Poker Mind In Depth Part XIII: H.O.R.S.E.

[Content Disclosure: Poker Mind In Depth series]

A slight departure today from our usual format for this series. Today I want to focus on a particular glitch in the WSOP scheduling and how that anomaly affects professional poker players and in particular our three feature players. The issue is the delayed start of the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. tournament.

Just as a review for those who missed it. The $50,000 buy-in H.O.R.S.E. championship tournament began this past Friday. The event was scheduled to start at noon. At starting time there were approximately 30 players registered for the tournament but only 2 were actually on the tournament floor. A floor decision, made at the highest level, was to delay the start of the tournament for one hour.

Now there are a lot of factors that went into this decision. The basic one being: How do you begin a tournament when you have no players and no clear idea how many players will eventually register? Because of the current late registration rules, any player can show up during the first two levels of an event and sign-up. The 50K HORSE has 90 minute levels, so a player had until at least 3 PM to join the tournament. With the delayed starting time pushed out to the world on Twitter and the Internet, players could easily find out they had until 4 PM to register. The delay actually made that aspect of the late reg. process even worse. But more importantly, the entire process allows certain players to have an advantage over other players. I am going to attempt to focus on these unfair advantages.

You should be aware that this controversy could only happen in a tournament full of professional players. A $1500 noon event has the same late registration rules has no chance at this level of confusion. The professionals generally play the 5 PM events and this year the signs of this problem have been growing week by week. The late registration process has gotten completely out of hand at the 2009 WSOP. For the 5 PM events the late reg. numbers have growth each day until recently over 50% of the eventual field were involved in late registration. This causes all kinds of organizational problems for the tournament floor staff. How do you seat the players in a 300 entrant event, when only 140 of them are there at the start. Do you seat the late entrants at new tables? If so, do you wait for 9 or 10 of them to arrive or do you seat each one and pull players from established tables to begin at once? They tried leaving empty seats at starting tables, but then the on-time players have to play early levels short-handed.

But let's get back to the 50K HORSE. At 12:05, Mike Matusow walks onto the tournament floor and says: "Where the hell is the tournament?" He and other players, as they arrive, are told of the announced delay but that does not satisfy any of the early arrivals. In Mike's particular case there is the matter of his medication. Mike's well documented use of prescription medication means that he has to go through a regular pre-tournament ritual. He gets up at a certain time based on the tournament schedule. He eats, does his workout and takes his medications based on when he will be playing. He is upset that without notice the tournament schedule has been altered.

Right there with Mike is Phil Ivey. Phil also showed up at 12:0-something and he is having a long and vigorous conversation with the tournament floor director and then the WSOP TD Jack Effel. Phil's complaint is that he left what was apparently a very lucrative poker game to go home and shower to be on time for the 50K HORSE and now there is no tournament to play. Phil pointedly asked if the tournament was actually going to start at one PM. He pointed out that the same people who were telling him this, were telling him yesterday that the event started at noon. Once again, a player acted based on the schedule only to find the tournament was rescheduled because of the WSOP's own poorly written registration policy.

Less it appears that every professional thinks the tournament should have started on time. I spoke with at least three pros who actually got calls about the delay and stayed in bed for an extra hour that at least one of them dearly needed to recover from a late night cash game. Again, one player gaining an unfair advantage over other players based on a rule change made on the fly without informing all the participants.

Mind you, the WSOP staff has the right and indeed the responsibility to act in the best interest of the game. So it does come down to a simply question: How do you start a tournament with two players in the room? Thirty players signed up from an eventual field of 95? Yes, the WSOP through Commissioner Jeffery Pollack are promising changes for next year, but will the "fix" be about what some players want or will it be about eliminating advantage?

I discovered about 12:55, Daniel Negreanu had also arrived on time for the HORSE tournament. When he saw the empty room and heard the announcement, he headed for the lounge to get a short nap. He too had altered his schedule to make it to the Rio on time and, in fact, this was one of "those mornings" where Daniel could have used the extra hour to get a bit more sleep. Once he was in the tournament room, Daniel was more than vocal about the decision to delay the start time and clearly and forcefully pointed out that this disadvantages the players who actually did show up on time.

By 12:50 the Tournament Director and staff were deluged with player complaints, except from the players who were still in bed or at breakfast or in a jacuzzi or doing whatever they do to prepare for a big tournament like the 50K HORSE. And that is the point. Many professional poker players have rituals and routines they follow to prepare for their job. Imagine showing up at your workplace at 8:30 AM and being told, the building will not open today until 9:30 and oh by the way, you still have to work your eight or nine or ten hours. Sorry but we changed the rules.

Fans and casual poker players tend to overlook the job aspects of the professional poker players life. One aspect of the job is preparation, another is time management. Having those altered to the advantage of some and the disadvantage of others is simply improper and unfair.

At one o'clock after introductions and apologies from Commissioner Pollack and TD Effel, the big HORSE tournament got underway with a packed rail of poker fans. Mike Matusow is still complaining about the dealy during the first few hands and from the next table Phil Ivey has this conversation with Mike.

"Mike think about the next hand."

"I am but this was wrong."

"Just the next hand Mike."

"Hey, you were pissed about this."

"I wasn't pissed, it just happened. Besides its an advantage to you."

"But it shouldn't be."

"It's an advantage Mike, use it."

"That's just the point Phil, players shouldn't get an advantage because of a floor decision."

And there it was hanging out there for everyone to hear. Players should not gain an advantage over other players because of a floor decision. Either you have a rule or you don't. Either the tournament starts at noon or it doesn't. Either the floor rulings are in the best interest of the game or they are not. For next year, the late registration rule needs to change and be written down and not altered. Make a rule, stick with the rule and if it needs changing, then you change it after the Series is over and not on the fly from the floor of an event.

You might notice that the originator of the late arrival, Mr. Phil Hellmuth, is not mentioned in this piece. First of all, Phil did not play the 50K HORSE because he was involved in an earlier event and made a strong, if short-stacked run at bracelet #12. But you should know that Phil, who pioneered the late arrival, is not necessarily a late register. He often registers early and is blinded off until he arrives. You see there are good reasons to arrive late for an event. The simple one is that a noon WSOP tournament runs until 2 AM or fourteen hours. If you skip the first two levels and the breaks, you can change your day from fourteen hours of play to eleven, that is a significant adjustment.

On time registrations, do not cause a problem for the floor staff. Your chips are at the table and you are simply blinded off until you arrive. Your seat is taken and the staff knows the seat is sold. Late registration not only gets a full stack under current WSOP rules but also the staff has no idea if they need to prepare for an additional ten or twenty or ninety players. Yes, they will put in a rule change or two for next year.

Here is the Poker Shrink's advice, already given in person to tournament staff.
-players will complain no matter what changes you make;
-listening to professional players is one thing, being manipulated by them is another;
-the best interest of the game will never be the same as the best interest of every single player;
-write a rule and stick with it;
-in a situation with one group of rule-makers and another group of rule-followers, there will always be a tendency of the followers to bend the rules, if they can. The more you let them 'work' the rules the more advantage one small group will have over every one else;
-it matters less what the rule is than that there is a rule.