How Much Discretion is Appropriate in Assigning Penalties?

Alex Weldon : June 29th, 2015

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Daniel Negreanu’s speech at the Poker Tournament Directors’ Association (TDA) biennial Summit this weekend raises some interesting ethical and practical questions. In his speech, Negreanu urged tournament directors to think of themselves as being in the customer service business first and foremost, and to keep that in mind both when writing the rules and in applying them.

In particular, Negreanu criticized the European Poker Tour (EPT) directors for taking too hard a line in handing out penalties. He said that he feels that warnings rather than penalties should be given for first offences where the violation appears to have been an error and the player received no obvious benefit from the mistake.

Negreanu’s argument was that it is by and large novice players who fall victim to these mistakes, and that those mistakes are usually self-punishing and require no additional intervention. He gave the example of a player raising preflop and – thinking everyone had folded – deciding to show his cards while there was still one other player left in the hand. Clearly, in a situation like this, the player is putting himself at a disadvantage by showing his opponent his hand. To give the player a one-round penalty on top of that therefore seems unnecessary and cruel.

Of course, there are good reasons that we have a rule against deliberately exposing one’s cards. It avoids situations of soft play, or abuse in high-ICM spots where a player might actually prefer that his opponent fold rather than call with a worse hand. Ideally, one would like to be able to punish players for such abuses without re-victimizing rookies who’ve made a mistake which hurts no one except themselves.

The risk of unequal enforcement

The trouble with achieving this is that it requires fuzziness in the rules. If you started trying to write out an explicit ruleset to determine the exact circumstances under which an immediate penalty should be assigned rather than a warning, it would rapidly spiral beyond the realm of comprehensibility. Determining when it might benefit a player to expose the better hand for ICM reasons requires taking into account the stack sizes of the players involved, the magnitude of the pay jump in question, and the presence of other short stacks. Assessing a situation for possible soft play is even more of an impossible task to handle in a by-the-books manner, since it involves understanding the players themselves and their relationships to one another.

Therefore, there’s no way to achieve the desired outcomes except by leaving it to the human discretion of the tournament directors themselves. The quality of the outcome then depends entirely on the quality – and integrity – of the tournament director in question. Negreanu began his speech by likening tournament directors to sports referees and indeed, this is how things work in most sports: the lines drawn on the field may be precise and unchangeable, but when it comes to judgments about whether a hit was delivered with intent to injure, or whether an infraction was deliberate or accidental, there is no choice but to trust the referees to apply their judgment and, hopefully, get it right.

In sports we routinely see the downside to this; hardly a game goes by in any sport in which players and fans alike don’t find some calls questionable. When too many of those borderline situations end up going to one team or the other, questions of referee bias arise and often lead to outrage. Did he have an emotional allegiance to one team? A personal vendetta against someone on the other? Was he bribed?

These concerns loom equally large in poker, if not more so. Poker is a small world, and many tournament directors know the regular players personally. Even ignoring the possibility of outright corruption, it’s hard not to imagine directors going a little easier on players they’re friendly with than with unknowns or players who’ve argued with them in the past. This is especially true in cases where an immediate penalty rather than a warning amounts to an accusation of angle shooting, something which could be much more damaging to a friendship than the penalty itself.

Fuzziness is inevitable

Despite those concerns, my opinion on the matter is much the same as Negreanu’s, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, some degree of fuzziness is inevitable. Even if the floor staff themselves are required to apply the letter of the law, there will inevitably be situations in which it comes down to the dealer or to the other players to decide whether or not to call the floor staff over in the first place.

In the situation we’re discussing, of a player deliberately flipping over his cards to show them, the answer may well be that the floor is always called, but there are inevitably going to be situations which are not so clear. Let’s say a player is tossing their cards too high when mucking, such that there’s a risk other players will catch a glimpse. How high is too high? Even if the rules specified a maximum mucking height in inches, it would still come down to the dealer’s estimation of whether the cards flew above that imaginary line.

No matter how far we go in trying to make a totally objective ruleset, we’ll never entirely stomp out fuzziness and the need for someone, somewhere to exercise their judgment. And if we went too far in pursuit of that impossible ideal, we’d end up with something resembling our real-life legal system, requiring a library and a lawyer to determine what should be done in the more complex and borderline cases.

Hard rules lead to angles

More importantly, it’s not fuzziness of rules that leads to most of the more common abuses, but rather their rigidity. Consider the classic trick of tossing in, say, a 5000 and a 100 chip and then announcing “600″ a moment later. This angle shot works because the player knows that he can kick and scream and insist all he wants that he thought that the 5000 was a 500, and it won’t make a difference: the dealer has no choice but to rule that the 5100 bet stands. The player can therefore put on an act of being unhappy or nervous about having bet so much in order to induce his opponents to call or raise.

That’s not to say that I think that betting errors should be subject to dealer discretion – fuzziness would open a much larger can of worms in that case. I’m merely using the example to point out that it’s the rigid predictability of the ruling which allows the player to attempt the angle with impunity.

As others have pointed out on Twitter, following Negreanu’s speech, the same thing can happen if other rules are enforced indiscriminately. If penalties are imposed frequently and consistently, then players may begin trying to trick opponents into committing an error and receiving a penalty for a variety of reasons: for instance, if the person is hard to play against, it’s likely to tilt them, or the opponent has some reason to dislike them, perhaps due to trash talk at the table or a bad beat.

Going back to the example of revealed cards, a player could for instance protect their hand with one chip and then, later in the hand, shove his remaining stacks forward without saying anything. The opponent would usually see this and assume an all-in; if she called and turned over her hand, the first player could then “discover” that he had “accidentally” left the card-protecting chip back and wasn’t really all-in after all. The tournament director would then have no choice but to penalize the calling player even though it was her opponent who was acting in bad faith.

Transparency is key

So far, I’m just summarizing and agreeing with things that have been said by others, but what I would add is that I believe that the solution to corruption in general is increased transparency, and that is just as true in poker as elsewhere. The World Series of Poker official rules state (Rule 107.E) that the Rio keeps a written record of all penalties assigned throughout the series, and I imagine this is common practice for other series as well. I’m not sure whether this list is available to members of the public on request – it doesn’t seem to be available online at any rate.

But if such lists were kept consistently by all major tournaments and made easily available to the public, then they could be collated into a database that would both help to reduce angle shooting and reassure players of the integrity of tournament staff. You would be able to see, for instance, if a particular player gets warned for the same infraction at some point in almost every tournament she plays, yet never does it a second time to get a penalty, which might indicate that it is not being done by accident. On the other hand, tournament directors could compare their own warning and penalty rates with those of their peers and seek to change their approach if they find that they’re much laxer or stricter than the norm. Players could also monitor the various tours and directors for anomalies which could indicate biased application of the rules, whether unconscious or intentional.

As a transparency advocate, I frequently end up debating with privacy advocates, so I’m well aware that this idea will not be popular with everyone. I’m also aware that it’s not likely to happen any time soon. I’m merely pointing out that the risk of corruption created by the need to interpret rules is not even a necessary evil, in that it can be largely mitigated if not eliminated simply by “watching the watchmen,” as the saying goes. Compared to the problems inherent in rigid enforcement, giving tournament directors the leeway to interpret rules situationally is, to me, a no-brainer.

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

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