The Mercy Rule

Gambling Is Not a Sport

By David Roth

The question of what is or isn't a sport is always kind of awful, something best debated by terrible guys in terrible bars over the soggy din of the Steve Miller Band and the room-temp dregs of a pitcher of ass-seltzery macro-brew. Or, more simply, something best not debated, period. But when it comes to poker, the debate is over. Poker is a staple on sports TV, a not-completely-facetious candidate for Olympic status, and covered extravagantly (and kind of well) by Grantland, the high-bro sports journal founded by ESPN's Bill Simmons. The goony sportsiness semantics do not make poker less fun to play with friends or less unbearable to watch when played by strangers, but that doesn't quite make it a sport, either. The insistence on regarding it as a sport is easier to understand when you consider who is most intent on seeing it that way.

It's reductive, but not totally unfair to break sports fans down into aesthetes and objectivists. Neither group is uninterested in who wins, but the former are going to swish the experience around, make a pensive face, and comment on the mouth-feel and the tannins; the latter are going to chug, burp, and give a quick reading on whether it's awesome or sucks. Aesthetically, big-time poker is a shitshow—implausibly poorly dressed men with skim-milk complexions, hunched zombified or druggy-anxious over a hand of cards, over and over and over forever. But for zero-sum objectivity, winning and losing doesn't come much cleaner than it does at the end of a poker hand. If that's what you want in a sport, poker delivers. If you're after anything else, you're out of luck.

And luck, finally, is the cruel crux of it all, whatever other attributes a player brings to the table—fast-twitch computation, experience, and disciplined rationality won't turn a lousy hand into something else, or turn a cold streak hot. Everyone on the Atlantic City bus knows it—the Greyhound express to AC is actually named “The Lucky Streak.” The bus certainly doesn't feel lucky as it pokes down the Garden State Parkway, though. The instantly exasperated driver gets on the PA to announce a brief bathroom stop and establish his willingness-unto-eagerness to leave passengers behind. After each announcement, the PA emits a weirdly plaintive robot-fart of feedback, which undermines his seriousness. “Seven or eight minutes, or you'll have to wait for the next bus.” FAAAARRRRRRTTTTT. Chatter up front. “Don't tell me what I have to do, ma'am.” FAAAAARRrrrrtttttt.

No one acknowledges the digital flatulence. There's a lot of dead-serious looking ahead, both down the choked highway and towards the tables and slots. You could see that as the focus and determination of a high-level athlete, I guess. But if you asked, they'd tell you—they're going to AC to gamble at a game, not compete in a sport, and they do know the difference. They don't seem too excited about any of it, or even all that convinced that they will ride home winners. But at least they, unlike ESPN, don’t think what they do is worth watching.