Computers have impacted our sporting lives in many ways. They’ve transformed the data to which coaches have access. They’ve reshaped sports in terms of our understanding of bio-mechanics, nutrition, respiration and recovery – just as they have for our health and wellbeing more generally. They’ve taken human error out of line calls. They’ve revved up motor sports. They’ve opened up the re-evaluation of different skills and in some cases, they have changed the very nature of a sport completely.
Nowhere is that impact more evident than in the world of poker. And before anyone objects, poker is a formally ratified, recognized and respected mind-sport. It was back in 2010 that successful players’ competitive skills were acknowledged by the International Mind Sports Association as being on a par with such established activities as chess and bridge.
A rare hybrid
But poker has been transformed by the computer age in a way that is out of all proportion to almost any other recognizable form of contest. Unlike most sports, which benefit from the power of computers only to the extent that they can calculate and inform the physical aspects of a game – whether that is determining line calls or assessing the movement of a running back, poker itself has developed a wholly online realization.
Poker has become a rare hybrid in our technological age. It is one part human – social and intimate, and one part digital – distant and interpersonal. The two parts are equally and fruitfully in balance.
The game is now played online by an estimated 15 million cash players around the world and that number is growing all the time. Whereas once it was played up close up and personal, poker is now more often contested by players thousands of miles apart with nothing in common but a shared access to technology and the same appetite for testing their skills. They don’t even need to speak the same language. In the process, the sport has been revolutionized. There are, furthermore, thousands of players who play social, free versions of the game.
New forms of poker have been developed to satisfy the demands of online players for faster, more condensed and more concentrated playing experiences. New formats such as PokerStars Spin & Go tournaments change the way that the game is traditionally played by randomly assigning prize pools to single table tournaments, between 2 and 3000 times the players’ buy-ins. Such is the popularity of those variants that the very nature of poker itself is being redefined.
Across the divide
But if this sounds like what is happening online signals the end of traditional person-to-person poker, involving tangible chips on real tables with actual paper playing cards, that would be misleading. All the evidence suggests that rather than detracting from the public’s interest in playing real-life games, online poker is actually working as a stimulus to traditional forms of the game.
Live poker tournaments around the world have never been more popular. The ever growing number of grinders who get into the game online are proving to be all too eager to make the leap across the digital divide and look their opponents squarely in the eye and to gauge those all-important ‘tells’.
Unlike other areas – think shopping or publishing – where there is an all-too evident opposition between what happens online and what takes place offline, poker appears to have found a happy compromise.
A happy marriage
Traditional poker tournaments have involved players buying their way in – literally. For the bigger tournaments, that buy-in has been in the order of $10,000+. That cash goes into a prize pool which is shared amongst the most successful players. It is a formula that means only the most confident, and the best resourced, players are liable to enter.
With the advent of online games there is now a route for players to win a seat at those live major events. Seats at the major tournament tables are now offered as prizes for online contests called satellites. In the process, the marriage of online poker and its traditional bricks and mortar partner is happily consummated. And with women increasingly taking up the game, poker online is an increasingly heterosexual affair.
It is not only at the major tournament tables that grinders can win such life-changing amounts of money. For example, the PokerStars 2014 SCOOP competition saw five contenders enjoy winnings in excess of $500,000, as well as many others with significant winnings below that level. The leading money winner walked away with a cool $1,131,226.48. And, of course, the PokerStars SCOOP competition is just one of many similar events staged throughout the course of the year.
Poker’s unique proposition
It is difficult to imagine such a fruitful union between online and offline realizations of any equivalent competitive event. Ball games of one form or another undoubtedly have a healthy online level of engagement, but invariably that is a matter of either digital gaming or media comment. There is no equivalent marriage between what happens online and a real world equivalent.
Instead, what appears to be happening is that the gaming world is running in parallel with real world sports. For example, the FIFA interactive World Cup is an internationally contested event, drawing in thousands of competitors from around the globe, but there is a huge gulf between the video game experience and that of an actual ball game. The two are – in all senses – not even in the same ball park.
In contrast, the online poker community plays a game that is close enough to the traditional game for the crossover between the two to continue fuelling both. The online poker industry was estimated to be worth over $6.7 billion in 2012 and that figure is set to continue rising. At the same time, real world poker tournaments are flourishing as never before.
Equivalent mind sports are equally dwarfed by the level of interest as well as the commercial resonance that poker enjoys. Poker is thriving. The world’s favorite mind sport may be alive and well on the ground, but what is happening online is even more vibrant. Who could have imagined that computers and sports could mix so well?