Rules keep the game fun
In the past month, I've found myself in the middle of a couple of Twitter discussions during EPT Live broadcasts. They were both about poker rules and their application.
Before I continue, I want to make a meta-point: I mostly hate discussions on Twitter (and my Twitter followers know this). It reduces us to the worst kind of 140-character exchanges; anybody who watches modern Western politics should know that this sort of sound-bite debate is a recipe for disaster. So here I am, writing sentences and paragraphs, to expound my point as best I can, in long form.
There was one one-off incident and one common scenario being discussed; I'd like to cover both:
Ivan Freitez says "Raise"
This is an infamous hand from the EPT Final in Madrid in 2011. Ivan Freitez, holding what amounts to the nuts on the river, says "Raise", and then puts out the chips for the call and acts as if he thinks the hand is over. When the tournament director pointed out that he said "Raise" and was obliged to raise, he said something about not speaking English. It was clearly an angle designed to get a call (if not a re-raise) from his opponent. In fact, he had pulled the same stunt at least once before, which the tournament director pointed out Freitez's opponent before he acted.
When the topic came up during a recent EPT Live webcast, I said that Freitez should have received (at least) a penalty. Perhaps even having his cards exposed before his opponent acted. My friend and colleague, James Hartigan, said "Well, wait, Lee - deception is part of poker." Yes, deception is a part of poker, but there are bright-line limits to that deception.
In fact, this situation is unambiguously covered in the EPT Rules:
Rule #2: Player Responsibilities - Players are expected to verify registration data and seat assignments, protect their hands, make their intentions clear, follow the action, act in turn, defend their right to act, keep cards visible, keep chips correctly stacked, remain at the table with a live hand, speak up if they see a mistake being made, transfer tables promptly, follow one player to a hand, know and comply with the rules, follow proper etiquette, and generally contribute to an orderly tournament.
(The bold emphasis is mine)
I'll come back to this in a minute, but let me cover the second topic first.
The "one-chip call"
Recently, a disturbing trend has started where players call a bet simply by tossing out a single chip. As any veteran live poker player will know, the textbook reading of the rules is clear: it's a call. When we were discussing it on the webcast (and I was weighing in from Twitter), there were quite a few people who disagreed with me. "What's the big deal? It's a call." In fact, somebody on the webcast said (proximate to the action which had caused me to tweet my comment) "The dealer asked him to put out an entire stack, he did, problem solved."
Here are my problems with the one-chip call, in increasing order of severity:
1. It becomes yet another thing for dealers to have to police. They work hard enough as it is, without having yet another confusing and potentially misleading behavior to worry about.
2. It can be particularly confusing for new players - exactly the people we should be making comfortable at the table. "I just said 'all-in' - why is he just putting out one chip?" If you're new to the game, it can be very difficult to follow the action around the table and be sure what's going on, especially in the relative chaos of a large tournament.
3. Top of the list: throwing out one chip is an awesome opening gambit in a wide and ugly range of angles. Because I can think just as twistedly as any old school poker player, I offer these two to get started:
a. Your man is riffling chips in his hand or doing any of the various machinations you see in players contemplating a call. A chip rolls out into the betting area. Now the bettor turns up his hand and our angler says "Oh, I didn't mean to do that - I was just playing with my chips and one rolled out." Or he says, "I have that beat" and turns up his hand.
b. Guy tosses out one chip. Bettor turns up his hand. Angler says "I said 'fold' - I was throwing out my ante for the next hand." And sure enough, the one chip he threw out is the ante. "Floor!"
Furthermore, there's no upside to this one-chip call except to allow the caller to be lazy and detached. I'm not suggesting that the caller must carefully count out the exact size of the bet he's calling; simply slide out a stack of chips - it is, forgive me, trivially easy.
I want poker games to be fun, relaxing, easy-going experiences. Rules provide clear boundaries within which to have our fun and try to coax our opponents' chips into our stacks. When rules are bent, broken, or not enforced, it stops being fun. That's because suddenly everybody has to be on guard. If that one chip could be a call or could be an angle, you don't turn up your cards - you wait while the dealer verifies that the person intended to call. Or if you're a newbie, you turn up your cards, get angled in whichever direction harms you, and so you stomp back to the blackjack game, where the rules are clear and unambiguous1.
Furthermore, rules allow us to play poker like ladies and gentlemen, which is good for the overall acceptance of the game. Do you think, for instance, that the Freitez incident sheds a positive light on poker? Do you think it's a coincidence that he's essentially invisible in the history of the EPT, despite having won its most prestigious event?
We should hold ourselves, our game, and our players to a high standard of honesty and gentlemanly and ladylike play. And we should have playing protocols and rules which ensure and protect that standard.
1 Try putting your blackjack hand down in your lap and see how long it takes before you're admonished by the dealer.
Lee Jones is the Director of Poker Communications at PokerStars. He first joined the company in 2003 and has been involved in the professional poker industry for over 25 years. You can read his occasional tweets at @leehjones.