Eager to hop on the bandwagon, sports pages are drawn to poker


July 26, 2005|By Bill Ordine

FOLKS, WE got a dilemma.

Right here in your daily Sports section.

That's dilemma with a capital "D" and that rhymes with "P" and that stands for ...


With apologies to Music Man composer Meredith Willson, whose slick protagonist Professor Harold Hill warns River City about the corrupting influence of pool playing on the town's youth, we pose the question of whether America's latest obsession belongs on the same newspaper pages with home runs, touchdowns and Olympic gold medals.

Should those pursuits in which sweat and toil are the currency paid for success share paper and ink with a pastime where it is primarily guile and risk that reap rewards?

In short, is poker a sport and should it appear in the Sports section?

It's a debate that would have been unimaginable, say, three years ago.

Of course, much has changed since then.

For anyone not paying attention, television ratings for taped poker events - games where the audience has every opportunity to already know the outcome - rival those for live NBA games.

Participation in poker - whether at a kitchen table, in virtual poker rooms on the Internet or in live casino tournaments, such as the recently completed World Series of Poker in Las Vegas - has grown exponentially.

And there's not a retail store in the land, from Wal-Mart to Neiman Marcus, that doesn't sell poker chips or video games or books that dwell on when to declare, "All in!"

So faced with a voracious public appetite for all things poker, mainstream media have recently elected to present information about the game. And that decision leads to the logical question: If poker stories are to appear in a newspaper, where should they be placed?

The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and, most recently, Houston Chronicle are among papers that have answered by introducing poker columns on their respective sports pages. When The Sun covered the 2005 World Series of Poker, where Anne Arundel accountant Steve Dannenmann finished second in the main event and won $4.25 million, many of the stories also ran in Sports.

So by virtue of its newspaper home, does that mean poker has been or should be christened a sport?

The case against is fundamental. The game requires athleticism that goes no further than having a heartbeat. Poker sage Doyle Brunson, 71, who uses a cane, can still run roughshod over a poker table and did so a few weeks ago, winning a WSOP gold bracelet in a preliminary event.

And I could add several more contrary arguments. Poker is a game where participants can get massages while they play. I watched one fellow get a rubdown for nearly five successive hours at the World Series of Poker (there were actually official WSOP masseuses). You can openly drink alcohol while competing (most sports prefer that players discontinue imbibing after the national anthem). And, in poker, you can be penalized (10 minutes) for uttering a certain curse word; if such a rule existed in other sports, the playing field would be as deserted as Brownsville, Texas, on an August afternoon.

Now, the other side of the ledger. No one can quibble with the fact that skill, mathematical and strategical, plays a significant role in successful poker playing. At the highest levels, stamina is a factor. The final table at the poker World Series main event took 14 grueling hours to complete. Leading up to it, daily sessions routinely ran 12 hours.

Houston Chronicle sports editor Fred Faour said his paper's decision to place a column by poker professional Daniel Negreanu in the sports pages had little to do with whether the game itself is a sport and everything to do with attracting readers.

Poker, Faour pointed out, is fertile with fascinating characters and entertaining tales.

"We're not changing what we are; we're simply expanding it," Faour said. "It was a no-brainer. For people who are into [poker] and are already readers, great. But if they weren't readers to begin with ... now we've got another one."

His only regret, Faour said, was the paper hadn't done it sooner so the Chronicle "could be ahead of the curve."

Brunson, who recalls the days when he and his colleagues carried guns to handle robbers and cheats, still shakes his head over becoming a TV star for doing the same thing that used to get him arrested.

The old rounder is fond of reminding the world that poker was an immensely popular game, albeit underground, long before the lipstick camera allowed television audiences to see players' hole cards. And, Brunson contends, it belongs in the sports pages for one simple reason.

"Because it's so much fun."

Bill Ordine covered the recent World Series of Poker for The Sun.

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