Thursday, August 22, 2013

Should Poker Be (A Tiny Bit) More Like Chess?

There are similarities between tournament poker and tournament chess, and many serious chess players, including some grandmasters, have taken up poker with success. Poker is a much, much richer game, however, because there is more variance in outcomes when weaker and stronger players face each other. Thousands of poker players pay $1000, $1500, or even $10,000 to enter poker tournaments, routinely creating multimillion-dollar prize pools. Most chess tournaments, except for invitational events reserved for the very top players in a country or the world, also charge entry fees, but tournament chess doesn't have enough variance to get people to put up even $1000 (in today's dollars) to play. So it's a good thing that poker isn't more like chess in the way that stronger chess players are very likely to win against weaker ones.

But as I was reading the August 21 issue of Card Player magazine recently, I stumbled across a discussion that got me thinking that poker still needs some improving. In a column called "The Rules Guy" (which is not yet available online) I read the following:

The Rules Guy: Props to Antonio Esfandiari. TRG salutes Antonio Esfandiari for saying "You're both out of line" to Jungleman (Dan Cates) and Scott Seiver after their intense verbal altercation on a Party Poker Premier League VI broadcast. A calming voice can, well, work magic.
What happened, in a nutshell, was that Cates had broken the rules by acting out of turn several times at the table. Acting out of turn means betting, folding, or doing other things you normally do when it is your turn to bet, but doing them before it is your turn. This is bad because it gives the players who are supposed to act before you information about your hand strength and intentions that they aren't supposed to have. Therefore it can help those players, and also hurt other players. It can also be a way of colluding with others at the table, which is obviously a fundamental no-no. Seiver called out Cates on his repeated out-of-turn acting, Cates said something in response, Seiver said "it's like actual cheating," Cates used the f-word, and it went on from there.

At some point, according to the article, Esfandiari said, "You're both out of line. You're [Cates] out of line for acting out of turn; you're [Seiver] out of line for attacking him." He is portrayed as the level-headed hero of the whole episode and gets "props" from The Pseudonymous Rules Guy.

When I was at the World Series of Poker this past June, I played in a $1500 buy-in no limit hold'em tournament. I was doing pretty well at my first table, but then the table broke and I was moved to a table of mostly younger players, plus one very well-known pro: Phil Laak, who is a close friend of Antonio Esfandiari. (They appear together on the ESPN broadcasts and even co-hosted an entire series about prop betting a few years back.) Laak was three seats to my right, and he was acting just like he acts on all the televised poker events that love to show him. He was hamming it up, saying crazy and clever things, acting alternately bored and intensely interested, jumping up to take an occasional picture with a fan, making friends with everyone, and so on.

Laak was in the last hand before the dinner break. The clock had run down, so everyone was free to go if they wanted to, but I stayed at the table to see the hand play out. Laak was heads-up against the player to his left (two seats to my right). There was much betting, and after the river card was dealt Laak went all-in. His opponent started thinking about this major decision of whether to call or fold. He had enough chips to call without being knocked out, but a lot of chips were at stake.

By this point Esfandiari had come over to our table. I don't know if he was playing in the same tournament, another tournament, or what, but he came to talk to Laak about plans for the dinner break. The two of them were talking, while Laak was in the hand, even before Laak had made his final all-in bet. This seems bad to me. Why should any player who is in a hand be allowed to say anything to anyone else while the hand is going on? But it got worse.

As Laak's opponent, who as far as I could tell did not know Laak personally, or at least was not great friends with him, was thinking over his decision, Esfandiari leaned over him and said something like "Hurry up and fold, we want to go eat!" Those probably weren't his exact words; I didn't write them down. But he clearly spoke to the player whose turn it was to act, and clearly spoke to him about one of the actions he was contemplating. He didn't just say "hurry up"—he mentioned folding too.

Now I don't think Esfandiari knew what Laak's hand was. Perhaps he was just goofing around because he was hungry and wanted to go and eat. But I wouldn't be surprised if he was also trying to help Laak just a little bit, perhaps unconsciously, by throwing Laak's opponent off his train of thought, or by sewing doubt about the right play to make.

As it happened, the guy didn't seem bothered by Esfandiari and didn't complain about him. He eventually called, only to find that Laak had made a straight flush on the river. In retrospect, he should have taken the "advice" and folded.

Regardless, I found Esfandiari's actions appalling. I didn't say anything, not being an expert in poker rules and etiquette, and not being involved in the hand, but I thought that if this was legal, it was a very big difference from chess. In a chess tournament, you aren't allowed to do anything close to that. If a friend of Magnus Carlsen walked up to Carlsen's opponent and said "just resign already" while he was thinking about his next move ... I cannot imagine what would happen, since it's so far outside the realm of possibility. Garry Kasparov used to be criticized severely for making faces during games in reaction to his opponent's moves. This is orders of magnitude worse.

Esfandiari may have been right about Cates and Seiver (though I think repeatedly acting out of turn is worse than getting pissed off at someone for repeatedly acting out of turn), but I think he was wrong to say a single word to Laak, or especially Laak's opponent, while their hand was in progress. It doesn't matter that he's a famous pro, or that he's the all-time biggest money winner in tournament poker, or that he's considered to be a nice guy. Let's keep poker different from chess in all the ways that matter for its popularity, but let's make it more like chess by enacting or enforcing rules that help each player, amateur and pro alike, make their decisions by themselves, in peace.