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Daniel - Poker Journal

The Table Talk Rule

01 Aug 2011

During this years WSOP main event the floor man was heavily enforcing a TDA rule that essentially says you are not allowed to disclose the contents of your hand. The TDA rule has been in place for 7 years, but I'd never actually seen it enforced. It is such a flawed rule that no TD would dare enforce it in any marginal situation.

The problem with this rule, is that the TDA cannot agree as a group as to what constitutes breaking this rule. There is far too much wiggle room for a floor person to rule one way or the other, which actually puts even more stress on the floor staff, and makes there job that much harder.

To prove my point, I'd be willing to wager a hefty sum of money on the following: Matt Savage can pick any 10 tournament directors in the world to do a simple quiz. I'll come up with 10 scenarios, and if all the floor staff agree on what constitutes an infraction of the rule, I lose. If the tournament directors are given the SAME information, but don't all enforce the rule the same way, then Houston... we have a problem.

I asked Linda Johnson if she wanted a piece of this bet and she smartly declined. So the problem here is this: if the TDs cannot agree on how to implement this rule, how can a player ever understand what is OK to say and what is not? They play in one tournament and Matt Savage says, "That's fine you can say that" then a week later play in David Lamb's event and he says, "That's a penalty." The goal of the TDA has been to standardize rules, but they have made a grave error with this rule because it cannot be standardized the way it's currently written, because every floor person will rule identical situations differently.

That point alone demands that the rule should be changed, but don't worry, I have plenty more. On a recent radio show Matt Savage and I discussed this rule and I quizzed him on various situations. He contradicted himself repeatedly and backtracked on original responses to situations. For example, I sent him the following question: Is it OK if I say this on the river when a player is thinking of calling, "You really thinking about calling with Ace high? Good Luck with that." Matt's answer "Penalty." He later flip flopped and said it's fine.

That same day he was asked if the following was OK: A player moves all in and a player is thinking of calling, "I'll take it here man I don't want to race." In this case he says that's fine. The problem is, if you enforce the rule the way it's written, this should NOT be OK because you've revealed information about your hand. If you had Aces, you wouldn't be racing, so now your opponent knows (if you are telling the truth) that you don't have aces.

On question after question, the answers become more and more confusing which leaves a player with only one option: Do not say ANYTHING during a hand or you could receive a penalty.

Facing a river bet you say one of the following:
"I can only beat a bluff."
"Gosh, I've had like 10 big pairs today and get screwed every time."
"I can't beat a flush but you might be betting top pair here."
"I can't beat a set, but I have a pair of deuces crushed."
"I had the best hand before the flop for sure."
"I have the same pair I started with."

In these cases, the player never reveals the exact hand that they have, but they do give information away about their range of hands. Which one of those statements warrant a penalty?


A player is thinking about calling you and you say:
"I either have a set of Kings or Queen high. It's 50/50 you should flip a coin."
"You don't seriously think I'd bet ace high in this spot do you? Ha, I know you have like deuces and are trying to be a hero. You silly boy."
"Don't be silly son, you can live to fight another day. Muck that piece of trash."

Slightly different scenario, where a player may be coaxing his opponent into either a call or a fold. Which one of these statements warrant a penalty?

This rule is supposed to protect players, but I gave Matt another scenario where I was shocked by his answer. It's so obviously unjust: 65 year old man, tournament newbie has pocket aces. River comes a flush card and his opponent goes all in. The man mumbles to himself, "Oh man every time I get these stupid aces I always lose!" Now he thinks for a bit, then makes the call. I asked Matt Savage if he would penalize this guy and Matt's response? "Absolutely, he deserves a penalty." I can't believe Matt, or anyone really feels this guy genuinely deserves a penalty. He's clearly not colluding, and his comment, out of frustration, is clearly innocent. I can't believe Matt would actually penalize this guy, but this rule would rightfully allow him to do so.

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Is revealing your range of hands considered revealing the contents of your hand? If so, is that OK? If it's OK, then how narrow can you reveal your range to be? Is it OK to say, "I can beat bottom pair but I really think you have top set." Is it OK to say "I can beat JJ but I can't beat AA." In the first case my exposed range is between bottom pair and top set. In the second example I am exposing the fact that I have QQ or KK.
Matt seems to be OK with some of this stuff, but not all. If I bet the river and say, "I either have a set of Kings or Queen high" Matt says that's a penalty, however, all I've done is revealed my RANGE of hands. Of course, I could be lying.

In not one of the example mentioned is collusion ever an issue. Over 99% of table talk is completely unrelated to collusion, which appears to be the one and only reason that the TDA added this rule. The biggest lie that's being told is that if you get rid of this rule, you make collusion legal. That is just not true. Collusion and soft play is illegal. It was before this rule was implemented, and I imagine it always will be.

If the players at the table and/or the floor staff suspect two players are colluding either with signals, verbally, or by blatantly soft playing each other, they should absolutely be penalized.

The other point they try to make is that if you allow table talk, everyone is all of a sudden going to start colluding with each other. Huh? I never colluded before this rule was implemented, and taking away this rule isn't going to make everyone feel like they have a liscense to cheat. Verbal collusion is illegal. Table talk, and revealing information about your hole cards doesn't equal collusion. In fact, verbal collusion is by far the least likely way two legitimate cheaters would ever cheat because it brings more attention to what they are doing.

The proper procedure for dealing with collusion was in place long before the existence of this rule. If two players are suspected of collusion, either the players at the table, the dealer, or the floor over seeing it, would investigate. The tournament director would take a look at both hands and either issue a warning, or if it's blatantly obvious, and a repeated offense, penalize the players involved in the collusion.

An example of blatant collusion would look something like this: Blinds 1000-2000 (300 ante) everyone folds to the small blind who has 200,000 in chips. The big blind has another 400 in chips after paying the 2000 big blind. The small blind folds! In this case, the players at the table should be VERY suspicious. The floor should be called. The floor then should take a look at the small blind's cards. It hardly matters in this case as he should put him all in even if he has 7-2 off suit. If the floor now sees a hand like A-10 he can remove any doubt whatsoever. This is pure collusion. If it's a more marginal case, the floor issues a stern warning and lets both players know that if anything like this happens again, they will be penalized. The rest of the players at the table will now have their eyes on any future suspicious behavior between these two players.

Matt also asserted that it's impossible to know the relationships between the various players in a tournament, but in fact, that is completely irrelevant. In the previous example, their relationship doesn't make a difference. They were colluding. Which brings me to my next important point: it is NOT OK for a player to collude with another by telling him he has AA, and then his opponent folds KK preflop. Fixing this awful rule would not change this fact.
If this happens, "Let it go man I have AA for real. Throw it away." Then his opponent folds, the players at the table should call the floor immediately. The floor should take a look at both hands. If it appears as those these two players may be colluding verbally, either a stern warning or a penalty should be given. Once again, these two players would be put on notice, and any future banter would be heavily scrutinized.

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Years ago I tried to explain the various scenarios where this rule crosses the line, but Matt doesn't want to understand it. There are times where certain table talk could be collusion, however, there are other times where revealing the strength of one's cards is clearly, and undeniably unrelated to collusion. For example:

Phil Hellmuth moves in on the river and it's up to me. Hellmuth isn't saying a word. Then I start yapping, "All in Philly boy? Why so much? Can you beat two jacks? Feels like you are getting greedy here man. I would have called 8000 with jacks in a heart beat but now you have me confused."

So I've revealed that I have jacks. Please TDA, please someone on the TDA please explain to me how this disclosure could in any way, shape or, form, be considered collusion? Can we not see the difference between the innocent table talk here that reveals my hole cards, and a guy on the money bubble saying, "Fold your hand I have aces and I'll show you. I just want to make the money." Can we really not see the distinction here? Surely you can.

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What We Lose as Players

Part of what makes poker interesting is the ability to look at your opponent and gauge whether or not they look like they are bluffing or not. It is undoubtedly a poker skill. This rule infringes upon a skill that's been used since poker's inception and is one of the sexier aspects to the game, not to mention the viewing public. I'd like to share three examples from my past:

In the WPT Championship years ago Russell Rosenblum raised under the gun and I called on the button with AQ. I was worried he had a strong hand since he raises from early position, but felt like I should at least see a flop. The flop came A-A-6. He made a small bet on the flop and I called. The turn was a 3 and he moved all in.

Immediately, I said, "Ugh I'm so stupid! That's why you aren't supposed to call raises with this stupid hand!" I looked over at Russell and he was giddy, almost giggling at me while I tortured myself. Then I pondered further, and said aloud, "I guess he could have AJ..." I looked over at Russell and he clammed up! He stopped breathing! It finally dawned on him that I had AQ and he was in trouble. He went from giddy thinking he had me beat, to instant panic mode and I could see it. I called and he showed A-T. He hit a 10 on the river but that's besides the point LOL. For those assuming I was going to call anyway, they don't know what poker was like 7 years ago. I had a good stack and didn't have to call here at all. I called solely based on the physical tell that my "shtick" provoked.

Was I colluding? Was I cheating? Was I harming anyone else in the tournament? Of course not, unless you believe in the merits of this TDA rule. Next example:

I've played with Sammy Farha a million times and he talks a lot. In a typical hand, he may look me straight in the face, after betting $40,000 and say, "I've got you beat, throw your hand away." I'd ask, "What do you have Sammy?" and he'd reply, "I have the nuts of course, you know I only play the nuts." It's up to me to decide if Sammy is telling the truth. Are we colluding? Of course not! If he was soft playing me he certainly wouldn't have bet $40,000!

Verbal collusion in a heads up pot NEVER EVER EVER happens on the river after a bet has been made. If two players were colluding, they wouldn't bet all in and then say, "Fold your hand man I have the nuts." If the two players were colluding, they just wouldn't bet.

The most controversial example is a hand I played in the NBC Heads Up vs Jerry Buss. In this event, you are allowed to show your opponent, one card, or both cards any time you want during a hand. Jerry Buss bet the rest of his stack against me and I found myself sitting with two pair. I confirmed with the floor staff that I could show my hand, and then I turned my cards over and looked over at Jerry. He didn't flinch, looked completely comfortable, and even smirked a bit. It wasn't a huge river bet, I had a good lead, but I folded my Queens and Nines because I knew Jerry had it based on how he reacted to seeing my hand. He was at ease. He showed Queens and Tens.

I'm not going to bother advocating for being able to show your cards in tournament poker or Matt will throw a hissy fit, but the point of this example was to show, and explain to people that these river decisions, and what you do to elicit information about your opponents hand is a poker SKILL that's been stripped from a players arsenal to protect against a completely unrelated issue: collusion.


The Compromise

I think it's clear that players have no way of feeling safe saying anything during a hand, so the way the current rule is written, it is precisely a NO TALKING rule. The only way to ensure that a floor man won't enforce this rule based on what you say, is complete silence. Anything you say could possibly be construed as revealing the contents of your hand. A simple. "I didn't like that card," could warrant you a penalty if an argument is made that it reveals to your opponent that you don't have the nuts.

So, while I'd like to see this rule abolished, as it should be, Matt has publicly stated that, "There is nothing Daniel or Phil Hellmuth can say to get this rule changed." The TDA's goals are to standardize rules and protect players, yet in this particular case they are completely ignoring the concerns of the overwhelming majority of poker players.

The best option is to completely eliminate this rule, but I'd accept a compromise that would still make it a penalty to disclose the contents of your hand in some cases, but not in others. I offer an amendment to the rule that would actually give it some clarity, and allow players the freedom to clearly understand what is OK to say and what is not:

"When a player is facing a bet in a heads up pot, he is free to say anything about the contents of his, or his opponents hand."

If you add that amendment to the already existing rule, it would make crystal clear to the players playing in TDA sanctioned events, that verbal collusion will NOT be tolerated, but they will have the freedom to use table talk to help them make important decisions throughout a tournament. Deal?

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I'd like to point out that I genuinely like and respect Matt Savage. He is a good guy and I agree with him about 92% of the time. I think he created the best tournament structures in the world, and being a structure geek, that's saying a lot. Those sctrucutes are a model for tournaments around the world to copy.
On the radio show I absolutely lost it! I've been trying to explain this to Matt for 5+ years and he has some kind of mental block on this issue, and that frustrated me to the point where I got heated. I genuinely apologize to Matt for the delivery of my points. I certainly didn't handle myself well during that discussion, but that doesn't negate the fact that I'm clearly on the right side of this debate.

The vast majortiy of the poker world agrees with me, both fans and players, and thanks to mediums like twitter, and poker forums, more voices can be heard to support changing this rule and the way it's currently being implemented.

My next blog will cover my two month trip overseas... I'll write that in a few days. I leave you with this video of hands I've played, with table talk, and wonder if ANY of it was "legal" based on this rule: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WO8k47_lP0M

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