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Debating Poker's Classification as a Sport or Gambling

This page is written by
Kelvin Jones
Kelvin JonesSenior Online Casino Expert
according to our Editorial Principles

Poker has gained enormous popularity worldwide. It’s an alluring game that attracts a lot of attention from celebs and high rollers, and it relies on a whole lot more than just luck. It requires skill, strategy, and stamina, just like a sport.

But is poker a sport? Enthusiasts have long been divided about this, and it’s a talking point with South African players too.

Let’s take a look at this debate and see what conclusions can be drawn.


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Understanding Poker

Poker originated in the late 18th century in the USA. By the 1800s, it had spread across the country. The rules of this card game are simple, and it’s played between at least two players for several rounds. There are several varieties of Poker, including Texas Hold’em, 7-Card Stud, Omaha, Caribbean Stud Poker, and 5-Card Draw, but they all tend to have these aspects in common:

  • The game starts with each player placing a bet.
  • During each round players get dealt cards from a standard deck of 52 cards. Their goal is to create the best 5-card hand possible.
  • Players keep their cards hidden and bet on the strength of their cards as well as the perceived weakness of their opponents.
  • When a round ends, cards are revealed, and the player with the best hand wins all the money bet during that round.

Poker sport or gambling

Poker as a Sport

Sports, by definition, are activities in which a team or person competes with another team or person with an element of skill. They’re played for entertainment purposes and involve a certain degree of physical exertion.

Games, on the other hand, are competitive activities, or sports, undertaken for fun and played according to a formal set of rules. Thus, by their definition, games can be classified as a subset of sports.

  • Skill-Based Elements in Poker

There are many different types of skills required by Poker players:

  • Psychological Aspects

Poker players need to be calm under pressure, determined, emotionally controlled, realistically positive, and self-motivated.

  • Strategic-Decision Making

In Poker, strategic decision-making involves knowing the rules of the game alongside implied, mathematical, and pot odds.

  • Reading Opponents

Players need to observe their fellow players’ betting patterns and pay attention to how strong these bets are. They need to watch for body language indicators about the strength of their hands, listen for verbal cues, and watch the size of their opponent’s stacks.

  • Professional Poker Players and Leagues

It’s hard to say exactly how many professional poker players there are in South Africa and around the rest of the world, but the number is likely less than 50,000. The probable number of professional and amateur players is estimated to be just over 100 million.

  • Skill-Based Competitions

Games of skill can be defined as competitions where entrants apply a level of thought and skill to their involvement. They’re also contests where the winner is determined by the quality of play. Examples other than Poker include backgammon, chess, dominoes, and rummy.

Physical and Mental Training in Poker

The ability to concentrate and focus are two crucial skills for Poker players, and exercise can improve both. Regular workouts can improve our decision-making and problem-solving abilities and help with mindfulness, other key components of winning Poker games. Physical fitness also plays a vital role in stamina and endurance for those long Poker sessions.

Poker as Gambling

When we play a game based on chance for money or another desired result, then we’re gambling.

  • Elements of Chance in Poker

Although there’s a substantial amount of skill involved in playing Poker that concerns game theory and probability, it does contain elements of gambling and randomness:

  • Dealing of Cards

There’s no way you can predict what cards will be dealt from a well-shuffled deck of 52.

  • Community Cards and Randomness

Which community cards will be dealt when is impossible to predict.

  • Probability and Odds in Poker

For a quick look at the odds and probability of various Poker hands, check out this handy table:

Poker HandRounded Off OddsProbability
High Card50%1,302,540
One Pair40%1,098,240
Two Pair4%123,552
Full House0.14%3,744
Straight Flush0.00139%36
Royal Flush0.000154%4

The Casino and Gambling Industry’s Role in Poker

The fact that South Africans can play Poker games at top online casinos has contributed to its recent surge in popularity. But when you’re playing against the casino instead of your friends at home, you have to take the house edge and rake into consideration:

  • House Edge

The amount of money a casino can expect to profit from every bet on a particular game. Luckily for Poker fans, the house edge is very low, with 3-Card Poker boasting one of just 1.5%.

  • Rake

A portion of winnings the host takes to offset the costs of facilitating the game.

It’s hard to quantify the role that luck plays in Poker. Some estimates suggest that about 30% of the outcome of a tournament or even a single hand can be attributed to luck. But, in the long term, skill definitely emerges as the dominant factor.

Legal Perspectives on Poker

South Africa’s online Poker regulations have generated many debates over the years. The argument is that while the official law forbids all online gambling, online Poker is not explicitly mentioned. Nonetheless, SA doesn’t offer licences to online Poker sites, and players have to rely on offshore sites to play.

The USA also only allows online Poker in 6 states, but Europe has totally legalised and regulated it.

Debates and Opinions

Can card games be considered a sport? Many people feel that Poker is a sport because it requires both mental and physical prowess to consistently play and win at the highest level. It’s also competitive and gets played for entertainment purposes. Players need sharp hand/eye coordination and physical endurance for long games. The call for the recognition of Poker as a sport is being made by many.

But its detractors argue that Poker is more of a game of luck and shouldn’t be seen as a sport because players don’t need to be as skilled as traditional athletes in standard sports.

The Grey Area: Skill vs. Chance

What is poker considered to be? The answer to the question of whether or not Poker is gambling or an activity based on skill is that it’s a bit of both. You need a certain amount of luck to win, but you also need to know precisely what to do with the cards and the situation you’re presented with.

Poker's Impact on Society

There are several interesting psychological and social aspects of Poker to take into account, including:

  • Addiction

Certain players find it difficult to stop even when they’ve exceeded their loss limits. They find themselves running into financial difficulties as a result.

  • Responsible Gaming

Responsible gambling initiatives are embraced by leading South African online casinos. They involve resources and information for players about addictive behaviour as well as various features to curb gambling activities, including self-exclusion.

  • Social Interaction

While playing online Poker against the house is an essentially solo affair, social interaction is still encouraged by features such as Live Chat. This makes it possible for players at the same table to interact with each other.

  • Social Bonding

Many players make lifelong friends by interacting with fellow Poker enthusiasts online.

  • Poker’s Portrayal in Media and Culture

Poker in films and television programmes is usually depicted as a glamorous, exciting game of chance that offers players the chance to win big. All of this is true!

As with anything that large communities of people take part in, there are various economic and financial impacts that Poker has on South Africa and the world at large:

  • Poker’s Contribution to the Economy

Poker’s positive economic impact includes the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs, billions being brought into the country directly and indirectly from Live Poker games, and huge amounts of money being generated in direct and indirect tax revenue from games.

Comparing Poker to Traditional Sports

While there are some arguments for professional Poker players being very similar to professional athletes, this is not the case for most South African players. Most of us rely more heavily on luck than on skill, and playing the game requires no physical training. You can’t really win based on skill alone, either.

On the flip side, the skill requirement in Poker is similar to the one necessary to be an athlete, and games can become tests of physical and mental ability. The world of Poker is also at least as competitive as that of professional sports.

The Role of Strategy in Poker

There are about as many different Poker strategies as there are variations of the game itself:

  • Aggressive VS Conservative Play

Conservative players avoid confrontation at the table as much as possible, while aggressive players aren’t afraid of risk and Raise more often than they Call.

  • Bluffing and Deception

When exercised properly, bluffs and deceit can help you win pots even when you’re holding weak cards.

  • The Mathematical Approach

Poker players use two elements when it comes to the mathematical approach:

  1. The number of cards they’re holding that can make a winning hand
  2. The probability that a winning hand will be dealt

Poker strategy has seen many changes since the game was introduced. This is due to continuation betting, blockers, game theory optimisation, and small-ball, amongst other factors. Players also evolve their own strategies for the game.

The Future of Poker as a Sport

Even with the continuing debate of whether poker is based on luck or skill, many fans believe that Poker will eventually become officially recognised as a sport due to global participation in high-stakes events like the World Series of Poker. According to its advocates, it will eventually be seen as a sport similar to chess thanks to shifting perceptions of the game and an increase in societal acceptance.

Will online Poker in South Africa ever become officially regulated? Resistance is still strong, but the call for it is becoming louder every year.

Technological Advancements and Online Poker

Modern technologies are becoming far more widely available, transforming online Poker. These include head-up displays, notification systems, odds calculators, and trackers powered by artificial intelligence.


In conclusion, we can say that because betting is involved and because Poker has other gambling elements, it’s not totally dependent on games of chance and requires skills. We think this makes it a sport!


Is Poker more about skill or luck?

Poker is about a little of both!

Can Poker be considered a mental sport?

Yes! In fact, the International Mind Sports Association officially declared Poker a Mind Sport in 2010.  

Are there any successful professional poker players?

There are many. In South Africa, players like Raymond Rahme, Jarred Soloman, Darren Kramer, Ahmed Karrim, and Greg Ronaldson have made millions due to their skill in the game.

What are the legal implications of playing poker?

No one in South Africa has ever been arrested for playing Poker online.

How does poker impact mental well-being?

When you play Poker, you’re engaging in complicated learning processes that help rewire the brain. Poker enthusiasts develop premium skills like concentration, discipline, and patience.

17+ Years Experience
Kelvin Jones
Kelvin Jones

Senior Online Casino Expert

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Kelvin Jones is a seasoned professional in South Africa's online casino scene, boasting over a decade of expertise. He's your ultimate guide in selecting the finest online casinos, providing insights ...continue reading

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