The most anticipated poker event of the year, the 48th annual World Series of Poker (WSOP) has begun at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas as players from over 100 countries commence what can be an almost two-month journey in hopes of attaining the “sport’s” Holy Grail, a WSOP championship bracelet.
Wait a minute. Did I just call poker a sport? It’s a competition to be sure, but a sport? In the best marketing job ever, the poker world has managed to convince all the various media conglomerates, including ESPN, that it is indeed a sport. Does this mean poker luminaries such as Doyle Brunson, Amarillo Slim, Oklahoma Johnny Hale, Phil Ivey and Phil Hellmuth, among others, are to be considered athletes?
The WSOP is a major competition to be sure, but calling it a sport remains a stretch in this corner. Webster’s Dictionary does call a sport: “a contest or game in which people do certain physical activities according to a specific set of rules and compete against each other.”
Poker doesn’t meet that standard because it’s not a physical activity. However, Webster’s also defines “sport” as “a diversion; recreation; pleasant pastime.”
There’s little point in parsing words here. If it’s covered on the sports page and it receives major coverage on ESPN, it must be a sport. But, wait a second, the National Spelling Bee is on ESPN, so those brilliant children spouting out letters of words they’ll never use must be engaging in sport, too.
I could spend the rest of this column chasing my tail in this argument with myself. Anyone winning a WSOP bracelet is to be admired. You can call them anything you like.
I used to enjoy playing low-limit games on the Strip, but haven’t played regularly for many years. I learned quite a bit about others and myself while playing poker. Some of the lessons contain fallacious wisdom, but they are lessons learned none-the-less.
One of my teachers was a down on his luck fellow named Dennis. We used to call him “Big Den.” He taught me you usually lose the way you win and win the way you lose. That’s a poker truism that applies to life in general. He and others would examine various hands and refer to plays that were in “the book.” But, I could never figure out where to buy “the book” he talked about or even if it really exists.
Big Den would often borrow $40 here and there to get a stake to play. He always paid you back at some point. I learned it would have been better not to get the money back and write it off as charity. That way he couldn’t keep pestering you for the same $40 over and over again.
There was another occasional player who called himself “Big Al.” I’m not sure why some players liked to be called “Big.” Big Al was not that big, but he always would remind players after a river card sent them crashing to defeat, that poker was “a game of bad beats.”
When locals would journey up to the Strip to play years ago it was because the tourists staying there were poor players and much easier to beat. The locals would always engage them in friendly conversation in preparation for taking all their money. The tourists were usually just passing the time rather than trying to scoop up some cash. In passing the time, they would often hang around in hands much longer than they should have. I learned to try to assess the other players’ reasons for being there. It always gave me an edge.
The tourists were always extremely friendly. Most had lots of cash and never minded if you cleaned them out as long as you smiled and expressed some remorse at their bad luck that was really just poor play. “Lessons cost money,” we always commiserated as we stacked their chips in front of us.
I met some wonderful friends playing regularly. One would dress up as a tourist to make the other local poker sharks think he wasn’t just one of the pack feasting on players who didn't know what they were doing or just passing the time. He even had a fake airline ticket he put in his shirt pocket to make it look like he was from out of town. I suggested he bring in a suitcase and wheel it into the poker room to take his act to the next level.
I don't think I’d pay to park on the Strip now to get a crack at the tourists. I finally figured out I was one of the people playing to pass the time and didn’t have what it takes to win consistently. I also figured out some of the poker jackpots were not what they seemed as the house was skimming out a fee for themselves and not putting all the jackpot rake into the jackpot pool. I got booted out of the old Tropicana poker room for pointing this out to other players.
One week I counted how many hands I won and multiplied it by the rake. The free drinks and the free buffets didn’t come close to covering what it was costing to me to play.
Those days are in the rearview mirror now and my lessons did cost money. However, I don’t regret my poker experience at all.