May 03, 2010

The Company Poker Keeps

“Tell me what company you keep and I'll tell you what you are.”

—Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
On this week's Poker Beat podcast, a segment was devoted to discussing poker's recent recognition as a "mind sport".  More specifically, the International Mind Sports Association (IMSA) voted to allow the International Federation of Poker (IFP) to join as a member.  The IFP was formed barely a year ago, with laudable, if lofty, goals:
The IFP will also draw together all the arguments, evidence and testimony gathered around the world by national federations or their equivalents which have been called upon to contest restrictive laws or punitive taxation. ...

Above all, IFP will be working to demonstrate that poker is a Mind Sport of strategic skill, not a mere game of chance, and so to win it exemption from gambling legislation throughout the world.
The IMSA was formed in 2005 by international groups governing bridge, chess, draughts (checkers), and Go.  The IMSA has this mission:
The goal of IMSA was to gather different mind sports federations to pursue common aims and interests, to organize the World Mind Sport Games under the aegis of the General Association of International Sport Federations and further realize the inclusion of mind sports in the Olympic movement. In particular, the organization's longterm plans include running World Mind Sports Games by analogy with Olympics, which will be held in Olympic host cities shortly after Winter or Summer Games.
Browsing through the IMSA website, it appears that the IMSA held an international competition in early 2008, as well as another world championship event in conjunction with 2008 Beijing Olympics.  But since then, the IMSA has been strangely quiet, though there are apparently plans for another international competition to be held in conjunction with the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

The reaction in the poker community to the IMSA's decision to accept the IPF as a member organization has ranged from celebratory to exuberant.  A typical reaction hailed the news as a "major milestone" and "monumental achievement".  Doyle Brunson stated, "I believe that history will show this was a key moment for poker."  On the Poker Beat podcast, respected poker commentator Gary Wise asserted the development was "one small step for poker, one giant leap for poker kind", while fellow contributor B.J. Nemeth declared that eventually the "mind sport" endorsement will be regarded as "one of the key moments in the 2000s" for the general acceptance and legalization of poker.

Let's hold off on the high fives and champagne toasts. Although it is undoubtedly cool to refer to poker as a "mind sport", the whole IFP/IMSA setup feels a lot like a couple of vanity professional organizations whose primary purpose is to pat themselves on the back for being cerebral.  A cynic might view their relationship as poker giving some needed money and publicity to the IMSA in exchange for "certification" as a "mind game"—really nothing more than a professional circle jerk.  At the end of the day, neither the IFP nor the IMSA have any political or cultural clout.  The IFP's arguments for being regarded as a "mind sport" are the same as those being employed—unsuccessfully—in the "poker is a game of skill" litigation strategy in the United States.  If that argument has failed to achieve any meaningful results to date, the self-serving stamp of approval from the IMSA is unlikely to make any difference to poker legalization efforts.  Does anyone seriously expect a Senator opposed to online poker to slap his head and say, "Wow, now that the chess and bridge folks say poker is a 'mind sport', how can I possibly oppose legalizing poker? Who cares about the evils of online gambling, or the risk of money laundering by terrorists and criminals? Go poker!"

Later in the Poker Beat podcast, the crew actually touched on the real hurdle poker faces in gaining full legalization when they discussed a study regarding the economic impact of legalized online gambling.  Dan Michalski of Pokerati fame noted correctly that poker's opposition frames the legalization debate in moral terms, not economic terms.*  The Poker Beat crew then moved on to a new topic—the arrest of Daniel Tzvetkoff for federal charges of UIGEA violations and money laundering—that they apparently regarded as unrelated to the poker legalization debate.  But the Tzvetkoff arrest is actually an important piece of the puzzle that is preventing widespread acceptance of legalized poker.

Consider the popular image of poker—not the image the insular poker community has of the game they play, but the image of poker in society as a whole:
Poker players and poker culture emphasize and celebrate a libertarian—even libertine—lifestyle that is far from the normal American lifestyle.  Heck, poker doesn't even fit in with all of the other residents on the island of misfit mind games.  When did you last read about chess players involved in money laundering?  Bridge players dropping out of college to blow thousands of dollars partying at high-end nightclubs?  Go players making prop bets for tens of thousands of dollars?  Checkers players getting arrested for drug possession, or because they robbed a bank to support their gambling habit? 

The IMSA may have let poker join the "mind sport" club, but even Al Capone and John Gotti could buy their way into a country club.  The public is almost certainly willing to accept that poker is a game of skill, or at least a mixture of skill and gambling.  The problem is that the public holds a concomitant opinion that poker is also a game associated with shady characters looking to fleece average players of any money left after the poker sharks have ravaged their bank accounts.  When Congress goes to debate repealing UIGEA and legalizing online poker, which of these storylines will be more memorable, more compelling:
  • Poker is recognized as a 'mind sport' by some European organization unknown to most Americans, OR Online poker sites associate—or even conspire—with money launderers to evade American laws?
  • Poker is a game of skill that can be mastered by serious players, OR Online poker sites fail to protect players from cheaters and scammers, or even cheat and scam their own players?
  • Poker can be a challenging and rewarding profession for those with math and psychological skills, OR Poker can lure smart kids out of college and promising careers, and lead them into a lifestyle filled with the temptations of gambling, drug abuse, and materialism while pursuing a "profession" with no redeeming social value?
Poker has come a long way from the outlaw days remembered by players of Doyle Brunson's era.  In fact, the greatest achievement of some of poker's famous pioneers was to eliminate criminals and cheaters from poker games by establishing poker as a regulated casino game, so that poker truly could develop as a contest of skill.  Unfortunately, poker seems to have taken a few steps back during recent years.  Getting an endorsement as a "mind sport" is an empty achievement, at least so long as the headlines trumpet poker's association with those who are criminal, unsavory, or merely shallow.  As the old proverb goes:
"If you lie down with dogs, you will get up with fleas."

* I think Michalski gets this half right.  The other element of the opposition to legalized online poker is that the UIGEA was passed as part of the SAFE Port Act, designed to improve the security of American ports against terrorist attacks or activities (e.g., smuggling in bombs or weapons).  It is a big lift to get any member of Congress to vote to repeal part of an anti-terror act, even if the UIGEA is only tangentially related to the main purpose of the act.  The repeal process is only made more difficult when online poker is associated with money launderers, since money laundering to finance terrorist groups or criminal organizations is already a politically touchy issue.


  1. you think the existence of blogs touting the joys of chasing down premium hands with so-called "crackers" also derails efforts to establish poker as a game of mere luck, no better than rouletter, rather than one of skill where someone putting money in a pot as a 4 to 1 dog, something.- dawn summers

  2. Not at all, recognizing a player that sees big pocket pairs and suddenly thinks he/she is entitled to the pot is one of the most profitable skills in No Limit Hold'Em(especially deep stacked). You may be putting in a small amount of money at bad odds preflop, but the payout when those odds hit far outweighs the chips you invest speculating.

  3. @ dawn summers (if, in fact, you are the real dawn summers):

    First off, the hands are called "craakkers". "Cracker" refers to me.

    Also, I firmly believe poker is a game of skill. My particular skill is riding the statistical variance wave and inflicting agony along the way. When I put my money in as as 4:1 dog, I've got my opponent right where I want him (or her, no gender bias in my victim selection).

    Finally, thanks to the wonders of K9 Advantix, Berk is flea-free, and he's the only dog I nap with. [Note the subtle product placement. Come on advertisers! Ship it!]


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