By Christopher Cosenza
Did you know professional golfer Tiger Woods is the world’s most obsessed gambler? It’s true. Shocked?
“Why haven’t I heard this before?” you may ask yourself. “Wouldn’t this send shockwaves through the PGA? This could make the Tiger Woods Foundation crumble.”
So what’s the catch?
Well, let’s insert another name into that lead question and see if you have the same reaction: Did you know professional poker player Barry Greenstein is the world’s most obsessed gambler?
“Oh, well, that might make sense,” you tell yourself. “He’s a poker player; of course he’s a gambler.”
Really? Why is that? What makes Barry more of a gambler than Tiger? Are they individuals competing against other players for a prize? Do they get paid if they’re better than the rest of the field? Why is it people think playing poker is gambling but playing golf (or tennis, or bowling or billiards or any other sport for that matter) for a monetary prize isn’t?
People pay money to enter golf, billiards, bowling and tennis tournaments all the time, and there’s a prize pool for the top finishers. How is that any different than a poker tournament?
“Well, those sports require skill, whereas poker is driven by luck,” you might say.
Not so fast, my friend. Barry has made a healthy living at poker for decades, winning World Series of Poker and World Poker Tour titles. That has to be the longest lucky streak in history! He better play the lottery this week, huh?
“What about cash games?” you ask. “Cash games aren’t tournaments.” Ever heard of Nassaus and Wing-Dings? Golfers play for cash at country clubs and public courses around the world every day. They bet on closest to the pin, longest drive, total score, hole by hole, you name it. But they’re pitting their skill as a golfer against other golfers, just like poker players pit their skills against other rounders at the cash tables.
“Some sporting tours allow their top players to play for free, relying on sponsors to fund the prize pool, so there’s no risk to the participants, right? No risk means no gamble.” OK, so then freeroll poker isn’t a gamble, right? Or those subscription poker Web sites that let you play for cash prizes for a nominal monthly fee, there’s no risk there, right? Golfers pay dues to be members of the PGA and USGA, is that any different? And don’t kid yourself. Every stroke means something to a golfer whether they pay to play or not. If Tiger all of a sudden couldn’t win a tournament or make an amazing clutch putt, do you think he’d still have all of those endorsement deals? Unlikely. And scores of poker pros have endorsement deals that allow them to play tournaments for free, too. Are they still gambling?
Let’s compare poker and golf from a skill and luck standpoint.
SELECTION: In golf, players need to know which club to use and how hard to swing. In poker, players need to know which hands to fold and which to play, and how hard to push the action.
GOOD LUCK: In golf, you can get a lucky bounce off a tree, cart path, sprinkler head, or even a spectator’s head. In poker, You can hit a one-outer that gives you the winning hand when all hope was lost.
BAD LUCK: In golf, your drive goes down the middle but ends up in a divot, forcing you to make a poor second shot; or your putt could hit a spike mark that you didn’t see in your line, sending the ball just past the lip of the cup, costing you another stroke. In poker, opponents could hit a miracle card for the winning hand, sending you
to the rail. Or the dealer could expose a card that was meant for you, revealing an ace that would have given you pocket rockets, and then the replacement card is a deuce.
STRATEGY: In golf, players need to know when to lay up on a Par 5 or when to go for the green to achieve the desired outcome. In poker, players need to know when, and how much, to bet to achieve the desired outcome.
ADAPTATION: In golf, players need to know how to adjust to weather conditions that could alter their game. In poker, players need to know how to adjust to other players at the table so they can play the most effective style.
MATH: In golf, players often calculate what score they will need to win their match or tournament, and then they play accordingly. In poker, players calculate odds to call a bet based on the remaining cards that can give them the winning hand, and then play
Do you see where this is going? So why do people insist on calling poker players gamblers?
Here it is in a nutshell: People see actual money being won or lost on the table. They see cash changing hands on High Stakes Poker (or in their local casinos) on a turn of a random card. They don’t understand the math and calculation that goes into decisions; they just see money going into the pot and they can’t detach themselves from the value. If Barry thought he was betting a Corvette or half the net worth of Romania every time he raised all-in on HSP, it might be difficult to pull the trigger. But he knows chips are the tools of his trade, just like irons, woods and a putter are Tiger’s tools.
Let’s say we stop the Masters on the 18th green as Tiger is lining up a 10-foot par putt on Sunday. Then the guy who’s tied with him is allowed to run out on the green, place $300K next to the hole and say “Tiger, that’s how much you’ll lose if you miss this putt!” Do you think that would add a little pressure? Do you think people would realize a lot of money rides on his actions? Yet they still wouldn’t think it was gambling. Odd.
When a poker player says, “OK, I’ll gamble with you,” as he makes a preflop call with a terrible hand, he uses the word “gamble” because he knows he’s going into the hand as an underdog. Knowing you’re taking a chance with the worst hand is a gamble, because you went against the skill it required to lay down your inferior hand. That’s why there are no professional roulette or baccarat players, because you can’t control the outcome. In poker, you can always fold, and therein lies the truth that poker is a skill-based game, not a gamble.