did the Johnny-come-lately solve it to pocket the $20 grand, he also went on to crack the grand-prize puzzle and win a Corvette.

“Well,” said Sajak, “You’ve gone from nothing to over $55,000 in five minutes. I’d call that good timing.” 

Sounds like a tournament I wish I had once played.

Timing is the magic ingredient you need to take full advantage of the skill-luck mix in poker. Vintage Card Player columnist Tex Sheahan once called good timing circumstance, that moment near the end of the tournament when the big stacks are pushed into the center, when you hit your winning card on the river to capture all the marbles in the ring.

Skill and Luck. Drew Carey gives away two or three new cars every weekday on The Price is Right. The red Mustang convertible is what everybody wants to win—not the bedroom set, the grandfather clock, or the big screen TV.

To get a chance at the Mustang, you must first defeat three opponents in a bidding war of price-shopping skill for a smaller prize, similar to a poker satellite. The next hoop you must jump through usually requires guessing the correct price of three small items to win the premium prize you’re really after.

Here’s the kicker: You then must get lucky and spin closer to 100 on the Big Wheel than anyone else to win a chance at the Showcase Showdown, a heads-up bidding duel against your opponent to win all the goodies in Carey’s bag, usually another car, a fab vacation, or a manse of furniture.

This combination of skill and luck is the hook that lures me into watching the show during breakfast—the same dual-pronged hook of tournament poker. You can be the most skillful price-guesser in history, but if you don’t get lucky on the spin, you’re history. Ditto for tournament duelists who adroitly arrive at the final table only to find that Lady Luck is serving the cards ala carte to someone else.

Next time, we’ll discuss strategy, the final element in the winning formula.

You can contact Shane Smith at [email protected].

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