After last night’s installment of Let’s Watch Paint Dry the World Series of Poker Main Event on ESPN, the poker world was reminded that they have a tanking problem. The problem was due in large part to two players at the final table, Pierre Neuville and Ofer Zvi Stern, who were taking a completely unnecessary amount of time to make what appeared to be simple decisions.
The fact that Stern and Neuville were sitting side-by-side made it all the more agonizing to watch as the pre-flop decisions from that corner of the table would eat up 40-60 seconds every single hand. Contrast this with the alacrity the next two players, Joshua Beckley and Max Steinberg, made their decisions, and one of modern poker’s biggest problems was on full display.
Neuville’s and Stern’s tanking turned what is supposed to be poker’s showcase event into a five hour presentation on why poker is boring and should be avoided at all costs. Instead of someone tuning in and feeling inspired by the idea of playing poker for millions of dollars on TV, anyone who channel surfed their way to ESPN or ESPN2 last night and watched even 30 minutes of the broadcast (about 6 hands at the pace they were playing) was likely left with a singular thought, “this is why I don’t play poker.” It was slow, it was boring, and for 95% of the broadcast, the atmosphere was similar to a funeral.
The rise of the tank
There are certainly reasons to tank, but the type of tanking I’m talking about is grandstanding; tanking not because you are legitimately pondering what to do, but for some other reason. It used to be players would only grandstand when they were caught with their hand in the cookie jar, and didn’t want their opponents to realize they were bluffing, or playing cheese. In a pre-hole card cam era, it was a way to guard potential information about your hand – although, it was often obvious when someone was Hollywooding.
In the modern poker world some poker pros try to avoid giving away any information, no matter how small or insignificant. One of the ways these players believe they are protecting information is through the timing of their decisions, even the mundane ones. So instead of simply open-folding a terrible hand, they look at the cards for a two count; pull the cards back and place a chip on them as if they’re planning on playing them; count to five and methodically replace their chip and muck their hand. And some even take longer!
The belief is, that by being consistent with every hand, their opponent’s won’t know what they intend to do until they cut out their chips to raise, or muck their hand.
First, there is no information to be had if someone looks at their cards and mucks so long as the person is acting in turn. If I’m first to act, look at my cards (a 9 and a 2) and insta-muck, my opponent’s cannot use this against me. Everyone gets dealt crap cards. Even if I’m dealt 9Ts the next round and ponder playing the hand for a split second before mucking, or if I’m dealt KK and place a chip on my cards before cutting out the chips for my bet, it doesn’t help them. In fact, I’d argue there is a higher chance of giving off information about your hand strength by trying to take the same amount of time with every single hand, as the longer you take the more likely you are to give something away, especially when you don’t have anything to consider when you intend to fold so you may unconsciously act slightly different.
It should be noted this is mainly a tournament problem, as cash games players in all but low stakes pay time to the cardroom instead of rake, so wasting time (playing fewer hands per hour) actually costs you money.
As I mentioned in the opening, this excessive tanking is one of the things that is systematically killing televised poker, and keeping potential players away from the poker tables. Nobody sitting at home wants to be the next Ofer Zvi Stern. A guy who irritates the entire table and comes off terribly on TV
Is it time for a shot clock?
Last night’s antics have renewed the calls for a shot clock. Unfortunately, a shot clock will not solve the underlying problem, and depending on how it’s integrated, it could exacerbate the situation or create a whole new set of problems, even if we institute a cumulative, chess-style clock.
First, with a standard shot clock, you’d have to determine what an adequate amount of time to make a difficult decision is, and even if you feel it’s only 20 seconds, the tanker will be able to waste 20 seconds every hand, which is still a lot. Essentially you are telling tankers, “take this amount of time,” which they will suddenly start doing to the fullest.
Additionally, even with the chess clock, think of how many calls for “FLOOR!” will ring out as players wait to the last second to make a decision, and arguments erupt over the precise timing.
And those are just two potential problems a shot clock could create.
So what is the solution?
The solution is to make anyone who unnecessarily tanks feel as uncomfortable as possible. Let them know that because they are wasting the table’s time by waiting 20 seconds to make the most mundane decision that you will call the clock on them very quickly when they are faced with a difficult decision. It’s also important for the other players, and more importantly, the commentators, to continually call them out for their slow play in order to make sure the viewing audience understands these players are the exceptions and not the norm in poker.
The last thing we want is people coming into the game thinking tanking is SOP.
Let me be clear, I’m not interested in removing thoughtful contemplation from the game, but when you’re dealt 8/2 under the gun and don’t insta-muck your hand you’re wasting time. I’m perfectly ok with someone taking five minutes on a legitimate decision, but wasting just five seconds on every pre-flop decision is terrible for the game.
If you’re wasting time and hurting the growth of poker you need to own it, and live with the stigma.
In my opinion, an excessive tanker is as bad for the game as an angle shooter, and they should have a similar reputation in the poker community.
A PSA for pros who tank without cause
If everyone played at the pace of Beckley and Steinberg it would be a lot easier to sell poker as something fun to do. And if the general public viewed poker as something fun to do, there would be a lot more money to be won.