Here is a common tournament poker scenario, the kind that occurs increasingly frequently on the European Poker Tour and beyond. It is late on day two and the money bubble is gradually floating closer. Perhaps 20 more people need to bust before a min-cash is guaranteed.
As expected, players begin to change gears: some, typically with the big stack, start to wield their chips far more liberally and are three and four betting big with any two cards. Meanwhile most of the short stacks are folding quickly, else occasionally shoving all in with what is clearly premium pocket pairs.
But one man on your table, who you have never met before, seems to be faced with tortuous decisions almost every time he is given cards.
He is slow and deliberate even as he peeks down for the first time, then he squeezes his cards laboriously, one at a time. He caps them, breathes out, leans forward, leans back. He rubs his face, smacks his lips, rolls his eyes. Then he looks to the sky, back at the dealer, and then he goes through the routine all over again.
After two or three minutes, during which people are busting from other tables or winning big pots, he finally slides his card into the muck, allowing the rest of the hand to play out. You wouldn’t mind so much if it only happened once, but on the next hand it is exactly the same thing. And he’s actually been doing it all day.
Our villain is a “staller”, practicing the increasingly common dark art of holding up play deliberately and unnecessarily, in the apparent belief that slowing the game down is his best chance at success.
Much to the chagrin of many top players – Daniel Negreanu and Doyle Brunson among them – stalling has become something of an epidemic in recent years. Despite poker online being played at a breakneck pace, the live game has slowed to a crawl. And at the moment there is not much anyone seems to be able to do about it. Players are left muttering, cursing and tweeting, while tournament administrators are discussing various suggestions that might solve the problem, none of which seem particularly viable or easy to implement.
“Poker needs a shot-clock of some kind,” tweeted Negreanu during day one here in Sanremo. “It’s become silly at this point how long each hand takes, often in mundane situations.” He followed up in a typically outspoken interview with PokerStars.tv where he declared himself “officially obsessed” with getting a clock in poker.
“It’s too much,” Negreanu said. “Too often people are tanking for three/four minutes and they really already know what they’re doing. It’s just a waste of time and it’s driving me crazy, it’s driving a lot of people crazy.”
The idea of a shot-clock is borrowed from basketball, where teams are given 24 seconds of possession before they must make a genuine attempt at the basket, else yield the ball to their opponents. Shot clocks already exist in online poker, where every decision is timed and cards are automatically folded if the time bank expires.
The idea in poker is that everyone gets 60 seconds for each action at all times in the tournament. Each player also has three “extension” buttons that they can throw into a pot when facing a genuinely tough decision to extend his or her thinking time.
But the principal problem for administrators in the live game is that of implementation: how do you actually put a stop-clock on every player’s decision time, during every hand?
Neil Johnson, PokerStars Live Events Specialist, said: “The biggest hindrance to it from an organiser’s perspective is that the only way to run a shot clock is to put the dealers in charge of it. And that’s not saying anything bad against the dealer, but no tournament organiser I know wants to be putting the dealer in the position to kill a hand…The only people killing hands should be floor personnel. I want dealers watching the game, not staring at their lap at a little clock to see if a hand should be killed.”
Johnson says that tournament officials are “absolutely” thinking about the issue of stalling, and discussing it as a priority in their strategy meetings. Poker is always evolving, and with new strategies come new rule changes; it is equally important that top tournament administrators stay ahead of the game as it is for the top players.
But the vexing issue of stalling is proving a difficult one to solve, and Johnson has encountered experienced tournament directors offering both sides of the argument. Mike Ward, who runs the PCA and the LAPT, for instance, is against any kind of interference from the floor. Ward typically says that players pay the entry fee and make their own tournament; tournament officials should stay in the background and not influence play.
“That’s why floor doesn’t call clock, it’s why dealers don’t call clock,” said Johnson. “And dealers, ironically, are the ones who know when a player is Hollywood-ing. If you’ve been dealing at a table for 30 minutes, you know if someone has been taking two minutes every decision.”
Other friends of Johnson ran the Estonian Speed Poker Championships a few years ago, where a time-keeper stood behind every player with a stop-watch, forcing the players to make their decisions within 15 seconds. “For the entirety of the tournament, they killed one hand,” Johnson said, suggesting that players really can make their minds up quicker than it might appear.
Johnson, however, sees a third way, one that involves players themselves becoming the arbitrators. He suggests that players should be much keener to call the clock on serial tankers, and do so without fear of reprimand or contravention of arbitrary etiquette rules.
“There are a number of things that have happened in the last ten years in poker: asking to see an opponent’s hand has become very poor etiquette; calling the clock has become very poor etiquette,” Johnson said. “But the guy Hollywood-ing with jack-five, or even having a tough decision with pocket nines, is still eating my clock, which I’ve paid for…Some of these chronic two-minute guys, I would start hitting them with a clock. There’s nothing sacred about that. This is about players taking back their tournament.”
In Sanremo a couple of years ago, a few players were put on automatic clocks after tournament officials grew tired of being called repeatedly to the same offenders. On occasion, a member of the floor staff can ask a dealer to keep folded cards separate from the muck, then make a determination whether there was any legitimate reason for a player to have taken a long time over a decision.
But in order to make these rulings, another player must call the clock in the first place. And then again. And then again.
“We will absolutely put the clock on the minute somebody calls it,” Johnson said. “And we’ll take note of people who are continually getting clock. We have the ability to come back and say: ‘You’re not getting 60 seconds, you’re getting 40 seconds.’ It’s the auto-clock. Thomas Kremser once put an auto 10 seconds on a guy because he was tired of getting called to the table.”
In a recent series of tweets, collated in an article in CardPlayer magazine, Tom Dwan admitted some of the blame for the stalling epidemic, suggesting that people had seen him take his time over big cash decisions on televised poker shows. Brunson had previously called Dwan out for this, pondering aloud how a high stakes online player can play seven tables and make decisions in a split second, but take an age over each move in the bricks and mortar environment.
Johnson agrees that televised poker has had an influence on the stalling in the modern game, with people on a feature table frightened of looking foolish on television and their tactics being copied throughout the tournament room. Also some online players are so scared of giving away live tells that they set themselves a specific routine for every hand, which they follow to the letter whatever their holding.
But online players also probably hold the key to increasing the speed at the live tables. The CardPlayer article drew a response from a poster called Annette, who may or may not be Annette Obrestad. “I don’t understand tankers,” wrote the poster. “You should have a plan before each action. How hard is it?”
Johnson agrees: “You shouldn’t be taking five minutes on every decision on every street. You should know: if he three bets, am I four betting, am I flatting or am I folding? If that’s the case what am I doing if an ace, king or queen comes on the turn? What am I doing if a brick comes on the turn? When you take six minutes on the flop, you’re supposed to have computed the rest of the hand at that point.”
Whatever the outcome, Negreanu and others should know that this is a matter being discussed at the highest levels. The European Players’ Council will also presumably be discussing the subject at their regular meetings. In the meantime, players frustrated by tankers should get busy with their clock-calling, at least on the EPT.
“My absolute decision is that the players should take back their tournament,” Johnson said.
Keep an eye on the live tournament reporting from EPT Sanremo for all the news from the tournament floor.