Last month, football superstar Neymar Jr became Brand Ambassador to PokerStars. Just a few days later, Cristiano Ronaldo joined him in the title. For these sport personalities to associate themselves with something as apparently irrelevant to football as poker may at first seem bizarre, but the fact is that both Neymar and Ronaldo are poker fanatics. Passionate about the game; Neymar plays every day, regularly attends tournaments and even named his dog ‘Poker’. Ronaldo has been a poker enthusiast for years, and takes any opportunity to log online and play small games against random opponents. But the list of poker-loving footballers extends beyond Neymar and Ronaldo…
Playing at the WSOP, Neymar’s FC Barcelona team mate Gerard Piqué also likes to show off his poker skills. Champions League winner Teddy Sheringham is yet another avid player, having earned $329,477 throughout his seven years of competing in live poker tournaments. Fellow British football legend, Tony Cascarino, became a semi-professional player after retiring from football, and has since then appeared on TV-shows such as Celebrity Poker Club.
Then there’s Tomas Brolin, the Swedish ex-footballer who has cashed around $72,832 since taking up live tournament poker part-time. Brolin has been playing in the World Series of Poker since 2006 and competed in several European PokerStars Tours. Jan Vang Sørensen, a Danish footballer who retired due to a knee injury, has won two WSOP bracelets and boasts live tournament earnings that exceed $2,000,000.
Clearly, there seems to be a trend emerging. The more high-profile footballers establishing affiliations with successful poker brands, the most fashionable it becomes for their fellow team members to follow in their step. But why exactly has poker, out of all games, become the hobby of choice amongst football stars?
Neymar explains; “To be a successful poker player, you require many of the same skills needed to be a successful footballer – mental strength is important; resilience, patience, composure and focus. I love the challenge, whether it’s on the football pitch or at the poker table.” But poker also provides a different kind of challenge, as players face their opponents in a more personal setting than on the pitch. Whereas in football, players sweat, curse and spit; the game of poker is won by players who are able to remain completely emotionless.
It’s understandable that footballers are attracted to the mental stimulation offered by poker – but what are the effects of having their faces promote popular poker sites and tournament events? For a game suffering from mixed social perceptions and dodgy connotations, the results can only be positive. Well-known and respected personalities will legitimize the game of poker by moving it from the taboo zone of gambling to a new classification as a ‘skill’ game – not much different from chess. Because, if hard-working and talented footballers enjoy poker, then surely there’s no shame in anyone else playing?
Poker has always been in a ‘grey area’ when it comes to both public opinion and legislation. Whether or not the number of footballers flocking to poker clubs will significantly alter either social opinion or the law is yet to be seen, but sport legends definitely give poker a better image than cigar-chewing drug lords or, on the other end of the spectrum, nerdy online gamers. A statement released by PokerStars summarises exactly why footballers are the perfect personas to put under the poker spotlight, explaining that they’re “part of a new generation of global superstar athletes that work hard, play smart and encourage their fans to share in their lives…to share their love of the game of poker with their legions of fans.”