Is Poker as Intellectual as Chess?
As the 40th-annual World Series of Poker approaches its climax, a grassroots campaign aims to shake poker's unsavory reputation and elevate this game of skill to the realm of chess.
Nine dog-tired poker players, seven of them American, became millionaires late last night by reaching the final table of the main event of the 40th-annual World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. After surviving eight draining days and nights of high-octane poker over a fortnight, most lasting at least 12 hours, they now break (for ESPN’s sake) until November, when one will go on to win this year’s $8.5 million first prize.
Among them is the telegenic African-American professional Phil Ivey, nicknamed "the Tiger Woods of poker," and, at 33, already a millionaire many times over. The proud possessor of seven World Series bracelets—the winner’s golden status symbol that top pros say they covet even more than the money—he would tie his own record of three World Series wins in one year if he goes on to victory in November.
For all its recent popularity, poker retains an outdated, disreputable, Wild West image as a game fraught with chance best confined to casinos.
Ivey may be living proof that poker is a game of skill—as the old saying goes, it takes a moment to learn, and a lifetime to master. But somehow, for all its recent popularity on TV and online, poker retains an outdated, disreputable, Wild West image as a game fraught with chance best confined to casinos. Because of this, poker is routinely lumped in with slots, roulette, and other madcap forms of gambling in antigaming legislation throughout the world—not least in the U.S., where it has been in the bloodstream nearly two centuries.
But now, all that may at last be changing, as a push to change poker's image to that of a respectable skill game gets under way, and as the “November Nine” settle down to four months of studying each other’s styles on TV, taking last-table lessons from previous champs, and mulling lucrative sponsorship deals.
Apart from Ivey and Las Vegan Jeff Shulman, the 34-year-old editor of poker’s house magazine, Card Player, the rest of the November Nine are relative unknowns, one from France, one from England. The chip leader, Darvin Moon of Maryland, has never before reached the money (or the top 10 percent) in any World Series event. This year’s November Nine have beaten 6,485 other starters, each of whom found some way to slap down the $10,000 entry fee, most by winning it online with as little as $20 to start.
The WSOP’s 2009 "main event" numbers are slightly down from last year’s 6,844 starters, but could (and should) have been higher; some 500 wannabes had to be turned away on the last of the event’s four Day Ones—so arranged because the Rio’s card rooms can seat only so many players at once. The consensus among the 60,275 who participated in at least one of this year’s 57 events (your reporter included) blamed the slapdash late arrivals more than the organizers.
"We hate to 'cap' this of all events," said WSOP Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack, who conceded that it might have been a mistake to schedule the start of the event over the July 4 weekend. Although 115 countries were represented at this year’s 50-day World Series, the U.S. turnout was significantly down on the holiday itself.
Still, these 2009 figures are more than decent at this time of global economic downturn, when deluded government thinking has already made times tough for the online version of the game, via which countless amateurs seek to qualify for the pricey WSOP main event. Along with slick TV coverage, the Internet has sparked a pandemic of poker fever throughout the world in less than a decade.
The biggest year of the 21st-century poker boom was 2006, when a Hollywood TV producer aptly named Jamie Gold emerged from all of 8,773 starters to take a first prize of $12 million. Compare that to the $1 million won the same weekend by golf’s Tiger Woods at the British Open, or Roger Federer at Wimbledon. The World Series of Poker is the richest sporting event on earth, by quite a stretch—the one significant difference being that the prize money is paid by the competitors.
The following year, 2007, entries declined to 6,358—the first year-on-year drop in the WSOP’s four-decade history—thanks to the shamefully opportunistic legislation introduced by then-presidential hopeful Bill Frist on the last Senate vote before the 2006 midterm elections. The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, cynically attached at the last minute to the wholly unrelated, antiterrorist Safe Port Act, against which no one was going to vote, made it illegal to transfer funds from banks, credit cards, or other financial institutions to online gaming sites.
American players have found ways around it, and many sites are brazenly dealing on, but the dizzying rate of poker’s global growth this century was significantly slowed. A congressional riposte launched last year by Rep. Barney Frank, H.5767, shows little sign of going anywhere very fast, and the issue is scarcely the top priority of the first poker-playing president since Nixon.
Hence the need for a global governing body for poker to persuade governments in the U.S. and beyond that the game is not just another form of gambling, and so should be detached from antigaming legislation. Poker is played against other human beings, not (like all other casino games) against a house with a built-in statistical advantage. At poker, if you know what you’re doing, you are wagering favorable odds rather than the decidedly unfavorable ones offered by all other casino games, not to mention racetracks and lotteries.
And so, in Lausanne, Switzerland on April 29, the International Federation of Poker was established to fight for this cause and win poker its overdue recognition as a respectable—and legal—"mind-sport" throughout the civilized world. The seven founder-member nations (U.K., France, Holland, Denmark, Russia, Ukraine, and Brazil) did me the signal honor of electing me the IFP’s first president for an initial three-year term. A bilingual report of this momentous occasion, including a rare sighting of your correspondent in a suit and tie, can be found here.
Lausanne was an appropriate venue for the ceremony, being the home of the International Olympic Committee as well as countless other international sports federations. As it argues the international case for poker as a game of strategic skill, the IFP has already held encouraging talks in Paris with the International Mind Sports Association, which mounts the Mind Sports Games alongside the Olympics every four years. If the IFP can achieve membership, it will be a huge step toward legalizing poker everywhere, boosting its legitimacy as an intellectual pursuit, and eliminating the restraints imposed on the game in many countries beyond its birthplace.
During the last month in Vegas, when not playing poker, I have advanced negotiations with some 20 other nations (including the U.S.) on the brink of joining the IFP, with the aim of reaching a critical mass of 75 to 100 member countries during my first term in office. This would place poker on a level of respectability with such other mind sports as chess and bridge, with whom we plan to travel to the U.K. in 2012 for our own Mind Sports Games alongside the London Olympics.
At his annual WSOP news conference last week, Commissioner Pollack described the IFP as a "blue-chip" organization approaching its task in a "very smart" way. "We are interested in learning more about it," he went on, "and exploring whether there are things we can and should be doing together." Talks will continue when WSOP makes its third-annual visit to London in September.
Two months later, in mid-November, I will report back here on the IFP’s progress, while revealing the $8.5 million winner of this year’s WSOP main event. If it turns out to be Phil Ivey, his impressive record of eight WSOP titles in 10 years might just help—at last—to persuade our maiden-aunt legislators that poker involves rather more skill than luck.
Anthony Holden is the author of the poker classics Big Deal and Bigger Deal , as well as a strategy manual, Holden on Hold’em . An award-winning journalist and author, Holden has also written biographies of figures from Shakespeare to Tchaikovsky, Laurence Olivier to Prince Charles, and romantic poet Leigh Hunt to Mozart’s librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte.