The greatest thing I ever saw in my life was a boxing match. I was in San Diego, California. I was 12. This was the year 2000. My father had me down there to work on a commercial fishing vessel of his. It was getting redone at the time. It wouldn’t be back on the water for months. I spent the days cleaning up debris from construction, as my father taught me about hard work. To reward me, he’d take me to see different sights at night. My favorite memory from that time was a boxing match my father took me to.
It took place in a grimy backwater warehouse. Most of the fighters were Mexican, having made the short trek from Tijuana. One guy was wiry. He lacked the muscle tone of the other accomplished fighters. His eyes bulged out. He was going up against the hometown champion. Everyone hated this skinny fighter and jeered him, because he dared take on their boy. When this wiry pugilist went out into the ring, he was the most violent fighter I have ever seen in my entire life. I’ve been a boxing fan for 20 years, but I’ve still never seen anything like this. This reckless journeyman would take three punches to serve up one overhand right. He headbutted. He threw elbows. He stepped on the shin of the other fighter. He literally pushed the hometown hero around when he didn’t want to clinch.
At the end of the fight, he lost the decision on the judge’s scorecards. But the hometown hero looked absolutely destroyed. The crowd, having seen an amazing fight, started cheering for the journeyman fighter. They appreciated the performance he got out of their local boy. The journeyman, to show his appreciation, jumped up on a corner of the ring, and promptly spit blood into the faces of everyone who booed him 30 minutes earlier. He did this while laughing maniacally and slamming his chest. He then turned around and stormed off, as if he’d vanquished the entire town.
That moment changed my life forever. I saw a man possessed with love for the fight, who wouldn’t let anyone else take that joy from him. It taught me a lot about poker.
In this man, I saw the definition of a competitor. The man fought by his own rules. He performed for himself. He loved the fight so much he welcomed a match versus a better fighter. He wouldn’t listen to his critics at any point. That memory always stuck with me.
When people ask me, “do you think poker is a sport?” I respond, “honestly, it’s helpful for me to think of it as an endurance sport, but truthfully we’re pretty lucky it’s not a sport.” Honestly, I just can’t see poker as a sport, because sports seem to have some element of athleticism to them. Even if you’re watching pool, you’re seeing someone exhibit athletic prowess that almost no one on Earth possesses. That’s what makes watching sports so entertaining. What we also love about sports is that they feature living legends. We love watching the best in the world fight for supremacy and legacies, but we know the best players usually win.
People love to watch sports because it is a celebration of excellence. No one became the starting center for the Toronto Raptors because their dad owned the team. No one cares what you look like in sports, what you sound like, or where you’re from. If you’re the best, you will get the ball, period. It’s the one facet of life that has no BS, no politics. It’s all skill. It’s for these reasons, too, that I am thankful poker is not a sport.
That young Mexican man I watched that night probably never made much of anything off of his craft. In sports, 99% of the profits go to 1% of the players, and everybody else picks up the crumbs. That young Mexican man also probably had to stop fighting before his thirtieth birthday. In sports, athletic performance breaks a body down. It’s difficult for men to keep going after they are 35. Poker is beautiful precisely because it’s not like a sport. Yes, the top 1% of players make the lion’s share of money, but there’s a lot of money flowing at the lower limits as well. There’s also, thankfully, no athletic component in poker. As long as we condition our mind, we can continue playing this game well into our eighties. That’s why this game is beautiful. Anyone, on any day, at any age, has a shot. That hope means something to people too.
There’s a story I heard once, secondhand. A young minor league baseball player was asked why he wouldn’t give up. He was 28, and he still hadn’t made it out of the bottom rungs of the minor league baseball system. He was still sleeping in stranger’s houses, living off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He was still taking team buses all over the country to play in small towns. The people who had drafted him already marked him as a bust. Why didn’t he quit? He responded with, “any day I wake up now…I know I can still win. There’s still a chance I can turn this around. But if I quit and go take a real job, there’s no chance of that ever happening. Every day at a real gig you just pray to not lose your job. There is no winning. You know you can only lose.”
That overly brutal anecdote comes up again and again in baseball biographies, in different versions. It seems to be a saying throughout the minor league system. No one wants to give up on their dreams. It’s not the money and the big leagues many of these guys are after. They just want to go to bed knowing they can still win. They don’t want to go to bed just worrying about losing what little they can have.
That is why poker is beautiful. You can still run it up in your eighties. The game is never over. As long as you can still sit in that chair and move the chips forward, you have a shot. If you can win a $100 single table tournament, you can play a $1,000 tournament. If you can play a $1,000 tournament, you can make hundreds of thousands of dollars. If you gamble with money you can afford to lose and keep studying, then the sky really is the limit.
It’s bizarre to me to hear people tell me about bad beats. All I ever hear when you tell me about your two-outer is, “I went into a fist fight, and someone punched me in the face! This is No Limit Hold’em. There’s a reason many pros hate this game. One mistake or bad beat can undo all your hard work. AND THAT IS WHAT IS SO GLORIOUS ABOUT IT. If this were basketball, and LeBron James was going up against some short kid one-on-one for a heap of money, it would be miraculous and ridiculous if that kid kept throwing up full court shots and hitting them. LeBron James would have every right to be pissed. But guess what? You’re not LeBron James. This is not a sport. And the things you complain about at the table literally happen every single day. I have literally had someone hit a one outer on the river on me for over $100,000. You know why I don’t care about it? Because I am not athletic. I am not particularly intelligent. If I were playing chess, I doubt I’d be able to beat the hustlers down in Central Park.
Yet, despite all of that, every day I wake up knowing I can win. I always have that hope. I always have that dream. And that is why I love this game.