Poker’s Effects on Society – Part II

Dan Colman took some flack over the summer for suggesting that poker might be a dark game.

But if poker is dark: How dark? And compared to what? How “dark” are similar industries?

After a few weeks of research, it looks like the most similar industry to compare poker to is tennis. The poker economy and the tennis economy are both competitive endeavors that take years to train for. The size of the player pools are similar. And the top players in each professional are making millions of dollars, while the rest of players are either losing money or making only a marginal amount of income from their sport/hobby:

  • Both poker and tennis have roughly 75-100 million recreational players worldwide.[1][2]
  • Both have around 20,000 semi-professional / college players.[3][4]
  • Both have on the order of 3,000 professional players.[5][6]
  • Median professionals earnings are around $50k-$150k/yr.[8][9]
  • In 2013, the top 10 ATP tennis players together earned $48 Million, and the top 10 GPI ranked poker players earned $47 Million.[7]
  • Both are covered on US and UK TV over 500 hr / year.[18]

However, the career onramp for tennis appears to be both longer and more costly:

  • Professional tennis players are expected to start training around age 4.[14]
  • “Tennis parents shell out between $2,000 and $5,000 a month on their kids’ sport.”[4]
  • It’s normal to train 6 days per week for at least 10 years before becoming a tennis pro.[15]
  • “Many [children aspiring to be] tennis pros spend up to five hours a day on the court, meaning traditional education just isn’t in the cards.”[4]
  • During each competition, 21.1% of tennis players suffer injuries that require medical attention.[11]
  • The average length of a tennis pro’s career is only 7 year.[13]
  • Even top professionals only have careers that last around 16 years.[12]
  • Tennis players in the US alone spend $487 million annually just on equipment.[10]

Professional tennis players have even written online about how you should only play the game if you really love it, since you can basically expect to lose money during your career unless you’re one of the top 150 players in the world.[16] This squares with professional poker players’ advice. Professional poker players often warn others to only try playing professionally themselves if they have a true passion for the game and they want to study/practice hard in order to become one of the best.

In some ways, tennis and poker are so similar that it’s probably logically inconsistent on society’s part to view the two professions so differently. Both are zero-sum competitions that require years of practice to become a skilled professional. Both have millions of fans and recreational players who find the game appealing enough to either watch or play themselves, even though the hobbies are costly.

But how come parents will spend thousands of dollars trying to groom their children for careers in tennis? Presumably it’s because parents believe that tennis imparts valuable skills while their child is able-bodied enough to play it. Tennis, like other sports, can certainly teach the value of practice and getting better at something they love over time. But poker can teach that too… along with advanced statistics and the ability to model/read people… and without the destiny of chronic back pain, multiple knee surgeries, and career ending ankle injuries that often punctuate the brief careers of professional tennis players.

So why don’t parents give their kids “$2,000 to $5,000 a month” for a few years, to see if they can become professional poker players? It’s every bit as rational an investment if you think your child has talent. Instead, the idea that kids might try spending money to become competitive poker players is usually offered without justification in the US as a knock-down argument for why online poker must stay illegal for everyone.

While there are significant differences – which will be the main focus of the third post of this series –, the point I want to highlight here is that there appear to be many similarities. Poker can be played recreationally, like in tennis; making it one’s main income is rarely people’s primary objective. Poker is a mental game, but tennis has a lot of mental components as well. Tennis is highly physically demanding, but also in poker, when you are playing hour-long sessions at the table, it is useful to be physically fit. Tennis is a lot like poker, except that I rarely meet concerned citizens calling for a ban on tennis so that children and other recreational tennis addicts can stop losing all their time and money playing a game they can’t beat.

[1] “With more than 60 million poker players in the United States and more than 100 million worldwide, more people play poker than play golf, billiards, or tennis.
[2] “Tennis is one of the major global sports, with over 75 million participants worldwide.
[4] “Even in college, there’s only around 20,000 positions available
[5] “The number of full-time [poker] professionals, I would estimate, is a small fraction of that — about 3,000 or so. I think 60 percent of those are online players.
[6] 2,165 ATP ranked male pros and 1,256 WTA ranked female pros
[7] “In 2013 – counting competition winnings without sponsorship revenues – the top 10 golfers in the PGA earned $52 Million; the top 10 ATP tennis players together earned $48 Million, while the top 10 GPI ranked poker players earned $47 Million.
[8] “self-defined ‘professionals’ reported making over $150,000 US dollars profit a year from playing poker
[9] Tennis pros are estimated to earn between $79,460 – $250,000 before accounting for the average annual cost of playing on the pro tennis tour ($143,000).
[10] 2014 Consumer spending on tennis equipment in the U.S.
[11] Of 1440 study participants, “304 athletes out of  (or 21.1%) sustained new or recurrent injuries that required evaluation by the medical team. New injuries alone numbered 145 (incidence rate of 9.9 per 100 athletes).
[12] “The average career length is 16.1 ± 3.8 yr for the top 10 men and 15.8 ± 4.4 yr for women.
[13] “The average career length of a professional tennis player is seven years, regardless of the starting age.