World Series of Poker: Is WSOP a Harmless Vice or Destructive Force?

Adam LazarusSenior Analyst IJune 3, 2011

LAS VEGAS - JULY 31:  Poker player Erik Seidel competes on the fourth day of the first round of the World Series of Poker no-limit Texas Hold 'em main event at the Rio Hotel & Casino July 31, 2006 in Las Vegas, Nevada. More than 8,700 players have registered to play in the main event. The final nine players will compete for the top prize of more than USD 11.7 million on the final table which begins August 10.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

I love watching Matt Damon show up Teddy KGB at the end of Rounders and seeing James Bond outsmart Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. I enjoyed ESPN's shortlived series Tilt. And I absolutely love Norman Chad's dry-wit humor (although his Couch Slouch column is more hilarious than his on-air musings).

And if I come by ESPN's coverage of the World Series of Poker, and there's nothing better on, I'll watch; experts playing the game expertly is intriguing. 

So I don't have anything against competitive poker. But I can't help but wonder if glorifying the sport by creating "stars" and handing over $10 million or so in prize money to tournament winners is problematic.

Although I'm not sure anyone can successfully argue that poker is "a sport," having the World Series of Poker and other similar events on ESPN does make that argument a bit murkier.

In our culture, we make athletes out to be heroes (if not gods). Toddlers, high school students, and everyone in between want to be the next Kobe Bryant or Tiger Woods or Alex Rodriguez or Tom Brady.

And there is an argument to be made that this type of idolization is bad for our youth. Many of the kids who don't end up reaching the NFL or the NBA wind up "wasting" their lives because they didn't study in school or didn't do this or that, getting by on the assumption that they'd become millionaire professional athletes.

But at least those kids heroes didn't bring gambling into their lives. Poker does.

You know there are tens of thousands of people out there who play cards with their buddies or enjoy Texas Hold 'Em and see people like Phil Ivey and Phil Hellmuth on television and think "I want to be like him." And plenty of them are full grown adults, not teenage kids.

At the very least, there comes a time in an athlete's life where his hopes of "making it to the show" die: he gets cut from the team, he doesn't qualify for the Tour, or doctors tell thim that an injury is too debilitating to continue and he isn't cleared to play.

But there is no such fail safe for competitive gambling. (By that logic, I guess the same goes for competitive the hopes of making it to Coney Island, you can keep eating those hot dogs until you blow up.)

Whether it's at a casino or online, poker players pursuing their dreams of making it to Vegas for the WSOP can keep taking out credit or maxing out there credit cards trying to get better. Doesn't every WSOP feature some surprising came-from-nowhere entry who won some online event? For every one of those darkhorses, there have to be thousands who failed and spent quite a bit of money doing so.

In the end, competitive poker and it's intense spotlight are like anything else: it doesn't have a destructive effect on 99 people in 100. But that 1 percent is still going to spend their lives constantly chasing straits and flushes.