David Gold: Award-winning biographer on mission to help poker shake off gambling links and prove it has a real role to play in sport
Thursday, 21 June 2012
The former assistant editor of The Times (pictured below) is also keenly involved in sport. His maternal grandfather was Ivan Sharpe, a member of the last British team to win an Olympic football gold medal, at Stockholm in 1912.
And Holden is an avid poker player, the author of Big Deal – One Year As A Professional Poker Player (pictured bottom), and President of the International Poker Federation (IFP). He is now on a mission to transform the sport of poker and increase its role in the sports world. The IFP is a new federation, having only been founded in April 2009 with seven founder members.
It now has more than 40, and Holden told insidethegames that by November the number would exceed 50. Poker, like chess, snooker or darts, is one of those games derided as not being a "real sport". But it has another problem – it is inextricably linked with gambling. When the subject is raised, Holden is quick to say "We do not use the word gambling." Hardly a shock.
But he makes a pertinent point when saying: "It depends what you mean by gambling. I spoke to people this week who think gambling by definition is to do with money. You gamble when you cross the road, where you send your children to school. Poker helps you calibrate and make those decisions with as much information as possible. It is a basic requirement for life." Making decisions, that is, not poker.
But Holden insists the game can help: "Probability, statistics, economics – all of those skills are required to be a good poker player.
"Probability, the nature of risk, calculating what we do that in everyday life... those are the skills poker teaches you." Holden adds that with participants in the World Series in Las Vegas, physical fitness is required for 14 hours per day for a fortnight.
And then there are mental health benefits, he claims: "To keep playing as you grow older helps keep your mind active and Alzheimer's at bay."
Holden repeats this theme throughout our conversation, but shows no reluctance to acknowledge that "there are plenty of people who love playing it for money".
Poker originated in the early part of the 19th century, when French sailors arrived at their former colonial possession in Louisiana with a card game called 'poche', which translates as pocket. The natives could not pronounce the name, however, and so it became poker. And as the United States spread west after its independence half a century earlier, so the game also moved with it.
The sport has grown exponentially with globalisation and the advent of the internet, and this autumn the IFP is launching a new platform through which money will not be involved. It will be, Holden says, "just for the love of the game".
He was speaking to insidethegames at the recent SportAccord Convention in Québec City, where Holden was promoting poker among the powerbrokers in the world of sport.
"One reason we are here is that poker has this disreputable image in some people's minds," he explains. "Not just that it is the Wild West or [played in] smoke-filled back rooms, but that it is gambling.
"We adhere to our view that it is a mind sport of strategic skill. No IFP event will have anything to do with money, it is just for the love of the game. Tens of millions of people out there love playing poker just for poker. There are plenty of people who love playing it for money as well but our demographic is people in it for the love of the game."
Holden is not just separating poker from gambling, but from luck. As with other card games, poker is one which leaves you regularly cursing ill fortune, but one of the two poker events the IFP is running, 'duplicate poker', removes that element entirely. In duplicate poker everyone receives the same hand and it's a team event. As Holden points out, luck is endemic in every sport – and as we are both Arsenal fans, there is no need for a further explanation of his point!
But would this not remove some of the tension from the game, if you are not playing with your own money, I wondered? "In whatever sport rankings are incredibly important for people's psychology and egos," Holden responds.
This year the IFP is running the second World Championship in London, for which players can qualify online. It is, however, very much focused on membership of SportAccord, which Holden describes as "our first goal".
"We are hoping and planning to apply for St Petersburg next year," he says. "We came this year to make our case to people." And Holden explains that this case was helped by the fact that so many of those people he has been speaking to are poker players themselves. In fact, poker is the world's second most popular sport, behind only football, with some 300 million players worldwide.
While fighting hard for inclusion in SportAccord, poker is also a provisional member of the International Mind Sports Association. Holden has a variety of plans for his sport. Among them is utilising the fact that so many sports stars play poker in their spare time – and he wants them to play against each other under the IFP platform. He also hopes to have other categories of people playing each other online, such as Arsenal fans taking on Chelsea supporters. The idea of removing money from this particular battle is especially tempting.
One of the key challenges facing the IFP, however, is to attract players from African and Muslim nations. With the internet a significant help in a sport such as poker, that also makes reaching some of the poorer nations in Africa that bit harder. And for Muslims, it is that idea that gambling is linked with poker which puts them off. Yet, conversely, it is one of those sports in which the controversial niqab is no issue. And why would it be? In poker, the only significant dress requirement centres around being able to see your opponent's eyes.
Adding to the good words about the sport, Charles Nesson, the head of the IFP's global Mindsport Research Network at Harvard University, where he is a senior law professor, argues that poker "equips you to deal with life. Solving its complex problems teaches the most fundamental aspects of citizenship, training the brain to take a logical approach to everyday problems of risk management, and to make the soundest decisions possible based on imperfect information."
Which is pretty much exactly what Holden now has to with those who will decide whether poker becomes a part of SportAccord next year and continues its progress. That poker may have provided him with many of those key skills he needs to convince them to do just that is perhaps the best argument he has.
David Gold is a reporter for insidethegames