Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Whispering against the rules?

A small controversy erupted yesterday during the World Series of Poker. Long-time boyfriend and girlfriend David Sands and Erika Moutinho, against all odds, ended up next to each other at the feature table very deep in the Main Event. I wasn't watching the live webcast on ESPN3 when the incident in question occurred, so let me quote a couple of poker media sources.

This is from Poker Listings:

Before the dinner break, there was a small controversy at the featured table because last-woman-standing Erika Moutinho and her boyfriend David "Doc" Sands were whispering between hands.

Yes, the last-couple-standing is still alive with 30 players remaining.

During the dinner break, WSOP Tournament Director Jack Effel tweeted that he had discussed the issue with Moutinho and Sands, because there were complaints about the whispering.

@WSOPTD: Had a conversation with them, and they are both on notice.

No matter what happens, it's an awkward situation for Moutinho and Sands.

If they stay out of each other's way, they're open to accusations of soft playing. If they play against each other, they're open to accusations of chip dumping. It's a bit of a no-win situation.

And here's Casino City Times:
The two began play on separate tables, with Sands on the featured TV table and Moutinho on an outer table. But when Bach was eliminated from the Main Event, Moutinho was moved to the TV table and seated right next to her boyfriend.

When Moutinho took her seat at the table, Sands greeted her with a kiss on the cheek. Moutinho had 2.6 million when she sat down at the featured table. Sands had 2 million. When Sands and Moutinho weren't in hands, the two looked like they were lost in their own universe, talking quietly to each other.

But when it appeared Moutinho had whispered what she had just folded to Sands (Sands was not in the hand), tournament officials stepped in and warned the two players to be very careful about what they communicated and how.

Tournament officials told Casino City afterward that due to the unique and high-profile nature of the situation, they had to make extra sure there was not even the appearance of wrongdoing at the table.

So those are the basic facts.

The central question here is whether they violated any rule. It is certainly the case that if you show your hole cards to another player, everybody else at the table has the right to see them, too. But what if you show nothing, and after the hand is over you tell the player next to you what you had, softly enough that others can't hear it?

Twitter isn't a great medium for extended debates about poker rules, but it does have the advantage of being immediate and fast. Though I wasn't watching the action, I quickly learned of the incident from Twitter, and got myself involved in discussing it when I saw Matt Savage--perhaps the most prominent poker tournament director of our time--opine that the whispering was a violation of the rules. Several others called him on this point, too, including B.J. Nemeth and Christian Harder. (Note: Savage has a non-standard Twitter habit of replying to interlocutors by retweeting what he is responding to, with his own comment appended at the end. I am lightly editing these Tweets for readability.)

@SavagePoker Jack Effel has already spoken to @Doc_Sands and @EMoutinho about the whispering incident which was the right thing to do.

@SavagePoker RT @SammyTheDentist: did you see Moutinho/Sands hand? <--They were told to stop as it is not fair to everyone at the table.

@SavagePoker RT @jdgrover: Is it any different than 2 players telling ea other what they had after a hand? <--Yes, if they told everyone it's ok!

@BJNemeth @SavagePoker What rule, specifically, are Erika & David breaking? Players whisper to each other between hands all the time.

@BJNemeth @SavagePoker "Show one, show all" is considerably different than "Tell one after the hand, tell all."

@PokerGrump @SavagePoker Are you saying that there is a rule against one player privately telling another what he had, after the hand is over?

@PokerGrump @SavagePoker If that is your position, can you cite the rule? Does it apply during the dinner break? How about after the day is over?

@SavagePoker Show one, show all applies here and of course you cannot control what happens away from table, on breaks, or at end of day.

@SavagePoker RT @2p2Pokercast: Would you have given them each a penalty or just a warning as well? <--Reminder of show one show all rule.

@PokerGrump @SavagePoker If you're saying that one player cannot whisper down cards to another player at table after hand, that can only be...

@PokerGrump @SavagePoker ...enforced by a complete ban on whispering at the table. Are you saying that's the rule? If so, show me anywhere it's written.

@SavagePoker @PokerGrump believe it or not, not every rule is written but there is one for etiquette and show one show all.

@PokerGrump @SavagePoker I agree that there are rules, and there is etiquette. One is enforceable, the other is not.

@PokerGrump @SavagePoker Are you saying that "Don't whisper your last hand to your neighbor" is etiquette rather than a rule? If so, I'll agree.

@PokerGrump @SavagePoker But that was not the implication of your invoking "show one, show all," which is clearly a rule.

@SavagePoker @PokerGrump: Are you saying that "Don't whisper your last hand to your neighbor" is etiquette rather than a rule? <--In this case maybe

@SavagePoker @PokerGrump the way it went down did not look very good. They asked what each other had and then whispered.

@realcharder30 @SavagePoker I thought that they shouldnt of done it and just waited until break or more discreetly but they did not violate any rules.

@realcharder30 If you believe there is a problem with Erika and David communicating then separate them, do not tell them they can't whisper to each other.

If it had been just about anybody else besides Matt Savage saying that the conduct in question was a rules violation, I probably wouldn't have challenged that opinion, even though I would have thought it was erroneous. But Savage is so influential and considered such an authority on rules that I didn't like the idea of what I think was an ill-considered, off-the-cuff opinion being promulgated and accepted by his many followers as gospel truth.

As you can see, Savage's position shifted markedly. He started by saying that the post-hand whispering was a violation of the "show one, show all" rule, but by the end was reduced to arguing that it was a breach of "etiquette," and that it "did not look very good." Both of those things may be so, but they are very different from saying that the conduct was a violation of poker rules that could be enforced and penalized.

I am left wondering what Jack Effel meant by saying that the couple was "on notice." Did he warn them that they were violating a rule? If so, what rule?

There is a bit of ambiguity in the relevant rule as published by the WSOP this year. It reads:
97. Players are obligated to protect the other players in the tournament at all times. Therefore, whether in a hand or not, players may not a.) Disclose contents of live or folded hands....
Taken literally, this says that I can never, under any circumstances, disclose what I had in any hand I played in a WSOP event, even after the event is long over. That's an absurd interpretation, obviously, and can't possibly be what those who drafted the rule intended. But because the rule doesn't have any time limitation written in (e.g., a clause that specifies "while the hand is in progress"), perhaps this is the rule that Effel was intending to cite and enforce when he said that Sands and Moutinho were "on notice." But if Effel's reading of the rule is that it pertains even after the dealer has all the cards back, then how does he read into it any endpoint? And if it has no endpoint, how does the WSOP intend to enforce it against players talking about hands over dinner between levels, or overnight between days? The only logical temporal endpoint to the rule's intention is the end of the hand, which is when the pot has been awarded and all hands killed.

I have played cash games sitting next to Cardgrrl several times. I don't recall ever having whispered to her what I had after a hand was over, but it might have happened, because I wouldn't have considered it unethical or against the rules. Many times one of us has, after a hand was over (or even during a hand, if the other is not involved) disclosed to the other what we had when playing at the same table online. I have never thought we were doing anything wrong with such chat.

It's true that it is information that other players don't get. But it is degraded information, because telling somebody after the fact may not be the truth. Hearing a report is not the same as seeing the cards. That's a mostly theoretical rather than real point here, because I would never lie to Cardgrrl about what I had; if I didn't want her to know, I just wouldn't tell her. (I think the same is true for her with respect to me, though I'm not entirely sure of that, as I know that she considers the spreading of disinformation to be an important game tactic, and at the poker table I am just another opponent to be defeated by any means necessary.) As it pertains to Sands and Moutinho, I similarly assume that one would not whisper false information to the other about the contents of a hand that just ended.

I have probably had at least a few such episodes in the past when seated in a live game next to a friend, though I can't remember any specific instances--again, they wouldn't stand out in my mind, because I wouldn't have thought there was anything remarkable or wrong with privately sharing what cards I had just had, if I had some social reason to do so.

I have many times seen couples playing adjacent to each other and at least occasionally whispering to each other as soon as a hand ends, most likely sharing what the hole cards were. I have never protested this, because I can't see that it's against any rule. However, when two friends habitually show each other their cards before mucking them, I definitely will do something about it. Asking the dealer to expose them for the table two or three times in a row unequivocally sends the message to the offenders that you've noticed and won't let that pattern continue.

What would I do if I were at a setting of more import than my standard game--like, f'r instance, approaching the final table of the WSOP Main Event--and saw a couple sharing that way? Well, in theory, the rules aren't any different, but the stakes are so vastly greater than I might do something. If it happened only rarely, I might not speak up. But if I saw them whispering to each other after every hand in which one of them was involved, I probably would say something to them. I'm not sure what. Maybe something like this: "I don't know of any rule that prevents you two from whispering between hands about anything you want to talk about. But when you do, the rest of us are immediately going to conclude that you're sharing information that isn't available to the other players, so it might be better if you didn't whisper to each other the way you have been. At the break, you can talk in private all you like."

The mind reels at trying to write a general rule that would prevent such communication. As I suggested in my discussion with Savage, you can't have a rule that only says you can't whisper to another player what cards you had. The nature of whispering is such that nobody else can know what was said, so such a rule would be unenforceable. You would have to expand the rule to say "no whispering at the table." But that still won't accomplish the goal. Many poker rooms are noisy enough that you practically have to shout to be heard. It's easy in such circumstances for one player to tell another about a hand without whispering, yet not be heard by anybody else at the table. For that reason, you would have to expand the rule to say, essentially, "Any conversation between two players must be loud enough to be heard by everybody at the table." And that kind of expansion would be completely impractical. A "no whispering" rule also doesn't preclude passing notes, using Twitter or text messaging, etc.

For the situation that occurred yesterday, it seems that the simple expedient of asking them to refrain--for the sake of appearance, if not fairness--was all it took. (I remain unclear on whether there was an actual threat of penalty for further occurrences.) That is as it should be. I don't know what the tournament staff should do if that proved to be insufficient. Harder's suggestion of redrawing the seats (at least I think that's what he was implying) is interesting; certainly tournament directors have the right to redraw for new seats as needed. Of course, even that wouldn't stop them from texting each other, as use of communication devices at the table is apparently still allowed (based on having seen Ben Lamb thumbing his keyboard between hands on the live feed).

If there is any general way to prevent this from occurring, I can't imagine what it would be. Fortunately, it happens rarely enough--at least in circumstances where it really matters--that we don't have to figure it all out right now.


Pete said...

when people contend that the English only rule should apply between hands .... I always point out that we allow english speaking players to whisper or even step away from the table and have a private conversation in between hands.

So I contend that if you are one of those people who insists English only should apply between hands .... then "no whispering rule" would seem to be consistent with that thought process.

On the other hand though I don't believe the whispering was agaisnt the rules ..... it does create an appearance of impropriety .... and I think its fair for the TD to step in and tell them to knock it off. I would not necessarily agree that iof they continue they should be penalized ..... but if they continue I would subject there play to much strict scrutiny for suspicion of soft play or chip dumping. That is to say that if after being warned they continued to whisper I would probably assume they were cheating and if a close situation arose I would be less inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt,

(I would also point out the nondisclosure rule you cite ----- if strictly interpreted would make it illegal to show your cards to the hole card cameras)

Wolynski said...

Never mind the whispering - I'm amazed players at the WSOP are allowed to bring in phones And I-pads to the table, period. Now that WSOP Main Event was almost live - 1/2 an hour delay - they could be getting information that they got pushed off a hand with air. After the fact, but still relevant.

On the other hand, in my low stakes games, I love opponents with their noses buried in their Crackberries - they're not paying attention.

Mike said...

We could talk about this forever in millions of different ways.....It's just not right, for good poker and fairness. They could chip dump or any nimber of other things. They got pretty deep into the tournament.....good skills or something else??
Agree with Wolynski, jeez too many items on the tables now, no room fer the cards lol