Given the ongoing debate regarding poker's place in sport and its international flavor, I suppose it was only inevitable that I would be asked to do a column about whether it has a place in the Olympics. The question struck me as a silly one, but that didn't stop me from asking some 50 big shots in the industry for their thoughts. Most of them thought it was silly also, but keep in mind that most of these answers came with the respondents trying to keep things polite and respectful. Here's just a sampling of what those folks had to say:
Dennis Phillips: "You've got to be kidding me. Olympic sport . Any game where Phil Hellmuth could be an Olympian shouldn't be an Olympic sport."
Barry Greenstein: "No, it's not a sport. Sports involve athleticism."
Greg Raymer: "It should not be [in the Olympics]. I think it'd be a great way to raise funds for charity surrounding the Olympics, but no one should be winning medals based on one tournament because the results of one tournament have no bearing on who the best player is. Poker's a game of long-term skill. To find a valid winner, we'd have to play for months."
Howard Lederer: "I don't think poker is a sport. It's the greatest game in the world, but it's not a sport. The Olympics is the place for sports without leagues. Poker has its own place."
Mike Sexton: "Certainly in terms of the mental side of it, I don't think any sport ranks higher, but I still think the Olympics is for physical sports and poker doesn't fit in that category."
Daniel Negreanu: "I'm going to say no. I think if there was an Olympics of mind sports, like chess and backgammon and so on, I think poker would belong, but you think of the Olympics as physical."
The guys listed above pretty much summed up my feelings on the subject. While there's something to the argument that playing the WSOP main event 12 hours a day for a week takes some stamina and fortitude, poker isn't physical in the way Olympic sports are and as such, the Olympics wouldn't be the right venue for it unless the dynamic were to drastically shift.
Most of the positive respondents to the Olympics question answered from a "good for the game" point of view. In other words, poker wants to be in the Olympics. A sampling:
Tournament director Matt Savage: "You know what? It's the Olympic games. Poker is the greatest game, so yeah, I think there should be room for it."
Poker2Nite host Scott Huff: "I don't think it ever will be, but I think it would be the best possible thing for poker: to present it as a strategy and logic game with the gambling taken out of it."
Antonio Esfandiari: "Yes, it should be in the Olympics. It's a sport like any sport and each country can send players who represent that country."
Poker author Nolan Dalla: "I have just two words for anyone opposed to poker as an Olympic sport. Those two words are: synchronized swimming. Seriously, has anyone ever met a curler, or a kayaker, or a synchronized swimmer? Isn't there some gold-medal event where the object is to ski across an open field and then blast a rifle? These are really sports? Shouldn't the Olympics be about sports played in, you know, this century? Shouldn't the Olympics offer games actually played by real people? There are 200 to 300 million poker players worldwide. I say scratch these preposterous so-called sports, and introduce far more popular games which are played by real people, such as poker."
Gavin Smith: "I think that poker would fit in very well with the Olympic ideal, though since poker has an old boys club, I don't know how you'd get the right people on the teams. After all, you can't base it on one tournament's results. I think it would be a good Olympic activity, though I'm not a person who calls poker a sport. I think it would fit.
Andy Bloch: "Of course it should! If golf is a sport, then poker is a sport! I'm not completely serious, but Full Tilt Poker was behind an effort in 2004 to get poker classified as a sport. I think there should be an Olympics for games people don't call sports. It would be nice to see the game recognized that way."
See, it's funny, but what neither Bloch nor I realized was that there is just such an event, though it isn't called the Olympics. It took a call to former WSOP commissioner Jeffrey Pollack to find that out. Jeffrey answered, "No. Poker should not be an Olympic sport as governed by the IOC, but it should be a part of the World Mind Sport Games."
After I got my quote from Jeffrey, he told me I needed to talk to Patrick Nally. Nally, along with personal favorite poker author Tony Holden, are the figureheads for the International Federation of Poker (IFP), an organization that's working diligently toward getting poker entered into the next World Mind Sport Games. The inaugural games were held with International Olympic Committee sanctioning soon after the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The WMSG is presently in negotiations with the IOC to make theirs an ongoing relationship.
The IFP, which started with seven founding-nation members, is now up to 16 nations with official national governing bodies, and is in negotiations that Nally says should see membership exceed 30 nations by the end of 2010. While other attempts at worldwide organizing bodies have focused their energies on regulation and legalization, the IFP is focused on working within the legal frameworks currently in place.
"We obviously looked at FIDPA [Federation Internationale de Poker Association] and the WPA, and what had and hadn't been done, as well as a couple of organizations in Europe," explained Nally, who boasts a résumé filled with international sport experience. "They weren't trying to structure a true international federation concept with IOC approvals and the like, and they tended to be politically orientated, trying to chase the structures that exist. We're approaching it as an international sports federation, embracing the ethos of others. We've found kindred spirits in chess, draughts [checkers], go [board game], etc."
Indeed, those kindred spirits have plenty of reasons to want poker included in the next World Mind Sport Games.
"They recognize poker is very active," Nally continued. "In the Spanish national association, they say, 'You can smell poker on the street.' Poker is very social, very active, a happening mind sport, so the other games understand how important it is for them to attract poker because they need the young people's energy. There's a very strong desire to bring poker in because it's the happening mind game. We can see millions upon millions being active on the social networks and online."
Of course, this all leads to the question of how, within the confines of one event, poker champions can be established in a game that focuses more on the long term than the short term. IFP's present plans include extensive league play on the national level to determine national teams, with each nation's better-known players allowed the luxury of entering such ongoing contests in the later rounds. Then, when the national teams meet, the little-used duplicate poker format would be played to determine champions. This would have each player operating under the same conditions, a method that IFP has tested extensively in order to ensure a fair means to establish a champion.
"Duplicate poker judges your skill against others who have been faced with the same circumstances," said Nally. "We feel it could give the skillful players the opportunity to prove their skill."
Would poker's biggest names go for it? Even though little fiscal reward would be on the line, Nally and Co. are confident that, as with tennis' Davis Cup, national pride and glory would ultimately prove to offer more than enough incentive. Whether those beliefs will bear the desired fruit remains to be seen, perhaps as little as two years away, when the WMSG hope to have a second gathering in the wake of the 2012 Olympics. Poker probably won't have a place in the Olympics themselves, but perhaps a similar, more suitable venue is on the horizon.
Gary Wise is a poker columnist for ESPN.com.