Let the players play and the directors direct

Direction dilemma

There is nowhere quite like the world of poker for making mountains out of molehills, but the recent furore over the first card off the deck rule has been extreme even by established standards. The argument has already accounted for a couple of friendships, about 50,000 words and at least €10,000, yet it concerns a passage of time lasting between 16 and 20 seconds. If I wasn’t now about to wade into matters myself, I’d be inclined to tell everybody to get a grip.

A quick summary: Not so long ago, in order for a player to have a live hand in an orbit of tournament poker, he or she had to be at his or her chair when the dealer dealt the final card of the round. If any players were not in arm’s reach at that point, their hands were declared dead and the dealer retrieved the cards.

More recently, the rule was changed and a hand is now declared dead if a player is not at his or her seat when the first card of the orbit is dealt. It takes a dealer between eight to ten seconds to fling those cards to eight to ten players (or empty seats) and they do that twice in a round of hold’em. So wandering players have to get back to their seats up to 20 seconds earlier now in order to keep their hand alive. (Or they could just stay seated in the first place. That has always been an option.)

Got that? Well, it may surprise you to learn that this rule change has been deemed unacceptable by many players and has caused all manner of issues, both in adherence and enforcement. There is some unfortunate vagary in the wording (what constitutes “at” one’s seat?); player say hands are being killed too frequently (aren’t the laws there to make things run more smoothly?); and some say there’s no point to the darned rule anyhow (nothing is broken, so why fix it?). It all boiled over during the high roller event at EPT Barcelona, where Daniel Negreanu had a hand declared dead that perhaps should not have been. Negreanu reacted poorly and went all-in blind on the next hand. He was knocked out and his €10,000 of equity was slid elsewhere.

To be fair to Negreanu, this wasn’t a stance he took on a petulant whim. He had talked about his dislike for the first-card-off-the-deck rule before. It’s also important to note that he apologised for his conduct, calmed down and re-entered the tournament, almost going on to win the thing. But he had also tweeted and blogged about it, and his tantrum attracted a predictable amount of attention. The law was thus dragged into the spotlight, which forced tournament administrators to defend their decision-making, while plenty of high-profile players went on the attack.

In the former camp, Neil Johnson of the EPT and Matt Savage of the WPT and Poker Tournament Directors Association set their stalls out with customary articulacy; in the latter Negreanu was joined by Dan O’Brien, among others, to argue the case against, with similar fluency. You can read all their reasoning yourself.

I am neither a player nor a tournament director, so my opinion on the actual rule is irrelevant. If pushed, I would probably impale myself on the fence and say I can see both sides. But there were a number of insinuations behind some of the players’ arguments that seemed to be a little unfair, and maybe even hint at some wider issues affecting poker.

Firstly, some of the allegations during this spat seemed to imply that players thought the administrators are introducing rule changes for little more than a laugh, as if they hold their annual meeting, spin a big wheel at the end, and arbitrarily tinker with whatever law number is highlighted when the wheel comes to rest. That is nonsense of course and one need only speak to anyone involved in tournament directing to know the players’ best interests are always the top priority. As Johnson explains in his PokerStars Blog piece, there were genuine security concerns with the existing rule that they felt needed to be addressed. You can argue all you like about the success or otherwise of their actions, but you simply cannot doubt the motives.

I have also read several times during all the to-and-fro that players don’t think they are being adequately represented in discussions about rule changes. They say they just want to be consulted; they are the paying customers and have a right to demand a voice. The thing is, I’m not really sure that players actually do want to be involved in administrating poker tournaments. It’s a tedious, unglamorous business, where the hours may be similar to those of a player but the perks and remuneration are considerably less. (There’s no sensationally successful website named TournamentDirectorStars, for instance, offering customers “The chance to make rulings at poker tournaments, for any stakes, 24 hours a day!”)

Any pursuit as popular as poker, played globally by millions, needs people to organise it properly, and it is far better if players just get on with playing and allow administrators to administrate. There may be small areas of disagreement, but the line between the two camps has to stay firmly drawn. Once we have decided to entrust a paid group of professionals to carry out all the rule-making duties of poker, we can’t go undermining their authority and as and when suits. It is disrespectful—and it could even be dangerous.

What would happen, for instance, if player-power voted a new rule into poker, and then one of the rule’s champions, having now hopped back into the game, was accused of exploiting it to his or her personal gain? It wouldn’t matter if the accused was actually guilty of the charge, the element of doubt would be enough. It is immediately problematic if players have too much say in making the rules that will be applied to themselves.

The fact that players put up their own money – an argument I have heard repeated in support of calls for players to have a rule-making voice – is actually the precise reason they should not be able to exert their influence. Rule-making should be overseen by folk who are entirely independent, against whom there can be absolutely no claims of bias or self-interest. (Official player associations in professional sports tend to be chaired by retired pros, but since only death tends to prompt retirement from poker, this compromise approach isn’t really an option.)

Poker tries to be friendly. Tournament directors like to consider themselves approachable and they mostly share very good relationships with their dealing staff, players, sponsors and media. Conversational channels are always open. But it is vital for the good of the game that it does not become too chummy and that the boundaries between the various roles do not become too blurred. I would be very apprehensive sitting down at a poker table to play against someone I know has recently been in confab with the tournament director, let alone has been sitting in on discussions about rule changes.

However, something about the egalitarian nature of poker, where every dealer, reporter and tournament director thinks they could be a player, encourages some players to think they could do a better job of dealing, reporting or tournament directing than the people who do it for a living.

I think there’s just a small chance that they couldn’t, and they should be happy that there are people prepared to pick up the slack.