Opinion: The case for and against the 'First Card' rule

Have you ever argued baseball stats or football stats with your friends for hours? How about back and forth on politics or religion? Well every other year, the TDA (Tournament Director's Association) gets together for a summit in Las Vegas to dissect, discuss, argue, pontificate and generally nitpick over all the rules of this game we love...poker. Believe me, people that are passionate enough to go all the way to Vegas to discuss tournament poker rules have very strong opinions about what those rules should be. Rules such as the 'First Card off the Deck' rule, which generated more than a little discussion during the WSOP. Let's set the scene.

The TDA summit is an interesting one because the group is made up of so many different elements. The constituency represents all types of poker, from the TD's at the Commerce and Venetian to people with four- and five-table rooms or running bar leagues and charity events. We had representatives from Europe, South America, Russia, Asia and Australia in attendance. That is one of the things that makes it so successful, the many different viewpoints that are brought to the table. Many rules are not one-size-fits-all and the differing needs of the group often make for some very informative and entertaining debate.

In their goal to create a universal set of Tournament Rules, the Board of the TDA reached out to Jack Effel of the WSOP, Tab Duchateau from the Borgata and me from PokerStars. They wanted to bring together the three major live Tour operators (WSOP, WPT, PokerStars) and really push hard at finally getting a global set of tournament rules that everyone would be happy operating with. By expanding their Board of Directors and bringing in all these global participants, I think they have made a fantastic push at realizing that goal.


Johnson at work during the World Cup of Poker during the PCA 2012

The brainchild of Linda Johnson, Jan Fisher, Dave Lamb and Matt Savage, the TDA has tried for the better part of a decade to make a universal set of tournament poker rules. They hoped that if we could get all the dealers and tournament staff on the same page then it would be a tremendous advantage to players so they would know what to expect no matter where in the world they were sitting down. When you think of all the different tours and major card rooms around the world, this is a very daunting task.

Rather than breakdown the entire summit (which you can watch through the links supplied at the end of this article) I'm going to jump right to two key changes that you may have heard about.

The 'First Card off the Deck' rule
The first and most significant change for the TDA Rules is one that we have had for two years on all PokerStars Sponsored Tours. I freely admit, I didn't think they were going to approve this rule. I spoke in advance with Matt Savage and Mike Bishop (the man who actually does all the TDA work) about this rule specifically and we were all fairly certain that it would be a big debate because it is such a significant change from the normal procedures most players and staff (especially from the USA) are used to. I was very surprised that it passed fairly easily and painlessly. The rule I'm referring to is the 'First Card off the Deck' rule.

The standard rule for years in tournament poker for killing a hand was that if a player wasn't at their seat when the final card was dealt to the dealer button, then their hand would be declared dead. The 'new' rule is that a player's hand will be declared is they're not in their seat when the first card off the deck is dealt. I put 'new' in quotes because as I mentioned, this rule has been in place for two years on all PokerStars Sponsored Events around the globe. Now, some of you will have heard some complaints when this was announced. Team PokerStars Pro Daniel Negreanu was very vocal on Twitter about his dislike of this rule and thinks we are fixing something that isn't broken. I have the utmost respect for Daniel, and all of the other players I spoke to about this rule, but I respectfully disagree with their opinion and think this rule is better for tournament poker. Since this was essentially a Pokerstars Rule, I'll tangent a bit to give a more detailed explanation on why we believe this rule is so much better than the other rule. In fairness, I'll also list the three reasons players have told me they think the old way is better.


"I'm in my seat. Give me my cards."

1. Game integrity
Yes, it is every player's responsibility to protect their hand. However, the player in seat three should never have to protect his hand from the guy in the eight seat standing behind him and then being able to sit down to a live hand. The organizers should not allow this for game integrity.

A few players have told me this happens so rarely it shouldn't be a concern of organizers and I couldn't disagree more. I've personally seen it happen three times resulting in player elimination from the event. Yes, that isn't a lot, but I'm not looking for it either. The simple truth is we don't know how many times a day someone coming back sees a live hand and gets to play with that knowledge. Ask the media, the floor, the waiting staff, the cleaners, etc: how many live hands do they see walking through the tournament room because players aren't protecting their hands properly? This is a game integrity angle that can be closed by the operator.

2. Dealer Integrity
Many dealers are placed in the position of being able to influence the killing of a hand by speeding up or slowing down. If you deal the first card around and see no one is in the four seat, you start looking around to see where he is. If he is a player you like, or a good tipper, you can slow down. If he doesn't tip or is not a nice person, you can speed up and kill his hand. Dealers may see this situation 10, 20, 30+ times a day if they deal a 10-14 hour shift. Most dealers bring in the antes, cut and deal the first card by muscle memory so this angle would be significantly reduced.

3. Live cards, no player
The hand has been dealt and the under-the-gun player is thinking about his action, if the cut off folds out of turn, the dealer will kill his hand immediately. On the flip side, while the dealer is dealing, if the guy in the big blind is not at the table, all of his cards are allowed to sit at the table and be live. For Omaha or 2-7, that is 4 and 5 cards lying on the table, live, with no player sitting there. Why is one hand allowed to be live and the other is instantly dead?

4. Bubble play
It helps out bubble play significantly. It keeps players in their seats without having to issue penalties to players. The whole bubble plays out easier for all involved, both the players and the staff.

5. Room flow
It also helps clear out the spaces inside the tournament area. There are already waitresses, floor staff, dealers, cleaners, press, etc... This keeps more players seated and not walking through the aisles. This is good for the organizers, yes, but also for the players to reduce the number of times they are getting bumped and jostled by people wandering between the tables.

6. Home run slide
This also mostly prevents that last second dive at the table, or run across the room hurdling side tables by players desperately trying to reach their seat before the dealer deals the last card.

1. No change
We have always done it this way. I don't believe this is a valid argument when we have clear game integrity reasons that make the new way better.

2. This doesn't happen often enough to force this rule on everyone
I have personally seen it happen three times causing players to be eliminated from an event and the simple answer is no one knows how often this happens. It isn't just about elimination, but also knowledge. The extreme example is of course a player seeing your A-10 and sitting down to A-J and eliminating you. What about the player who sees your A♣7♦, which you fold, and sits down to the K♣Q♣ before a three club flop comes? How much of an edge is there knowing two extra cards at an eight handed table? Also, quite frankly, three players eliminated is three times too many when this simple change can prevent it happening.

3. Social element of poker
A few players have told me they believe this will have a negative impact on the social element of poker; of walking around and talking with other players and seeing what's happening on the other tables. While I respect their opinions a lot, most of the players I see wandering through the tournaments are either checking their horses or just plain bored. It will admittedly have a negative impact on pro interactions with fans on the rail, but I (with respect) believe that is a minor concern for most players globally.

Balancing the reasons for and against, I am still 100% in favor of this 'First Card off the Deck' rule.

Another rule that was deeply discussed is who has the right to see a called hand on the river. Most Americans will know this rule this way: anyone who is dealt into the hand being allowed to ask to see any called hand at the showdown. I've always hated this rule because I have never seen it used for its intended purpose, which is to protect against collusion. This rule has always been abused (note: not used, but abused) in order to collect information or needle someone. In Europe, we had the rule that no one could ask to see a called hand and that wasn't fair either. So in Europe no one could ask and in America everyone could ask. That's a big difference for players who play on both continents.

In searching for a compromise, the strong opinion of many TD's is that a player who has called all the way has an inalienable right to see the other player's hand. They have done everything possible in poker to see that hand, so they have the right to see that hand. Where it gets messy is when there are more than two people in the pot, or from the aggressor's point of view. Let's assume that A is the aggressor and B, C, D, etc... are callers. If Player B demands to see A's hand, can A then demand to see B's hand? In multi-way action, can B ask to see C's hand? Can A ask to see B or C? What if B wants to see A, but C has tabled a winning hand and doesn't want to see A's hand? It was our decision at PokerStars, reinforced by the same decision being reached at the TDA, that you either give the right to everyone at showdown or no one because of all the different variables that go into showdown situations.

So the rule was made that any player with cards (key component) at the showdown can ask to see any other player's cards at the showdown and all cards tabled will be live hands capable of claiming the pot. The reason the "with cards" portion is so important is because this will prevent players from insta-mucking and demanding to see other player's cards without having to give up any information themselves. There was strong concern raised about people with the nuts being able to force people who made bad calls into showing as well as other types of needles or game stalling, but ultimately, this was the compromise that was reached.

Again, this is an example of a compromise between people who feel strongly on both sides, which is one of the great things about the TDA. They ask for at least 80% of the group to agree on something before they attempt to make it a rule. If they can't get to that consensus, then it doesn't become a rule and 'house rules' will prevail in all venues on whatever that subject was.

An example of this was another rule that was debated extensively. The World Series has an exception to their table talk rule that says (WSOP Rule 104 - Special Exceptions Bullet 1):

"A participant is allowed to mention the strength or content of his/her hand if no other participant in the hand will have a decision to make."

This created significant discussion amongst the group (Part II - 2:23:40 and Part III 34:20 if you want to watch it), some of it unfavorable for a number of different reasons. Jack Effel made a persuasive case as to why this rule is popular with WSOP players as well as being great for their TV coverage, however many of the TD's present were not in favor of having this rule incorporated into the overall TDA rules. So the rule exists as a 'house rule' for the WSOP and is a special feature of their events while not being part of TDA rules.

I could write pages and pages about this summit and my thoughts and opinions, but I need to get ready for EPT Season 10! It was an amazing two days in Las Vegas with all of the members of the TDA. I'm really looking forward to continuing to work with the Board and everyone involved. I'll also take a moment to add that whether you agree or disagree with the rules, please remember that the goal of everyone involved is to make a universal set of rules so everyone is doing the same thing. Are they perfect...no. They are an organic, ever-evolving attempt to make sure that tournament poker, no matter where in the world it is being played, is using the same rules for the comfort of both the players and the staff...and the overall betterment of this game we all love! See you all in Barcelona hopefully!

Find the links to the entire summit below. A gigantic thank you goes to Rob Perelman (veeRob) for putting the entire TDA Summit on YouTube, as well as for his tremendous work on the live stream.

TDA Summit - Part I
TDA Summit - Part II
TDA Summit - Part III
TDA Summit - Part IV

Neil Johnson is the Live Poker Specialist for PokerStars.
WSOP photo courtesy of PokerPhotoArchive.com.

Neil Johnson
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