Most people in the poker community agree that poker is not a sport. However, there are many similar requirements for success in both poker and sports, which explains why so many professional athletes are drawn to the game of poker.
PokerStars has highlighted some of those athletes through the years. The longest-running member of Team PokerStars to come from the sports world is Fatima Moreira de Melo, longtime Dutch field hockey champion and poker enthusiast. Others have been associated with the team in past years, such as baseball player Orel Hershiser, auto racer Gaulter Salles, skier Marcus Hellner, and tennis pros Boris Becker and Rafael Nadal.
Most recently, the company brought Ronaldo, Neymar Jr, and Cristiano Ronaldo to Team PokerStars Sport, and the latter of the two were featured in this summer’s debut of PokerStars Duels.
Heads-up poker matches took place in a somewhat dark warehouse setting with each player being coached by at least one professional poker player. The action featured the poker as well as the strategy and drama of the games, all with famous faces battling on the felt in relatively short games. In the end, the winners received $10,000 for their charity of choice.
Cristiano Ronaldo: Best Under Pressure
The Portuguese footballer is one of the best known in the world and often ranked among the top players in the game’s history. On the field, he is aggressive from any position and creative with his plays. He has been able to adapt his style to fit the needs of his team at any given time while always remaining ultra-competitive and dedicated to a tough and tenacious work ethic.
At the poker table, though, Ronaldo is the new guy.
In the PokerStars Duels series, Ronaldo played 2015 Miss World Mireia Lalaguna and actor Aaron Paul.
When playing against Paul, Ronaldo noted that competition and pressure are what drove him to become a football legend and stay at the top of his game. He sat at the table emitting sheer strength, only allowing himself to smile and joke with Paul during all-in situations when betting was complete.
In the match against Lalaguna, he explained that he knew how to use the pressure that his competitors may feel against them, another lesson from the field. The video for this game shows his confidence, which some mistake for arrogance, as well as his realization that he is not a pro at the poker table. He relies on coaching from Vanessa Selbst, who instructed him to use his confidence to intimidate Lalaguna.
In a special behind-the-scenes interview with PokerStars, Ronaldo discussed the intense moments in his two matches and the adrenaline that flows with a victory and money for charity on the line. In addition, the crowd helped with the excitement level, much like at a football game only on a much smaller scale.
Neymar Jr: Always Learning
An all-star Brazilian footballer knows the pressure of performing no matter the opponents or environment. Neymar is on his way to becoming one of the best in the world and just took his team to gold in the 2016 Summer Olympics in his home country of Brazil. He is often described as an electric and explosive player, intense to the point of doing anything to win and celebrating those victories with enthusiasm. And having played since a young age, he is no stranger to studying the game and constantly working to improve.
He played two of the PokerStars Duels, one against model Sara Sampaio and the other against actor John Boyega.
With the aforementioned Fatima Moreira de Melo as his coach, Neymar battled Sampaio with all of the competitiveness he brings to any football game. Even so, he wasn’t afraid to ask for help when he was unsure of the correct move, a sign of a player who is open to learning. He also took his ultimate victory in a gracious manner.
Against Boyega, he prepared for the match by reflecting on his love for the game of poker. Neymar noted the biggest difference from his career, though, in that he normally plays as part of a team, but the pressure is exponentially greater in poker because all of the pressure is on one person to win or lose. His coach, Moreira de Melo, admitted that he had trouble reading his opponent at the beginning of the game, but his willingness to learn was a key component of a good match.
Courtesy of the behind-the-scenes interview with PokerStars, Neymar revealed more of how he thinks of poker in relation to sports and his career as a footballer. “I think that a poker player has to be in shape because it wears you out to be sitting down for so many hours working your mind more than the average, and with a tired body, your mind is simply not working. You have to be in shape both in body in mind.”
Neymar described his beginnings in poker, playing with friends for fun but always learning and improving his game. In talking about his weaknesses on the felt, he admitted, “It’s hard for me to fold! I’m too proud!” Even so, he wants to keep evolving. “I consider myself a guy that likes to be better than himself both on the field and at the tables.”