Friday, April 01, 2011


I was playing at the Stratosphere last night. Two situations arose in which I thought that leniency on the house rules was in order. Because many readers think that I'm always in favor of strict, unbending enforcement of every rule of the game--when, in reality, I'm more of a pragmatist--I thought these incidents might serve as a useful corrective.

English only

The first problem centered around two young men who were speaking a foreign language (Czech, as it turned out). When this first occurred during a hand, and the dealer was ignoring it, I took my usual approach, which is to quietly ask the dealer, "Do you have an English-only rule here?" Of course I already know the answer. The purpose is to nudge the dealer into enforcing it, without being directly confrontational with either her or the players involved. As usually happens, this resulted in the dealer saying, "Yes," then turning to the two individuals and explaining that they must speak English only while at the table. (It incidentally confirmed my impression that she knew perfectly well who was violating the rule; she was just hoping that she wouldn't have to do anything about it. Dealers who wait for a player to ask them to enforce a rule earn my contempt.)

Let's pause here to consider three different ways that one might apply an English-only rule. The least restrictive would be to have it apply only to players who have live cards. This prevents them from secretly disclosing to each other what they hold, discussing how to trap a third player between them, or other nefarious activities.

The next level of strictness would be to have the rule apply during the entire time that a hand is going on--i.e., while anybody has live cards. This has some additional benefits for game integrity. It may be, for example, that somebody else at the table knows the foreign language well enough to eavesdrop on the conversation; he could thus gain advantageous additional information if the two foreign players, now out of the hand, discuss what they folded, what they think other players have, etc.

Finally, the most draconian level of enforcement would be to ban all foreign speech at the table, no matter what is going on. At least in theory, this would make it more difficult for two players to discuss signals that they will use in future hands, or whatever. As I understand it from the dealers, this is the way the Stratosphere's rule is.

In my opinion, the middle level is probably the best one to use, because that third level of enforcement has really marginal additional utility in terms of game security, while it imposes a pretty significant social burden on at least some players. Last night's game was a perfect demonstration of this. One of the two players in question was bilingual, but the other spoke essentially no English. Outlawing all non-English conversation at the table was thus, for him, effectively imposing a rule that he was not allowed to talk, and his friend was not allowed to talk to him. It's like dropping the Cone of Silence on his seat. It was clear to me from tone, body language, etc., that most of what they were talking about had nothing to do with the game. This was especially true when their wives/girlfriends were chatting with them from the rail a few feet away, which was a high percentage of the time they were there. Most of the stuff was, I'm confident, harmless chatter that was helping them have a good time.

However, because the dealers were being lax in enforcing the rule, the two men made no distinction between chatting during a hand and chatting between hands. That bothered me. I didn't really think that they were colluding (they would freely check-raise each other even when nobody else was in the hand, for instance), but recreational players are frequently too loose-lipped about talking about the hand in progress in improper ways, and I didn't want that going on in Czech any more than I want it going on in English.

At the same time, I didn't want the dealers to be so hard-assed about shushing all of their conversation that they would get mad and leave, nor even that they would stop having fun. Players who are enjoying themselves, drinking beer (as they were), flirting with their onlooking girlfriends, etc., are the ones I'm most likely to be able to make money from, not to mention being just plain more pleasant to share a table with than the hoodie-wearing, headphone-listening, sunglass-hiding, solitary grinder.

So after something like five dealer warnings to these two had done nothing to squelch the talk during hands, I went up to the desk and quietly spoke to the floorperson. I explained the situation and how strict enforcement of the rule would be a bad idea, but, at the same time, I was uncomfortable with them having no muzzle at all on. I suggested applying the rule strictly as far as that middle level, or even just the first level, but then leaving them alone to chat between hands. She agreed to so instruct the dealers.

And it worked, mostly. The dealers became more attentive to reminding them of the rule when they had live cards, but looked the other way the rest of the time. In fact, at one point it actually worked too well. We had a button straddle for the first time, which, at the Stratosphere, means that the order of action changes, and the blinds go first. Our foreign travelers had never encountered this before. The dealer explained it to them. Then, predictably, the bilingual guy translated the explanation for his friend. It was perfectly obvious what he was saying, from the context, the gestures, and the occasional untranslatable English poker word slipped in. But even then the dealer rushed to remind them, "English only!" And people think I'm inflexible!

Short buy

The second situation involved a short buy. Every poker room that I know of has a minimum buy-in. However, if you lose all your chips and don't have enough cash to rebuy for that minimum, they'll allow you a "short buy" one time, after which you'll have to make a trip to the ATM for your next full rebuy.

Last night there were two extremely inexperienced 60-something women friends playing. They were classic weak-tight players, transparently easy to read and beat. Of course I wanted them to stick around as long as they had any money to their names. But one of them lost her stack and at the same time wanted to move to a seat that had just been vacated. She wanted to rebuy for $50, as she had the previous time she went broke, although the table minimum was $100. The dealer tried to explain--in a thick foreign accent that the poor woman was having great difficulty understanding--that the minimum was $100. She somehow got the idea that the reason she was having to buy in for $100 instead of just $50 was because of changing seats, which, of course, had nothing to do with it. There was a cacophony of other players all simultaneously trying to explain differently to her, but it all just confused her. After a minute or so of trying to understand, she was fed up, frustrated, and embarrassed. She took her cash off the table, and said, "Never mind. I don't want to play anymore." She told her friend she'd catch up with her later, and stormed off.

There was still another empty seat and no waiting list. I, for one, would have been fine with her buying in for whatever she wanted. Hell, let her rebuy for $10 50 times in a row if she wants, just don't let her leave! In similar situations I've encountered in other poker rooms, the dealer has called the floor over. The floor person either just grants a waiver of the minimum buy-in rule, or asks the other players, "Does anybody object to letting her have another short buy?" I can't recall anybody ever voicing a complaint about it. Everybody understands that a player sitting behind $50 in chips is better than an empty chair.

Unfortunately, I didn't think and act fast enough to try to get such a solution imposed last night. When there is a cacophony of players all talking at once, it so seriously annoys me that I tend to tune out and go inside my own head to shut it out, trusting that some reasonable decision will be arrived at. When I finally realized that this woman was walking out (at first I thought she was just moving back to her original seat), it was too late to suggest the usual solution, which I had thought would be what would happen without me adding my two cents to the conversation. It was another situation in which bending the rules was so clearly called for that I just kind of assumed it would happen that way, so I didn't take active steps to facilitate it, and it ended unhappily. Maybe worst of all, it left a novice player with a bad taste in her mouth about her first live casino poker experience, and may thwart her from trying it again anytime soon. I think if I had been more assertive, I could have gotten it worked out to everybody's satisfaction. My bad.

Most poker rules should be strictly enforced most of the time. But there are circumstances that call for alternatives and compromises and creative solutions. When they arise, it's a mistake to be unwilling to look for and implement them.

Image is of a sculpture titled "Bending the Rules" by Ron Van Balen, found on his web site here.


Pete said...

I have to disagree with on two issues.

I agree English only should not apply to all conversation at a table. I generally find those who contend it should apply that way are acting out of xenophobia.

But it must be English only during a hand and it is not ok just because the players conversing do not have cards. The reality is that you never know who at that table may understand what is being said .... and they may still have cards. It is entirely possible that these wtwo friends may after folding be telling each other what they folded and someone else at that table understands enough fo the language to understand that information.

On the issue of the shortbuys. I cringe everytime i hear a floorperson ask people if they object to a shortbuy. This is entirely inappropriate as it forces a player who doesn't want to be taken advantage of be a shortstacker to be the one to object and be the bad guy. I expect the poker room staff to enforce the rules and not make me do it. Personally if it were up to me there woul;dn't be any shortbuy allowed, but I certainly wouldn't let someone keep shortbuying just becaus ethey threaten to leave if they aren't allowe dto shortbuy.

Carl said...


"Taken advantage of by a shortstacker" that's stacked off at least twice?

I guess if I'm going to have to deal angle shooters, that's the type I want.