How much are you allowed to talk at the poker table, and what are you allowed to say? At what point does acceptable needling cross over into unacceptable harassment and abuse? These are questions for which there’s no hard and fast answer; different poker establishments and poker tours have their own guidelines, but they’re rarely enforced to the letter, but rather at the discretion of the floor staff. It’s hard to find a way around that, but it inevitably leads to situations where either a penalty is handed out that some people feel shouldn’t have been, or no penalty given in a situation that some feel actually was over the line. It’s therefore a perennial subject of debate in the poker media, quite often at this time of year, when the edited-for-television version of the first seven days of the WSOP Main Event is being aired on ESPN in preparation for the November Nine final table.

Controversial characters make for compelling television, and there are bound to be a few in a tournament as large as the Main Event. Last year, it was Justin Schwartz that had everyone discussing the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. This year, it’s William Kassouf, who was first told by tournament director Jack Effel that he had to stop talking to his opponent, Stacy Matuson, then assigned a one-round penalty for taunting when he boastfully showed his bluff after she folded.

Talk is cheap

When these situations arise, most of the discussion ends up being about the specifics of the episode in question. Inevitably, some people think the penalty was deserved, others think it was not, and still others opt to straddle the fence. Whatever a given person’s stance may be, though, it’s all very convenient fodder for blog posts and op-eds, but also fairly pointless. After all, the decision was made months ago and was final even at the time. Even if consensus could be reached about whether the rules were applied fairly, it wouldn’t prevent similar borderline cases from coming up in future, nor help in ensuring that the correct decision be reached, since the details will inevitably differ.

So, I’m not particularly interested in opining on whether Kassouf deserved his penalty or not. Rather, I’m more interested in the question of whether there’s any way to ameliorate the situation. Obviously, it’s a multi-faceted problem, so no given rule set will make it go away entirely, short of banning all talk at the table, which would amount to shooting the patient to cure the disease. But still, there are likely ways that the boundaries can be firmed up somewhat, and some of the more problematic scenarios averted.

Misdirection versus distraction

In the case of Kassouf and Matuson, it seems to me that the problem was not so much with the things he said, but the timing, intent and sheer volume of his comments. Most players would consider the occasional comment meant to misdirect one’s opponent to be fair play: Think, for example, of Scotty Nguyen’s classic quip, which won him the 1998 WSOP Main Event, “You call, it’s gonna be all over, baby.” If we denied poker those moments, it would be a poorer game for it. However, Kassouf’s tactics seemed less intended to get the better of Matuson in a leveling war, but rather simply to distract her – and the rest of the table – through sheer relentlessness. If we decide that he was over the line, that’s probably the reason.

On the one hand, badgering a player who is honestly trying to think is probably against most standards of sportsmanship. On the other, we don’t want a generally ill-tempered player to be able to silence reasonable conversation at the table every time it’s on him or her to act. Thus, one way we could try to avoid at least this particular form of drama is to allow players to ask the table for silence – and have it enforced – during truly important decisions, yet not be able to do so indiscriminately.

A simple idea

What I would propose, then, is to incorporate a silence provision into the existing rule for calling the clock. That is, the rule should be that as much leeway is possible is given for (non-colluding) table talk during normal play, but that all talk at the table must cease when a player is put on the clock to make their decision. For one thing, players usually only have the clock called on them when they are wrestling with a genuinely critical decision, and the calling of the clock is generally seen as an aggressive act; giving the player the courtesy of having their 60 seconds to think without distraction seems a fair and respectful compromise in that regard. More importantly, though, it gives players a way to ask the table for silence, but at a cost to themselves; if you need everyone – or a specific someone – to shut up while you think through the hand and come to a decision, you can do so, but it means calling the clock on yourself, and committing to making that decision within those 60 seconds. It also means that conversation can’t be silenced entirely, only halted for a minute at a time, so the disruption of the game’s social elements is kept to a minimum.

No matter what rules are put in place, some players will rub each other the wrong way. That’s simply the nature of poker, and of humans. However, something along these lines, allowing players to ask for silence but only in a limited way and for a limited time, would go a long way towards improving the situation. Combined with more explicit guidelines for what constitutes abusive speech, it would likely avert or clarify many such problems without putting tournament staff in the position of making a borderline, sure-to-be-controversial call one way or the other.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.