Who decides what is “excessive”?

NorCal Poker Ambassador

By Randall Rapp

If you watched ESPN’s coverage of the World Series of Poker leading up to the final table, one thing stood out above everything else. What, if anything, should be done about a guy like Will Kassouf?

Whether you loved or hated the antics of this English poker pro/barrister, my guess is you eagerly waited to see what would come next, all the while commenting on what actions should have been taken and when. I know I was! The bigwigs at the network must have been doing their happy dance as the controversy was discussed in bars, living rooms, casinos, and social media.

In case you missed it, Kassouf was like a Chatty Cathy doll with the controls jammed in the “on” position. Whether it was his turn to act or someone else’s, he was asking questions, making comments, offering to show his cards if they fold, asking them to show theirs, and generally being an auditory nuisance.

There was a second part to the Kassouf show that was getting under everyone’s skin: speed of play. Kassouf was taking about twice as long with each decision (on average) as his tablemates. Sometimes much more. There were occasions when he was waiting to make a decision and someone pointed out that he hadn’t even bothered to look at his cards yet. The general perception was that he was drastically slowing down the game, further irritating those he was playing with.

Between the two issues it was a lit powder keg just waiting to go off. And it did. More than once.

One thing to keep in mind as we look at the situation is that all we saw is what the editors at ESPN showed us. Few were actually there to take in the whole thing, so it’s kind of like commenting on how a jury should vote when all you saw of the trial was a few minutes on the evening news. You probably don’t have all the facts.

That said, my initial take on Kassouf is that if he had been doing only one of the two things mentioned above he wouldn’t have risen to the level of major controversy. Ten years ago Jamie Gold talked the same kind of game, never shut up, and went all the way to the title with his chatter considered mostly an inconvenient truth. Apparently Jordan Cristos was at the center of a big controversy at this year’s Main Event over his slow play, but it never made the ESPN broadcasts.

Putting aside the specific personalities listed here, what do the rules say? That is what really makes up the crux of the matter. This game is often played for a whole lot of money—the WSOP Main Event being one of the better examples—and rulings, clocks, and penalties shouldn’t be arbitrary. One person should not be penalized for an action that another individual can do with impunity.

Let’s look at the Tournament Directors Association (TDA) rules to see what they have to say. Rule 65: Etiquette Violations reads, “Repeat etiquette violations will result in penalties. Examples include but are not limited to: persistent delay of the game, unnecessarily touching other players’ cards or chips, repeatedly acting out of turn, betting out of reach of the dealer, abusive conduct, and excessive chatter.”

Was Kassouf guilty of “persistent delay of the game” and/or “excessive chatter”? It boils down to who decides what constitutes “persistent” and “excessive.” Neither of these is very specific. Obviously it is left up to the discretion of the floor person, followed by the tournament director. Discretion is just another way of saying “opinion” and, like Grandpappy used to say, “Opinions are like [posteriors], everybody has one.”

There’s another TDA rule that I think had bearing, at least based on what was shown on television. Rule 62: No Disclosure says, among other things that players must not “advise or criticize play at any time.” One would think that if, in the midst of one’s chatter, the opponent was told that they should probably fold, this clearly constitutes “advice” on playing the hand, and that should certainly bring a warning followed by a penalty.

So was Kassouf as out of line as some of his opponents seemed to think? Was he just successfully getting on their nerves in order to get reads on their play and possibly put them on tilt? Was it appropriate for one of the other players to call him a “clown” multiple times and another call him a “bully,” or did these statements fall into the category of “abusive behavior” and thus deserve their own penalties?

Kassouf did and said a lot of things during the several hours he was on ESPN, but I don’t remember him ever calling people names or disparaging them personally. He mostly just played slowly and kept talking until he got on people’s nerves.

In my humble opinion the slow play has got to go, but the talking—as long as it’s not out of line—has to be put up with. As poker players our skin should at least be thick enough to ignore such verbal onslaughts. You could always just put your fingers in your ears, or buy some good noise cancelling headphones.

As long as these issues remain non-specific, this type of controversy can’t help but occur from time to time. I don’t think we need to legislate the game into a small box, but consistency is something that all rules-based games need strive toward.

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