"The similarity between athletics and gambling has always been striking to me. They both trigger the same exciting rush, which I'm sure is what has lured me to the poker table day after day."
So wrote Doyle Brunson near the conclusion of his memoir The Godfather of Poker. Brunson well knows of what he speaks, having been a standout athlete in high school and college in track and basketball, even attracting interest from the Minneapolis Lakers before an injury cut short his athletic career. Poker stepped in, providing a ready outlet for Brunson's competitive drive as it has for numerous other top athletes.
If past years serve as a reliable indicator, the soon-to-start 2015 World Series of Poker will likewise be providing an opportunity for many current and former professional athletes to test themselves at the tables.
NASCAR driver Jason White has been racing cars for a decade-and-a-half, with most of his starts coming in the Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series. White buckled up to participate in a different series last summer, the World Series of Poker, where he drove all of the way to Day 4 and a 348th-place finish for a $33,734 cash.
White's Main Event finish bested that of former English footballer Teddy Sheringham who made it to 388th in the WSOP Main Event in 2012. It also topped NHL goaltender Roberto Luongo's 634th-place finish in 2012 and two-time Olympic gold medal winning cross country skier Petter Northug’s 653rd-place finish in 2010.
NBA star Paul Pierce likewise took part in the 2014 WSOP Main Event where he provided some excitement by making it all of the way to Day 3. Pierce also shared his enthusiasm for the game with PokerNews, sitting down with us for a fun Google Hangout to talk about his love of poker.
"I enjoy the competition," said the NBA veteran who is currently playing his 17th season. After an illustrious career with the Boston Celtics with whom he won an NBA title in 2008, Pierce most recently could be seen helping his current team, the Washington Wizards, stage a playoff run.
"I enjoy the thrill of the chase," said Pierce of poker, evoking Brunson's observations about both poker and basketball. "I enjoy the mental warfare. It's a beautiful game. It's one that's tough to master." Take a look:
Pierce has played in other events at the WSOP as well, including the $10,000 Pot-Limit Omaha where he's also held his own though has yet to record a cash. Like White and the others listed above, Pierce is one we wouldn't be surprised to see again in Vegas this summer.
Another NBA player, Earl Barron, played the WSOP Main Event last year, and in fact has turned up at the WSOP in Las Vegas as well as at WSOP Circuit events and in other tournaments around the U.S. since the late 2000s. Currently with the Phoenix Suns, Barron won an NBA title with the Miami Heat in 2006. Barron has several tournament cashes to his credit, including four in WSOP events, the latest coming after a 198th-place finish in the $1,111 Little One for One Drop last year.
Also competing in last year's WSOP Main Event were Danish UFC fighter Martin Kampmann, former NFL defensive tackle and three-time Super Bowl champion Richard Seymour, and FC Barcelona footballer Gerard Piqué.
Kampmann has been playing more frequently of late, winning a $1,100 no-limit hold'em event in Reno last spring for a better than $50,000 score. Seymour has also been turning up at more events, cashing a few times since last year's WSOP including finishing 37th in the World Poker Tour bestbet Bounty Scramble in Jacksonville last November. And Piqué has played at the WSOP before while also occasionally playing in Barcelona when the European Poker Tour visits. In 2013, Piqué cashed in the EPT10 Barcelona High Roller event in which Thomas Muehlocker outlasted Daniel Negreanu to win, finishing in 19th.
Australia's Shane Warne is another likely WSOP returnee this summer. One of the greatest bowlers in the history of cricket, Warne has become a regular at major poker events and in fact made it all of the way to a 22nd-place finish in the WSOP Asia-Pacific Main Event in Melbourne last October.
PGA golfer Sergio Garcia has played events in his native Spain and at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure over recent years — cashing in a PCA event this past January — and might be listed as a possible for the WSOP. Speaking of the PCA, former Brazilian footballer and World Cup star Ronaldo Nazário (better known as just Ronaldo) thrilled his many fans at this year's festival in the Bahamas, making it all of the way to 26th in the Main Event. It could happen that Ronaldo and/or another recently signed PokerStars ambassador and current Brazilian footballer Neymar Jr could appear this summer in Las Vegas.
Rafa Nadal is also part of Team PokerStars Sport, although the French Open (late May-early June) and Wimbledon (late June-early July) obviously will occupy him this summer. However, his team-mate and Olympic field hockey gold medallist Fatima Moreira de Melo — a recent guest on the Remko Report — will surely be there after collecting cashes on the EPT and UKIPT since last year's WSOP.
Within the last couple of years other professional athletes spotted playing WSOP events have included NBA player Shawn Marion, NFL defensive end Calais Campbell, former NFL tight end Eric Stocz, German tennis superstar Boris Becker, Norwegian snowboarder Torstein Horgmo, UFC champ Georges St. Pierre, and 18-time Olympic gold medallist swimmer Michael Phelps (pictured above).
Whether or not poker might be regarded as a "sport" (as some have argued) or is better thought of as a "game," it's clear that many of those who have played sports at the highest levels have recognized affinities between the modes of competition.
"Even today, I get reminded of basketball, my first true sports love, when I come home from a poker game," writes Brunson. It's hard not to be reminded of sports when at a poker game, too, such as will surely be the case at the WSOP this summer when more athletes no doubt will be coming to play.