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Tournament decisions: not black and white

ps_news_thn.jpgThe poker corner of the Twitterverse is currently abuzz after a ruling at the Latin American Poker Tour (LAPT), which is sponsored by PokerStars. I'll get to the specific ruling in a minute, but I'd first like to discuss tournament rules and rulings in general.

Poker tournaments, like virtually every other competition or contest, have rules. They help things proceed smoothly, give everybody an idea of how to act, and prevent confusion. Unfortunately, for a long time, poker tournaments had no central rule book on which most people agreed. However, a handful of people including Linda Johnson, Jan Fisher, and Matt Savage got together and created a generally accepted set of rules via the "Tournament Director's Association" or "TDA". The TDA rules serve as a starting point from which most tournament rule books work; that includes the LAPT's rules.

Now a brief note on the nature of rules: no rule book can cover every possible way that humans dream up to interact with each other. That's why there are lawyers and judges and stuff - making rules and enforcing them is hard. Both the TDA and LAPT bosses realized this and made their rule #1 the following:

The Tournament Director and Floor Personnel are to consider the best interest of the game and fairness as the top priority in the decision-making process. Unusual circumstances may on occasion dictate that decisions in the interest of fairness take priority over the technical rules. The decisions of the Tournament Direct and/or Floor Personnel are final.

This first rule goes by a lot of names: "Best interest of the game", "Fairness", and "Common sense". I like to call it the "Do the Right Thing" rule. It empowers the floor staff and tournament directors to do the right thing, as their judgment dictates. In fact, I was there when the TDA decided to make this Rule #1 - I couldn't have been happier.

And it's a good thing we have Rule #1. Despite the 30-odd rules that follow it in the LAPT rule book, there are still plenty of circumstances that require intelligent interpretation. In fact, the aforementioned Matt Savage (a friend and former neighbour of mine) has a bustling (albeit non-paying) cottage industry answering tournament ruling questions on Twitter (@savagepoker).

To give you an idea of what we're talking about, I recently had a tournament director (TD) throw a question at me over breakfast: in a four-card Omaha tournament, there was a raise in early position. Action folded to the blinds and, oops, one of the blinds had three cards and the other had five; somehow one card had ended up in the wrong place. The black and white interpretation of the rule is that both blinds have dead hands (a valid Omaha hand is exactly four cards, no more, no less). But wait - is that the fairest ruling? "Had either of the blinds looked at his cards?" "No," she smiled, seeing where I was going. "Easy then," I replied, "Dealer mixes up the cards in the five-card hand, slides one card over to the player with three cards and we're off to the races." "That's what Linda (Johnson) said!" the TD said with glee. Unfortunately, that's not how the actual ruling went, which involved agonizing delays as they attempted to recreate the action, determine who had done what, and somehow sort the mess out.

Do the right thing, be as fair as possible to all concerned, and move along - we've got a poker game to play.

And that brings us to the current kerfuffle on Twitter. Our hero was in an LAPT tournament and woke up with pocket kings in early position. This is the sort of hand that will make or break a tourney and he eagerly raised to T750 (that is, 750 "chips"). A player behind him called, putting out a T500 chip, two T100 chips, and two T25 chips. Then a third player announced "Raise." But wait, there was a problem. The player who had called had confused one of his chips. Rather than two T100 chips, he'd put out one T100 chip and one T5000 chip (the two are apparently somewhat similar in color).

According to the black and white reading of the tournament rules, this is absolutely a raise (multiple chips comprising a valid raise amount).

The floorman was called over and asked to make a ruling. Though I haven't spoken to this floorman, it was presumably clear to him that the caller had meant to do just that - call. He ruled that the second player had called. I'm not sure what the action was after that or how it was ruled, but that's not important. What's important is that the floorman ruled the T5000 chip an honest mistake and let the player correct it.

And good for him, I say. It's not in the best interest of the game for tournaments to be decided (or shifted) by an honest and understandable mistake of which color chip a player picks up.

Of course, our hero is upset. Had the floorman ruled that the "caller" had actually raised, then he might have felt obliged to rule that the next player's "raise" announcement was binding as well. Our hero would have had the opportunity to put in a massive fourth preflop raise holding the second most powerful hand in hold'em; that's how you win poker tournaments.

I certainly understand his disappointment, but frankly, not his outrage. Had he been the one to accidentally put out a T5000 chip, the ruling would have certainly been the same, and saved a significant chunk of his starting stack.

Floormen have difficult jobs - they get called in exactly when the rule book isn't necessarily sufficient to solve the problem. Whatever ruling they make is going to upset one or more people. And of course there are cases in which a floorman (or even a TD) makes a ruling that cannot be supported by either the rule book or common sense. That happens - they're human, just like the players.

But let's keep some perspective here - tournament directors and floor staff are there to interpret the rules, not blindly quote chapter and verse of a long-standing rule that we all know. When they make a ruling that bends the rules in favor of common sense, I think we should all be grateful for the job they do.

Late breaking edit: I've gotten direct confirmation that LAPT tournament director Mike Ward made the ruling and said at the time that he was ruling, "in the best interests of the game."

Mike is one of the top TD's in the business; I'm delighted to hear that my theory about the logic he followed was pretty much spot on.

Lee Jones is the head of Home Games at PokerStars and has been involved in the professional poker world for over 25 years. You can read his occasional Twitter-bites at @leehjones.

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