Last night, it happened again.
We sat, under a billion watts of blinding light, and waited for a race to end. Saturday night we lost just 6 minutes to a Busch series race, which is really NASCAR's minor leagues. Then Sunday, as was expected, the big race in California kept us off the air until 12:17.
There are usually just 4 of us in the studio when we're in a delay, usually the same 4 souls. The weathergirl is from Kansas and her husband's a big sports guy, while both members of our floor crew love those speeding cars. Same people, same situation, invariably the same debate.
Is NASCAR a sport?
You almost certainly have an opinion.
As a certified sports junkie, I subscribe to nearly every sports magazine, watch every sports show, and have 3 of my XM presets tuned to all sports stations. And in every meduim, it's POKER getting the "SPORTS?" treatment. I suppose it's because the WSOP is carried on ESPN. Perhaps it's because the New York Times has added the game to it' "Sport" section. In any event, the big wigs of sport are certainly taking their shots.
The first real salvo, at least the first I saw, came from Rick Reilly. In his usually fantastic column he wrote, "This poker craze is the biggest waste of time since Stevie Wonder went to a mime festival." I almost swore off the poker content based on the stale humor alone.
Here are his major complaints:
1) The game is easy. Chris Moneymaker won a HUGE tournament after "having played the game on the Internet for three years." Can you imagine, asks Reilly with no sense of hyperbole, "somebody taking up basketball three years ago and suddenly becoming the leading scorer in the NBA?"
2) The game is dull. "These people spend more time on their butts than FDR did," he says, finally finding a joke even older than his last.
3) It's bad for Kids. "Is this what we want -- kids who used to be outside on perfect fall afternoons suddenly hunched in the basement like Nathan Detroit's floating crap game? Is it a good thing that my son's buddies are all wearing green eyeshades and taking one another's busboy tips for hours on end while their muscles turn to linguini?"
4) Greg Raymer is fat, and still good at poker.
Bob was really upset about the Times in particular. Again, I like Bob, and I enjoy his show, but he makes what are largely the same lame arguments as Reilly. At least he has better jokes.
1) Poker is bad for kids. "Your 18-year-old kid is somehow hooked on this mind-numbing fare and has blown most of next semester's tuition payment on an online game of Texas Hold'Em."
2) Poker is dull. "I must say I find it hard to get worked up over a sport that boasts all the pageantry and magic of Saturday night at my Uncle Murray's basement"
3) The bottom line. "Look, poker is not a sport... Put it on the Game Show Network and let Chuck Woolery host it."
THE PART WHERE I, RESPECTFULLY, DISAGREE
Let's start point for point. Then we'll draw some real conclusions. I think it's insufficient to debunk poor ideas and say you've proven a point. At least it gives us a place to start.
Reilly is the worst argument, so we'll take him first.
1) The game is easy. I think we all stand on similar ground here, but the point is worth addressing. Most of all, we should mention the Moneymaker example.
It's Reilly's contention that if a relative unknown like Moneymaker, and then Raymer and Hachem, can win the "sport's" most prestigious event, then it can't be that hard. But there are several things that distinguish the WSOP from traditional "Majors."
First and foremost, the WSOP allows ANYONE with the entry fee to sign up and play. That's hardly the case at the Masters. Therefore, you'll always have a field that includes those newcomers who want a shot at the big time. The major pro events that DO allow "Open" registration, actually do have some of the same "nobody" winners.
Todd Hamilton won the British Open in 2004. Have you ever heard of him before or since? He won one of the sport's "Majors" at the age of 38. On his first year of the PGA tour. He'd been playing in Japan.
And does a player's experience really inform us about the nature of a sport? Micheal Jordan was CUT from his high school basketball team, and then won a national championship in college. The best Tight End in the NFL last year was an undrafted rookie named Antonio Gates, he didn't play football in college. He learned the game fast.
I happen to think golf, baseketball, and football all count as sports. Making this argument is akin to saying, "Every 16 year old can drive, so any one of them could compete in the Daytona 500." Which leads us to....
2) The game is dull. At least if you don't like it. I'll refer you to the NASCAR debate. People who like it think the "debate" is laughable. People who don't... don't. You have to admit NASCAR drivers spend a lot of time on their butts. Football players meanwhile spend the overwhelming MAJORITY of their time standing around. So do baseball players.
The truth is, you'll find something dramatic to watch and enjoy on almost every hand of poker. Can the same be said of a soccer game (Sorry Al), where there is only one point scored?
3) It's bad for kids. According to a University of Minnesotta study, "Each year, more than 20 million American youth participate in school or community sports. This results in approximately one million serious sports-related injuries occurring annually, requiring hospitalization, surgery, missed school, or at least a half-day in bed."
Wow. That's a rather shocking 5%. That's from REAL sports mind you, not hemmorhoids from hours of grinding at a 2/4 game. Granted, young players can be at risk of losing every penny they have. But how much money does your kid HAVE in his bankroll? Why?
I'd say its most likely that your kid will lose the money from his allowance or summer job and either get better or stop playing. Not that harmful really. The real fear is that little Jimmy will end up deep in hoc to the local mafia and end up turning tricks for food. I'd say thats far less likely that the chance of Jimmy ending up with a half dozen concussions from football or soccer.
4) Raymer is fat, but good at poker. Sumo wrestlers, by comparison, are svelte. This argument is dumb. Just ask John Kruk.
I always like the Otis theory of sports, which I'm somewhat pained to admit. He contends that performances like figure skating and gymnatics are not sports but exhibitions. Why? Because the scoring is purely subjective. How can two people "compete" in a sport in which a third party arbitarily picks a winner? It's silly.
Really, the problem with thse poker vs sports debates is that the opponents on either side generally fail to pinpoint what any sport is. And failing that, you can't tell me what does and does not qualify. If baseball is a sport, why isn't poker? If Billiards, why not poker?
Sorry, Rick and Bob, we excel at a sport you don't understand. I can see why that's trouble for you. But holding on to antiquated notions of what is and is not important won't roll back the tide.
Really, poker is about as glamourous as your Uncle's basement, and basetball is never much more than the noonball pickup game at you local Y. It's still a sport.