In this series we’re having a little fun considering the different ways in which poker might change if it was to adopt some of the features of other sports. Last time we looked at chess and how the implementation of a chess-style rating or clock system might affect poker, and when the dust settled, it seemed it probably could do more harm than good.

Among other things, the main issues stemmed from the role of luck and the reasons that people play both games. Since you can’t really get lucky in chess (outside of drawing a weak opponent or them making a lucky mistake) people generally choose to play chess to be tested strategically. As a result, chess-specific features are designed to minimize luck and level the playing field as much as possible.

This is something that just doesn’t work with poker, because gambling or outdrawing better players is all part of the allure. Poker without chance becomes chess with aces and jacks, and so reducing the luck spoils the fun and ruins the game.

But what if we took a completely different sport, one that had very little in common with poker, something like football, cricket or golf? What features could our beloved game “half-inch”, and how would it impact things?

Today we’ll consider exactly that, looking at what poker could copy from the sport of boxing, and what a poker-boxing love child might look like. 

How Much Does Poker Have in Common With Boxing?

Although the two sports are very different, they do share a few similarities: 

Both sports are commonly misunderstood by the laymen, for example, who often dismiss them as impulsive and mindless at a glance. Ironically however, the most significant similarities between boxing and poker are strategic, but it’s only when people take a closer look at the sports that they begin to appreciate their complexity and give them the respect they deserve. 

While it might not be obvious at first, the way boxers jab, feign and pivot in an attempt to land the perfect KO counterpunch, is a lot like a poker player slow-playing or adjusting to exploit an opponent. 

Another commonality lies in the way both sports center around a strong sense of honor and respect for very strict rules. Unlike in a sport like football, where a player might dive to mislead a referee, you could consider poker and boxing to be a little more honorable, with cheats typically shunned and disgraced by the fans and community alike. A single misdemeanor or angle-shoot can taint your record forever and even see you disqualified or banned. 

There is synergy between a boxing career and an MTT (multi-table tournament) run too. Although boxers don’t get knocked out as much as tournament players do (thankfully), both earn bigger paychecks as they progress through the ranks, and face progressively tougher opposition as they go.

For some, a KO is a huge setback, and for others a dream is over. All they can do is pick themselves up, flex off the dust (yes I’m thinking of that subway scene in The Matrix), and decide if they want to go again – there can only be one champ. 
… and that’s about it! But with so little in common, what could poker adopt from boxing, and how might this impact things? Let’s take a look, specifically at boxing's scoring and rating system. 

Score Cards

While a lucky punch can end a close fight, mortals like you and I would have no chance against champion fighters like Tyson Fury, or Deontay Wilder, who’d rearrange most people’s faces with an arm behind their back. Even if we somehow managed to avoid getting knocked out by one of these behemoths, their superior boxing skills would make it near impossible to win a judges decision. 

This is all down to boxing’s use of its scorecard. In boxing, fights are broken down into rounds which are scored independently and use a 10-point scoring system in real time. In simple terms, this awards 10 points to the winner of a round and 9, 8, 7 (etc.) to the loser, depending on how many times they are knocked down.

If nobody gets knocked out during the fight, these points are added together and the fighter with the most points wins. 

While they can be controversial in a close fight, boxing scorecards are designed to ensure the best man wins, and events also use multiple judges in order to minimize corruption and bias. 

This is the exact opposite of what we see in a game of poker, where anyone can get lucky enough to win on a given day. So could a similar judge style scoring system work in poker?

Well, before we get into what might happen let’s clarify how we could implement a system that was as close to boxing’s as possible. The following seems the most viable:

  1. Poker games are watched by a series of judges who rate the players based on effective aggression, defense strategies, table generalship, and hands won (which are based on the criteria on which boxing matches are judged). 
  2. Players are given a score at the end of a hand.
  3. Stacks are returned to even before a new hand begins.    
  4. The scores are added up at the end of a session, and players paid out based on where they rank. 

The first thing that pops to mind when considering this format is the impact it might have on poker’s ecosystem, which relies heavily on luck and variance. In a luckless version of poker, players would probably quit pretty quickly, the weak would rarely win, there’d be no emotional roller coaster for the thrill seekers to ride, and glory hunters would be unable to battle their idols.

This would probably lead to a mass exodus of players, which would suffocate, and ultimately kill, poker as we know it (If you’d like to read more about how/why, you should check out the chess article in this series, where I give it a lot of attention).

With this in mind, it seems that a boxing-style scoring system would be a terrible thing to bring to poker, but could there be any upsides? 

Heads-up Scorecards

In spite of the downsides, there are some potential upsides to using a boxing-style system, especially in a heads-up poker format, which many consider to be the most difficult and skillful format of the game.

This is because heads-up poker allows us to compare two players more easily because hands aren’t complicated by the presence of other players. Stacks can get deep quickly too, and the blinds also force people to play a wider (and therefore weaker) range of hands, which leads to a wide variety of situations that differ in terms of complexity and familiarity.

As Tuomas Sandholm, one of the founders of the revolutionary poker bot Libratus, explained: “There are more potential heads-up poker scenarios than there are atoms in the universe,” and with so much exposed, watching someone’s heads-up game is a great way to get a comprehensive understanding of just how good they are.

This means that a judge-based scoring system could be used to allow us to discover who the best poker players in the world are, letting us to crown a true “world champion,” rather than it being given to the winner of the WSOP Main Event, which is a minefield at best. 

Why Do We Need A Champion?

There are huge benefits to finding legitimate world champion contenders too. Since the WSOP’s abolition of the November Nine, the WSOP Main Event final table has lost a lot of its allure. In former years, the Main Event was the highlight of the poker year and the period between the 10th-place bust-out and the first hand of the final table was filled with anticipation and excitement. 

TV shows, magazines and social media were riddled with interviews and gossip about the players. We found out who the favorite was, what the underdog’s chances were, if any amateurs had made it, and whatever else we wanted to know. 

In a lot of ways, it was the same way boxing companies promote a big fight, with a PR fest that let us get to know the heroes and villains involved, decided who we ‘d like to suck out, and who we wanted it to be against. It was the foreplay that got us salivating, the hype that encouraged millions of people to watch the event live, and it brought many new faces to the tables. 

If poker could find a way to rank the best players in the world officially, based on skill rather than who happened to be on the right side of variance that day, it would allow high-quality championship matches and potentially turn poker into a spectator sport in the same way that boxing does.

It would be an upgrade to the already popular amateur-versus-pro grudge matches we’ve seen on Twitch recently, since we’d be able to broadcast legitimate poker masters battling each other mano a mano. 

The atmosphere at the Main Event final table has always been electric, and this could thrive on a bigger scale, especially with popular players involved. 

Coupled with the right marketing know-how, this could restore the hype lost with the abolition of the November Nine. Poker could return to the public eye in a more positive light, making poker players household names, like Tyson and Fury, and without the promise of an ass-whooping.

As boxing itself proves, a judges system would be a great way to formalize rankings and kickstart the process.

This means that an implementation of boxing features could be great for the poker economy. As well as raising the profile of poker, which would bring a lot of money to the game in terms of new player deposits, these events could generate revenue which could be used to improve the live tournament series and revolutionize poker’s reputation.

Who knows? Perhaps we could see Moneymaker 2, and all thanks to boxing’s scoring system!

Issues With Using Judges

Okay, okay, so I might have wandered into dreamland there a little, so let’s crash back to reality by looking at some of the obstacles a boxing-style judging and rating system might struggle with, and there are several.

One drawback stems from the fact that being paid out based on performance isn't that exciting. As we’ve said already, the fun is in the gamble and a rating-based payout system would ruin that.

Poker players are at the mercy of variance already too, and many might see another person’s opinion on their play as another contributor to it, especially since poker can be pretty subjective. There may be other player concerns too, with some worrying about security or apprehensive about offering so much information about their playing style for free (as we saw when hole cams were first introduced). 

The biggest problem, however, is that paying players out based on a judge’s decision would mean that it would be possible for someone to be a big chip winner in the game, but lose money at the hands of the judges’ decision.

poker boxing image

This might seem a little counterintuitive, but if you’re running hot enough, it’s possible to win even with a psychic octopus making your decisions … which might be a TOS violation … I’m not actually sure. 

Paying up would be a bitter pill to swallow, especially as few people will admit to playing badly if they are winning chips. These players are unlikely to take a loss at the hands of the judges very well, especially with the elation and buzz that comes with winning.

Would players be inclined to put their money on the line when their fate is in someone else’s hands? Probably not. 

Unfortunately, while finding a worthy world champion would be great, the impartiality of poker players would make it very difficult to implement a scorecard in the way boxing does. 

How Could Scorecards Work?

The $1 million question then is, “Can we tweak the boxing ranking system so that it works with heads-up poker?” As far as I can tell, This is a really easy “yes.” All we’d have to do is use a judges ranking system in addition to the traditional way payouts work in poker (chips = money).

Judge expenses and prizes could be built within the entrance fees of rankings events, with players only able to gain rankings points from official events. In this way, players would still keep the winnings they made at the tables, and earn a ranking based on how well they played. 

So could poker implement a boxing style scoring system? Yes, and if done well, it could be very beneficial.

Dan O’Callaghan is a professional poker player who got his start in the online poker world as danshreddies. He has racked up over $290K in online earnings.