Allen Kessler vs. Matt Savage: Dealer’s Choice and the Game Designer’s Dilemma

Alex Weldon : June 10th, 2016


Professional poker players, as a general rule, are rarely happy, and love to complain publicly about any aspect of a tournament or the running of a card room which isn’t exactly to their liking. Anyone who follows many poker people on Twitter knows this, and it’s hard to fault them too much, given that tournament formats and schedules can have a huge impact on their bottom line, and the amount of time they spend playing means that things which are small inconveniences for occasional players can be a constant thorn in the side of those who play the game every day as their job. The most notorious complainer in poker, however, is Allen “Chainsaw” Kessler, whose reputation for pickiness is such that it’s given rise to its own catch-phrase, the idea of whether or not a given tournament is “Chainsaw Approved.”

The slap fight that keeps on slapping

For the most part, Kessler’s fussing is viewed by the poker community with some mixture of amusement and annoyance, although when it actually leads to changes in tournament structure, they’re usually greeted with general approval from other pros. But for those responsible for designing and scheduling tournaments, his constant criticism can go beyond annoying and become a serious problem, because he’s well-known enough to have a following, has a tendency to exaggerate the magnitude of the problems he sees, and when a tournament venue refuses to make the sort of changes he’d like, tends to ascribe that decision to some combination of ignorance and malice, rather than a difference of opinion.

This has led to an ongoing feud between Kessler and poker’s most prominent tournament director, Matt Savage of Commerce Casino, who is also the Executive Tour Director for the World Poker Tour (WPT) and the founder of the Tournament Directors’ Association (TDA). It’s a relationship that has become more acrimonious over time, and the most recent flare-up on Twitter relates to the Dealer’s Choice format, and specifically a seemingly-minor point about when new games get chosen.

The lowdown on Dealer’s Choice

The Dealer’s Choice format is based on the way a lot of casual home games are run, or were run before the Hold’em boom. In those games, the deal rotates as usual, and the game played is whatever version of poker the dealer wants to propose, or even invent on the fly. Naturally, some modifications to this concept have to be made in order for it to be suitable for serious tournament play: a limited number of games are available to choose from, and due to the fact that certain games create larger positional advantages than others, games are selected for (at least) an entire orbit, rather than a single hand.

It’s on the details of this second point that Kessler and Savage differ. Dealer’s Choice is typically played 6-max, so with a full table, each game should normally be played for 6 hands before a new player is given the option to choose a new game. Given that players are eliminated and tables balanced on a continual basis during a tournament, however, not all seats will be filled at all times, and so we’re left with the question of how to handle that.

We can do this the easy way, or the hard way…

The simple answer is to play each game for the same number of hands, regardless of the number of players at the table. We could call this the “Counting System.” If we are indeed playing 6-max, then, each game is always played for six hands, regardless of any empty seats, and once those six hands are up, the player to the left of the previous chooser gets the next pick of game.

The more complicated but possibly more “correct” way of doing it is what Kessler calls the “Plaque System.” I haven’t seen it in operation but my understanding is that the stack of plaques (with the names of the games printed on them) act as a second button, which passes once per orbit as the regular dealer Button passes it. Each time the plaques pass, the recipient gets to select the game. Although some complexities can arise when the player count changes mid-game, in general this means that the number of hands played of a given game should equal the number of players at the table.

This is one of those cases in game design where there isn’t actually one perfect solution: Each is “fair” in a way that the other is “unfair.” The advantage of the Counting System is that each player’s choice gets played for the same number of hands, so one player doesn’t feel cheated when his preferred game is only played for five hands when the previous player’s choice was played for six. On the other hand, playing six hands with fewer than six people at the table means that not everyone plays each game exactly once in each position; specifically, whoever has the dealer button when the game is chosen will end up playing as the Button twice before the game switches. Since the original purpose of playing each game for a full orbit was to account for the differences in positional advantage between games, Kessler’s point is that the Counting System reintroduces the very problem we’re trying to correct.

You can lead a horse to the table, but you can’t make him play

And Kessler does have a point, in my opinion. The positional issues have a much greater impact on gameplay than whether any given player’s choice is dealt one time more or less than others’ at the table. However, the problem facing Savage (and Justin Hammer and the rest of the tournament staff at Commerce) is not that they don’t understand this, but that the majority of their players don’t. Savvy pros may appreciate changes to a tournament which reduce the role of luck or the potential for collusion, but the majority of poker players are creatures of habit and resistant to any change from the familiar, regardless of whether or not it’s to their benefit. This is particularly true when the change is from something simple, like the Counting System, to something more difficult to explain or understand, like the Plaque System.

I’ve spoken to both Savage and Hammer (the best last name combo in the poker industry, incidentally) and Hammer says they’ve actually tried it Kessler’s way at Commerce (based on feedback from Carol Fuchs, winner of the first WSOP Dealer’s Choice event, according to Savage), and doesn’t understand why Kessler continues to pester them. Savage, for his part, feels both are fine and well-received, but resents Kessler’s insistence that one is clearly superior to the other. Regardless of whether or not the Plaque System is objectively better in theory, their concern is not the theoretical ideals of poker but rather giving their customers the product they want, and this is the thing Kessler fails to understand.

The game-designer’s dilemma

This sort of problem is far from unique to Dealer’s Choice, to Kessler and Savage, or even to poker in general. As someone who has designed several published board games and countless more unpublished prototypes, I can tell you that these tradeoffs are a huge part of what game design is. Very often, little problems arise in a game, where adding additional rules, or exchanging intuitive rules for more bizarre ones would create more depth to the strategy, reduce the role of luck, or prevent runaway leader scenarios. The annoying thing, though, is that once you’ve made the change, the problem disappears, and so the people ultimately playing the game won’t understand why that rule exists in the first place. The colloquial way to describe such rules is “fiddly.”

So you often get left with a situation where you can have a simple but flawed game with one page of rules – fun for beginners, but with weaknesses that will be exposed after enough play by intelligent players – or a much more robust game, but which has 20 pages of counter-intuitive rules, fiddly edge cases and situational exceptions, which would have more lasting power in the long run, but which turns most people off before they’ve played their first game. In between those two extremes, there are lots of intermediate options, and one of the jobs of a game designer is to think about the target audience and decide what level of complexity they can tolerate, and which problems are significant enough that it’s worth complicating the game in order to solve.

A tale as old as time

Indeed, it’s a problem that even the world’s oldest and most beloved games have had to deal with. En passant capture, draw by repetition and the forbiddance on castling out of check are all rules in chess which could be characterized as fiddly. Even more extreme is the case of Go, whose basic Chinese rules can be summarized in four sentences and rarely if ever cause problems. They do, however, force players to play out a long endgame which is tedious and essentially decision-free for experienced players; the more recent Japanese rules remedy that problem with only slightly more complexity, and produce the same results in 99% of cases. However, they do give a different winner perhaps one time in a hundred, and end up producing massively counter-intuitive (“wrong”) results in certain extremely exotic scenarios. Those cases should only come up perhaps one game in a million, yet gallons upon gallons of ink (literal and digital) have been spilled over the years in an attempt to figure out how to deal with them. It’s the sort of thing that Kessler, if he were a Go player, would be perpetually on tilt about, yet most players are content to assume that they’ll never encounter such a situation, or just have a laugh about it if they do. There’s even a Japanese Go proverb about exactly that, which translates roughly to: “In case of triple-ko, break out the sake and celebrate.”

Thus, in my opinion, on this issue Kessler manages to be both completely correct and also entirely wrong. If any of us – Kessler, Savage, Hammer or myself – were designing the format for the $10,000 World Series of Poker Dealer’s Choice Championship, I expect that all of us would go for the Plaque System. But the staff at Commerce know their customers far better than Kessler does, and if the Counting System makes for a more enjoyable experience for the average player, then they are 100% correct in retaining that system, regardless of which is superior on paper. As is so often the case with poker players, Kessler understands poker better than he understands people, and goes wrong in assuming his perspective and experience is more valid than that of others.

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

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