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The Surprising Connections Between Pickleball and Poker

by Guest Author on

Pickleball or poker?

"The beautiful thing about _____ is that everybody thinks they can play."

"_____ is war. People pretend it is a game."

You might be surprised to find out that these quotes are NOT from a PPA or MLP post-match interview.

They are in fact from a pair of iconic poker professionals. Both of whom forged very different paths to greatness within the poker world; the former, Chris Moneymaker, the latter, Doyle Brunson.

Pickleball figures such as Tyson Apostol (Survivor), Adam Stone (Commentator/Former Pro), and Brooks Wiley (Commissioner, Major League Pickleball) each have played poker at high levels, yet find themselves in the trenches of a Pickleball sporting boom.

The connection between pickleball & poker

In many respects, one might think that poker and pickleball are on fairly distant ends of the competitive activities spectrum.

  • One, played sitting at an 8’x4’ table. The other, played while roaming a rectangular 20’x44’ court.
  • Stationary vs moving.
  • Cards vs ball and paddle.

Even the historic undertones of the industries at large seem like polar opposites:

  • “Seedy-casino” vs. “always-sunny country club.”

Yet, when you dig in, the parallels are there:

  • Check. Dink. Check. Dink. Raise.
  • Speedup. All-in. Call. Fire-fight.

How it started and how it’s going…

Both of these games are believed to have ties to early human civilization.

Historians believe modern-day racket sports can trace their roots back as far as 2000 B.C. ancient Egypt. The earliest card-and-bluff games are believed to have their beginnings in the ancient far and middle east.

Over time, these two games of skill have evolved almost lock-in-step.

Modern versions of both racket sports and poker solidified in format and mainstream popularity around the 18th and 19th centuries.

  • Fast forward to 1965: the genesis of Pickleball.
  • Just five short years later in 1970: the first ever World Series of Poker.

While Pickleball is currently in the midst of a generational sports boom, it was in the early 2000’s that Poker (especially Texas Hold-’em) rode its own tidal wave of growth.

Pop-culture references to Poker featured in shows and films (such as Matt Damon’s Rounders, 1998), catapulting the game into the main-stream.

Infrastructure buildout was rampant as the internet paved the way for online poker-room proliferation.

Related: Take a Glimpse at Pickleball in the 1970s

Tournaments popped up everywhere. They offered “casual” players a chance at higher payouts, rankings, and potential entry to bigger events.

The top players were seen in sponsored swag. Full-Tilt and Poker Stars were adorned on hats and shirts of idols.

Top media partnerships emerged, including ESPN - ushering in a revolutionary viewership experience with the “pocket cam” and statistical advantages in real-time.

For the first time, die-hard and casual fans alike had unprecedented access into the mind and strategies of top players.

Anyone could play! Regardless of background, personality, gender, or age (18+ poker, of course). And anyone could go pro.

Does all of this sound familiar?

Zero to poker hero

Chris Moneymaker found overnight fame in 2003 after becoming the first poker player to turn an Online Poker tournament win into a free seat at the World Series of Poker, going on to win the whole dang thing.

He spent $40 to make a staggering $2.5 million dollar grand prize. It’s easy to see the allure.

“Everyone gets lucky once in a while, but no one is consistently lucky.” - Doyle Brunson

Doyle Brunson is an OG of the poker world. He found unprecedented staying power in the scene, having spent over 50 years at an elite level and winning an astounding 10 World Series of Poker bracelets.

Brunson has cemented his status as a revered authority on poker through his acclaimed book, Super/System, which has served as a guide for countless aspiring sharks.

Yet, with his many years of experience, Brunson has lost more hands than he has won. Poker “skill” is based on risk management, probabilities, and expected values.

Poker is a game built on imperfect information.

We see this often when someone new or novice in poker wins a big hand. “Lucking out.”

In pickleball, we are seeing this in both play AND enterprise. It could be a higher-level player hitting into the net, or a lower-level player hitting a winner.

It can also be a pickleball business concept, with a bullish approach to the future of the game.


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From Moneymaker to Moneyball…in Pickleball

Tim Parks, Owner/GM of Major League Pickleball’s So-Cal Hard Eights (another casino game reference) has professed his admiration for the analytical side of sports on Pickleball podcasts such as Pickle Juice, and most recently, on a scintillating episode of The Dink’s PicklePod.

Having read the book “Moneyball” by Billy Bean at the age of 13, Parks is now living out a dream of running the front office of a professional sports franchise.

I asked Parks about his favorite poker players, to which he shared, “I admire and study the greats of any sport, such as Phil Ivey. I value longevity and the ability to reinvent yourself, and to be continually dominant in different eras. Doyle Brunson too...just with 50 more years."

“At the same time, I admire innovators and risk takers like Michael Addamo who are moving fast and extending the light out on the edge of humanity for the next pioneer. The contrarian. The man who disdains orthodoxy and conventional wisdom will always have a seat at my table.”

But what is it that keeps Parks going back to the poker tables?

“As a game of imperfect information, poker can never truly be solved. And like financial markets, it encapsulates the entire range of human emotions: greed, fear, envy, lust - it’s all there.”

And how does it correlate to the emerging scene of professional pickleball?

“Pickleball (at its highest level) is in its infant stages - a couple of years old at most. It’s intoxicating to be out on the frontier trying to solve these questions as they first arise.”

The new frontier…

Pickleball is pressing the frontiers of sport, business, and human behavior.

Tweaks to game strategy and player partnerships have been a recurring theme in top leagues.

The business of pickleball, including equipment, services, and apparel, are seeing explosive gains.

With the “gold-rush” nature of pickleball’s emerging industry, greed, fear, envy, lust are all on the table in the race to riches, fame, and glory.

History will tell who the winners will be. Some (not all) will rake in the chips, and knock out opponents.

And, as Moneymaker and Brunson could attest, you cannot win it all in the early stages of multi-table poker tourneys.

You have to outlast the field by making calculated risks and taking shots. Those that survive for the final table will get their reward… and with some luck, to the victor goes spoils.

Jonathan “Johnny5pointOH” Barth Twitter/IG - @Johnny5pointOH


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