Are tournament poker rules too divergent?

World-Series-of-Poker-July-2010-dealer-tables-300x200Enacting fair tournament poker rules seems like a fairly simple proposition, but this is far from the reality of the situation for poker players who are regular participants in tournaments. Divergent rules at different tournaments, as well as vague language leaving too much open to interpretation has become a major debate in the poker world, and one I will gently wade into in this article.

Depending on where you are and what poker tour is hosting the tournament you really don’t know what you are going to get when it comes to the rules. And people are starting to become a bit more vocal about the ways rules are drafted and enforced. From Daniel Negreanu, to Dan O’Brien, to Lee Davy, the TDA (Tournament Directors Association) seems to be coming under fire.

Zero Tolerance

Now, for the most part the rules are pretty universal, but in recent years tournament staff has been moving towards a “zero-tolerance” policy, so relatively benign transgressions like what you can and can’t say when heads-up on the river; where you need to be located to be considered an active player; and even what electronic devices are permissible have resulted in severe penalties and in some ways have likely helped decide tournaments.

I’m not much of a fan of zero tolerance policies in any situation, and poker tournaments are definitely one of these areas. For minor infractions that do not impact a hand (swearing, checking your iPhone, or maybe crossing the line on your table talk) we should error on the side of leniency towards the offender.

When it comes to major infractions, like possible angle-shots with all-in bets (which we’ve seen becoming more and more prevalent in recent years) we should error towards the victim.

Unfortunately, it seems tournament staff has this backwards. We see people given full penalties for swearing, but when someone “potentially” attempts an angle-shot (and under the best case scenario the offending player isn’t paying attention at the table) they generally side with the person who is breaking the rule, citing intentions.

This is completely backwards to me; whenever someone breaks a rule that affects the outcome of the hand and there is a discrepancy in what happened, the decision should go against them.

Where is the consensus?

There have been some serious attempts to make tournament rules more omnipresent, both by the Tournament Director’s Association and by the Marcel Luske led FIDPA. But in the end we still have a hodgepodge of rules, and depending on where you are playing certain things are allowed in one locale and not in another.

You would think that poker rules could be made universal? In my opinion, if a rule is not universally enforced it’s probably an unnecessary or bad rule.

Interpretations and Intentions

Take a group of 10 tournament directors and ask them to explain one of these controversial rules and you’ll likely receive at least five different answers. Even worse, take your average dealer and average floor-person and the answers will not only be all over the map, but some will be downright wrong.

The reason is that the rules currently in place leave a lot of the enforcement up to the tournament director’s interpretation, and not just their interpretation of the rule, but also their interpretation of the offending player’s actions, as in the case cited above between Gaelle Baumann and Andras Koroknai.

So if the argument is that we want to protect the average Joe from some angle-shooting professional why are we concocting rules that leave so much open to interpretation? Doesn’t this allow savvy players to out argue the average Joe, and make their intentions seem virtuous? And does the average Joe even know they can appeal to the floor?

What to do?

What would be nice would be if the rulebook was pared down and each rule properly explained in a clear concise way. Obviously this will never happen; rules have a horrible tendency of containing a lot of legalese, and in their attempts to cover every angle they often get verbose, confusing, and even hypocritical.

But what we can do is make the rules universal, not only in how they are written, but also in the enforcement of violations. Also, as I mentioned above, if a rule is not universal –enforced on one tour but not on another– we should look into why, and see if it’s even necessary in the first place.

Obviously certain rules should have clear and immediate penalties, but for lesser breaches I honestly feel that every player should be given a verbal warning first, and only after a second violation should the rule be enforced to its fullest.

If you break a rule you get the benefit of the doubt; if you break a second rule you lose any benefit of the doubt and receive your penalty.

I don’t think it would be too hard to separate rules into different infraction categories:

* Category 1: Major Rule Infraction resulting in an automatic expulsion from the tournament.

* Category 2: Minor Rule Infraction resulting in an automatic penalty and warning that another violation will result in a lengthier penalty or even expulsion.

* Category 3: Potential Rule Infraction resulting in a verbal warning with all subsequent decisions going against the offending player.



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