Buzz has been building in brick and mortar casinos, online poker forums and Twitch chats: Does poker have a tanking problem?
In one corner, sometimes tanking 5 minutes when first to act preflop, is Jordan Cristos, the self-proclaimed “King of Tanking”. In the other corner, Kid Poker himself, Daniel Negreanu. The two exchanged blows on Twitter earlier this month over Cristos’s questionably long, frequent and ill-timed tanking.
David ‘Doc’ Sands and Marvin Rettenmaier are two other high-profile players taken to task for tanking excessively in the past, but nobody has come out as a more staunch defender of the practice as Cristos. At the same time, Negreanu and other high-profile poker figures like Matt Savage and Mike Sexton have clearly had enough, and the words “poker needs a shot clock” have been bandied about more than perhaps ever before. So what has changed?
It seems that as a new generation of poker players take to the felt, frequent and sometimes excessive tanking is seen as a legitimate way to gain an edge over both professional and recreational players. The attitude is: Every edge available is an edge worth taking, even if it’s to the detriment of the game itself. That’s what players are worried about — a few notorious players threaten to turn serial tanking into a full-blown trend, and if everyone tanked like that, we’d be playing four hands per hour.
With smartphones and tablets at the table, it seems sometimes that poker is slowing down even more thanks to the availability of an easy distraction. So what’s the right anti-tank weaponry for the game of poker to use in growing its popularity?
Why Not Just Call the Clock?
What makes the debate interesting is that both sides agree that tournament poker already has a solution for excessive tanking: Call the clock. So why is there a debate at all?
The most common reason given is that calling the clock is considered poor poker etiquette by many. Most tanking is done during legitimately critical decisions. Even if it’s frequent, without seeing cards, there’s usually no external way to verify whether the tanking is deep thought, Hollywooding or indeed intentional stalling to gain an advantage. Serial tankers rely on this ambiguity to get away with it. Players may also be worried that calling the clock on another player will cause them to call the clock on them during a critical decision. It gets the floor involved and creates disharmony and tension at the table. Long story short, it’s not something any poker player looks forward to.
That said, Negreanu’s longstanding policy on calling the clock is one that has received a lot of attention now as well as in the past, and many pros have adopted it themselves:
“I have a fair system, where when I sit in a poker tournament, the first time somebody tanks and takes longer than two minutes, I give them as long as they’d like — up to a point obviously. It gets to 10 minutes, I’m always calling the clock. But I give people one free tank. After that, I let them know that I’m calling the clock on them at two minutes, no matter what the situation, no matter what. I let them know this before I sit down at the table, so then at the two-minute mark I just automatically call the clock — doesn’t matter if it’s a big river situation or whatever, I just always do it. If they repeat it, and I have to call the clock on somebody again, now I’ll move it down to 1:45, then 1:30. I’ll continue to lower the number before I actually have to call the clock, and you know, maybe in some extreme cases it goes down to 30 seconds.”
While Negreanu is receptive to a shot clock, he makes a convincing point that perhaps what needs to change are not the rules, but the etiquette. If poker culture can police this epidemic from within by religiously calling the clock on problem players, it will encourage faster play.
Cultures are notoriously hard to change, poker players are notoriously stubborn. It’s unlikely etiquette will change overnight. Poker pro Andy Frankenberger and others have suggested ways to speed up the process, such as empowering the dealer to call the clock without having to call the floor, or requiring another player at the table to second the request before the clock is called. These ideas could theoretically create a less intimidating environment to call the clock, and it could be used effectively to stop the tanking trend.
The Shot Clock is Coming?
Perhaps the most prominent champion of the shot clock has been Mike Sexton, who announced two years ago that due to overwhelming demand, “the shot clock is coming” to the World Poker Tour. While shot clocks have already been used in prominent tourneys like the Aussie Millions, they still have yet to make it to major tournaments in the U.S.. Here are the rules Sexton floated last year:
1. Players will have 30 seconds to act on their hand. If they take no action in that time, their hand will be declared dead and will be automatically folded.
2. Because players do sometimes face tough decisions that require additional time, each player will receive two “Time Buttons” to use during each day’s play. Each button can be put in the pot before their original 30 second clock expires and they will then have an additional 60 seconds to act on their hand. “Time Buttons” may be used individually or in combination. Once used, “Time Buttons” will be collected by the dealer and no additional time will be available for the rest of the day’s play.
Though the shot clock idea has yet to be implemented in the WPT, famous UK poker room Dusk Till Dawn recently introduced a shot clock, which was received well by players. The Global Poker Masters World Cup will also use a 30-second shot clock, with CEO Alex Dreyfus saying it’s part of an effort to “sportify” poker and grow the game. It’s not surprising that the poker shot clock’s biggest supporters are also interested in making great poker TV, players under constant pressure is good for entertainment value if nothing else.
And that may be what is most at stake here: the growth and popularity of the game, which has everything to do with recreational players. And that’s where the shot clock scares some people.
It’s a Fishing Trip, Not a Salmon Run
By far, the biggest debate around the shot clock is whether it will scare amateur, recreational players away from playing tournaments, particularly at higher buy-ins against pros who naturally need less time to think.
This is a time when televised poker is virtually non-existent outside the WSOP and WPT, and the industry is struggling — competing with apps and video games — to attract a new generation to the game. Many think the shot clock might be the thing to kickstart a new live poker boom. Others fear it will scare recreational players away. While it makes for more intense competition, what fun is being put under even more pressure when having to make a critical decision?
WSOP Executive Director Ty Stewart is understandably cautious:
“Generally, we want the WSOP to be a fun, welcoming environment. We have very high percentages of recreational players, speaking dozens of languages, who have never played under a shot clock. We’re under the mentality that more penalties and more dead hands are bad. We are not going to rush to change anything until we see how people react to it.”
Serial tanker Marvin Rettenmaier has unsurprisingly come out against a shot clock, but not just for reasons related to scaring off recreational players. He worries that a shot clock might encourage some players to take the maximum amount of time for every decision, on every street. And he reiterates that poker already has a way to handle excessive tanking, saying, “Perhaps the real shift needs to be that it becomes more acceptable to call the clock earlier on opponents. I’ve had the clock called on me plenty of times and only a couple of times did I think it was out of line.”
The Future of Tank Warfare
While it’s hard to imagine a shot clock becoming a regular part of every poker tournament, it does seem like momentum behind the idea is growing, and we’ll be seeing more testing of the shot clock, more scrutiny on serial tankers, and more attention from tournament directors.
Where do you fit in on the great tanking debate? Does poker need a shot clock? More self-policing? A culture change? Is poker fine just the way it is? Have you ever had to call the clock? Share your thoughts with us on Twitter and Facebook.