Q&A: Playing Mind Games With Poker

Q&A: Playing Mind Games With Poker

Sports Business

Q&A: Playing Mind Games With Poker

Poker has grabbed its share of headlines this year, including the government moving in to shut down numerous online sites and the launch of Epic Poker on TV.

A group of international poker aficionados is taking poker to another level, alongside such competitions as chess, bridge, checkers and Go at the World Mind Sports Games. In the spirit of the Olympics, the event is held every four years in the city of the upcoming Summer Games (in 2008 it was played in Beijing).

Under the auspices of the recently revamped U.S. Poker Federation, poker will have a place in London, Nov. 19-20, with a team of six players from the U.S. competing against more than 120 other players from 40 countries for a prize pool of $500,000.

Big Lead Sports spoke with Peter Alson, a veteran journalist who is president of the the U.S. Poker Federation, and Amy Handelsman, who is executive director of the USPF and the U.S. Mind Sports Federation.

Big Lead Sports: How will the inclusion of poker in the World Mind Sports Games affect the future of poker?

Peter Alson: I think one of the interesting developments in poker recently is the popularity of Zynga Texas Hold’em on Facebook. For old school poker players, the notion of playing poker for no money is ludicrous. But that’s precisely what is occurring on Zynga. Sixty million people a month are playing poker for no money! It goes beyond that even. Many of the Facebook players actually buy chips for real dollars when they need to replenish their supply—chips that have absolutely no cash value and can’t be redeemed for anything material. For the old schoolers, the reaction is a combination of “Why play then? What’s the point?” and “If the chips have no value why would anyone ever fold to a bluff?”

BLS: So what’s the answer?

PA: I think we may well be seeing a shift not only in the perception of what the game of poker is all about, but also a shift in who is drawn to the game.  What I am coming to understand is that there is a whole segment of the population drawn to poker from watching it on television, who want to play but don’t want to risk money. For them, the beauty and purity of the game is the draw.

Unlike the old schoolers, the gambling element is an impediment not an inducement for them to play. For these non-gamblers, poker is all about the competition and the strategy–just as in other sports. So, I think the answer is, Yes, there is a new audience of potential and already involved participants out there, an audience interested in the cerebral pleasures of this great game, a game that can be enjoyed for its own sake, without the lure of money.

Which is not to say that prize money is not and should not be a part of poker, as it is in other sports. We at the USPF envision a time, we hope soon, when instead of players contributing the prize pool, there will be sponsored events with significant prize money just as there are in tennis and golf.

BLS: Will the recent issues with online poker sites hurt or hamper the cause not just in the U.S. but around the world?

PA: I think that the problems stemming from Black Friday and the indictment of the Full Tilt ownership certainly don’t help the image of poker in the short run. But in terms of what we’re trying to do at the IFP and the USPF, it may actually give us some additional traction in terms of positioning ourselves as an alternative to the gambling model of poker. Our mission after all is to promote poker as a mind sport and take it out of the casinos and away from its gambling roots—and there’s no doubt that in the void left behind by the online shutdown, we have been presented with a golden opportunity to make our presence known and have the game understood in a new and exciting way.

BLS: Do you think top players will compete in these championships without a large purse?

PA: What I can say is that thus far my experience in recruiting the first U.S. Duplicate poker team is that some of the top players really understand and get what it is we’re trying to do and are very excited about it. The players who are most receptive are the ones with a background in other mind sports. Barry Greenstein, the captain of the U.S. team, is a chess player. Issac Haxton came out of the world of Magic the Gathering. Ali Eslami is another who came out of the world of Magic. Players whose background is more gambling-centric are somewhat less receptive. Which strikes me as fairly predictable. I think that you have to look at what we’re doing as being along the same lines as the Ryder Cup in golf or the Davis Cup in tennis.

There are always going to be some players who love the idea of representing their country, and others who will be less enthusiastic if it doesn’t involve the opportunity to make significant money. As I say, ultimately we’re hoping that we’ll be able to host events with sponsored prize money, but until such time not all the top pros will be interested. Which is fine. We believe that there will be amateurs who will qualify for the U.S. Team who will be every bit as talented as some of the pros, and who will make their mark in our competitions.

BLS: Have you gotten feedback from top players?

PA: The reaction from the top players I’ve talked to has been, as I say, in general very supportive. Poker players tend to be skeptical, and there is a certain amount of skepticism that’s inevitable when you are proposing a model that is vastly different from what people are used to. But I think when they actually see and experience what we’re up to, most of the skeptics will come around.

BLS: What has been the reaction from other Mind Sports to including poker in the group?

Amy Handlesman: While there is no uniform reaction, we’ve found that the other mind sports are intrigued if not wholly supportive. There’s a natural alliance between poker and bridge—and many participate in both mind sports, as card players. There are a lot of other pairings, however. Some play Go and poker; some Chess and poker; and anyone who has played even casually understands the strategic skill involved. It is more a question of how we can work to promote all the mind sports together—the value of the whole as opposed to the sum of the parts—and how a mutual spirit of cooperation will support each individual sport.

BLS: Do you see the day where mind-sport athletes and traditional athletes work as one?

AH: I do see that day, and I think it’s already happening in the keen interest of the mind-body connection. A lot has been written about being in the zone, about flow, about the mental aspects of training for any sport. We see this perhaps most especially in the one-on-one sports of tennis, boxing, etc. But, it’s endemic to all athletic pursuits. And once we start to hold our Mind Sport Games at the same time as the Summer Olympic Games, there will be more of a chance for cross-pollination and camaraderie.

It is noteworthy that the current also goes the other way. While physical athletes must focus their minds to succeed, mind sports athletes need to be in optimal physical shape to survive the punishing hours and concentration of play.

BLS: Do you think an “Olympics of the Mind” can help grow the overall Olympic movement?

AH: Yes, it will in time. Again, as the world becomes smaller and more sophisticated in terms of thinking about fitness, aging, and even spiritual issues, and the understanding deepens about the mind-body connection, there will be a natural drawing together, if not symbiosis. I look forward to a Neo-Grecian era, supporting the healthy mind and body equally, and as one.

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