There’s a really important addition to this–Dan Smith’s comments–so please make sure you read the bit at the bottom too. This is reported as it was seen, and Smith added his side afterwards.
I think we may have reached a watershed moment in live poker tournaments, and I suspect many people will say they had seen it coming.
It now appears that it’s pretty much accepted for players to stall (ie, slow the action deliberately) when approaching a major bubble. It may even now be considered a legitimate, optimal tactic.
Here in Malta, with 20 players remaining in the single-day €10,000 High Roller tournament, play on at least one table had slowed to a crawl. Seventeen were due to be paid, with a min-cash at slightly more than €20,000, and nobody was prepared to miss out.
There’s no way to dodge the issue and keep this anonymous: the principal culprit was Dan Smith. (Or it appeared to be at the time. Again, see below for Smith’s comments.) Nobody is ever going to claim Smith is some kind of angle-shooter, but nor is he a newbie. He has nearly $10 million in recorded live tournament winnings and he knows the rules, both those written the rule book and those that are unsaid.
Yet it’s also fair to say that every time Smith was dealt cards and action moved to him, he would peek at them, glance at the tournament clock, fiddle with his chips for a loooong period, glance at the tournament clock, fiddle with his chips, and then slowly fold (unless an opponent called the clock on him first).
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It was beginning to get under the skin of Christopher Frank, among others, who had a big stack at that table. But Isaac Haxton, who was also there, was not alone in seeming to understand that what Smith was doing probably made a lot of sense.
(I must add here that there may have been others doing the same thing on other tables. I was only watching Smith’s table.)
As you might expect, the mutterings of discontent grew gradually louder until the point that a couple of the players asked the floor-man whether they could play hand-for-hand. It’s the only sure-fire way of levelling the playing field across three tables, but tournament staff don’t often like to change a published schedule, so the floor-man had to refer the request up the chain of command.
The floor-man paused the tournament clock while a phone call was made that brought the TD duo of Nick O’Hara and Luca Vivaldi to the table. After hearing the gist of the complaints and requests from the floor-man, O’Hara and Vivaldi conferred.
“Meanwhile, can we get a clock over here please?” Frank said, noting that Smith still had his cards.
Smith folded, at which point Haxton observed, “Given you continued to tank even after the clock was paused, I’m guessing it was a real decision.”
As O’Hara and Vivaldi discussed their strategy for dealing with this, Haxton and Smith were joined with another of the floor staff in running through the options for action in this kind of circumstance.
Smith was prominent in the discussions and was the first person to bring up one oft-suggested solution: that the cards of a serial staller are put to one side for a tournament official to look at, who can then judge whether the “decision” being pondered was legitimate. If it was deemed to be frivolous, the staller is given a penalty.
But Haxton was among those to air a pretty legitimate problem with this solution. In short, who can really say whether someone was properly thinking about making a move, rather than cynically winding a clock down?
“How tilting would it be if you were in some real horrible spot that the table didn’t understand?” Haxton said, to general agreement.
“I like the idea of it, but it’s difficult,” the floor-man said.
Frank interjected too. “You would have to treat pros and other players differently,” he said.
“Unless you’re closing the action and you’ve some horrible hand that you’re never going to call with,” Smith said, describing perhaps the only time when a judgment of this kind would be straightforward.
He then offered his services to the tournament staff. “If ever I’m not in a tournament and you need someone to judge these things…” Smith said.
O’Hara and Vivaldi had decided what they were going to do and it fell to O’Hara to spell things out to all three tables. He said that they had had a request to put the tournament hand-for-hand and that was what they had decided to do.
Jason Mercier was first to respond. “I think it’s the most fair,” Mercier said.
Jason Wheeler added, “There was already stalling starting.”
Haxton then suggested they should ask if anybody had any objections, but Vivaldi observed that it would be pretty difficult for someone to pipe up if they knew the weight of opinion was against them, and that was why they had discussed it and come to a decision.
Mercier responded: “If someone says that they didn’t want to go hand-for-hand, it’s because they are stalling.”
Vivaldi said it wasn’t necessarily the case, and said that if they were going to ask for a vote, it would be anonymous. But he also said that it wasn’t up for debate: the decision was clear.
Smith suddenly piped up: “If we’re voting, who wants a 20-way chop?” He raised his hand in the air.
So without significant objection, that they would indeed go hand-for-hand.
The strategy worked because they were quickly down to the bubble proper, with Smith among those to perish. Juha Helppi, yesterday’s runner up in the €25,000 High Roller, then became the stone bubble.
That was just about a standard way to get into the money, regardless of buy-in, structure or stalling. But I wonder whether the general sense of acceptance and the pervading tolerance of the stalling signals something more significant.
Is stalling now genuinely a legitimate part of the game? I’ve always watched the high roller events to determine new trends, which then gradually spread across the full gamut of tournament play. There’s nothing new in stalling, of course, but I’ve never before seen it by so prominent a player, nor being so widely accepted.
Who knows. But maybe shot clocks and the like aren’t exactly too far away after all.
Dan Smith’s comments: Dan Smith approached PokerStars Blog after play wrapped in the Main Event, wanting to explain what was going on during the action reported above. I wasn’t recording the conversation, but he made several key points that weren’t clear at the time of writing.
First up, Smith was unequivocal: “I wasn’t stalling,” he said. He told me that he had a legitimate decision to make with a hand that was definitely borderline whether to shove. (The fact that Haxton noted this was mentioned in the original report. Smith told me the hand he had, but I will not publish it.)
Smith also said that his slow decision making was for only two hands, both of which were legitimate. He said that he was not even the slowest player at the table.
He agreed that there had indeed been a discussion, and that he was (at that time) at the centre of it, but wanted to make clear that he was not deliberately stalling.
The rest of the post stands as written. We’re happy to make the addition and are grateful for Smith for clarifying.
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