Friday, 1 November 2013

Are jobsworth rule makers sucking the joy out of poker asks Nick Wealthall?

“I have a tremendous problem with authority,” mumbles Woody Allen in Annie Hall as he tears up his own driving licence rather than hand it over to the waiting traffic cop. By the way, if I see another film described as “Woody Allen’s return to form”, someone is going to get hurt.
Like Woody, I also have a tremendous problem with authority, always have had.

We’re not talking “flick the lit cigarette onto the gasoline trail that ignites and destroys a building while I walk away from the explosion in slow-mo without looking back” level of rebellion against authority – instead, think more preppy, smug middle-class dissent.
At school a teacher once screamed at me “Why do you think you’re better than everyone else?” and I shouted back, “I don’t - I just think I’m better than you.”

I was 11. As you can imagine teaching me was just a delight.

Over the years the dickishness has been massively reduced but not totally eliminated – a basic problem with anyone telling me what to do or demanding compliance still exists. I wish I could say I’m working on it, as it does make me utterly unemployable, but it’s a pretty deep-seated problem. I even rebel against my own authority. I write notes and reminders for myself of things I could and should do and then delete them while feeling contempt for the idiot that wrote them.

The fact is that poker attracts people who don’t respect, or want anything to do with, authority figures, bosses, or any kind of structure where they can be told what to do. And if you’re not one of those types, then I can pretty much guarantee that it appeals to that small part of you that wants to rebel. Even the act of playing poker is a rebellion, whether it’s a small strategy to avoid doing jobs around the house, or full-scale poker rebellion, like quitting your job and playing for a living, or playing in semi-legal games.

Poker offers the promise of pitting your wits against your opponents, in a battle with the forces of luck, to make your own way in the world. More than that, it offers the chance to experience a different reality; one where you are your own boss and answerable to no one. John Fox expressed the dream best in the title to his now ancient book, Play Poker, Quit Work and Sleep till Noon! It could and should have the subtitle While Giving the Middle Finger to the Man.

You’re reading about this because I received my first ever penalty at a live poker table this week.

I took it really really, really well.

OK, I didn’t. I took it like a spoilt child. It had the same effect on me that getting told off has had on me since I was five; it made me want to be naughtier. I went from being a perfectly well-mannered, compliant player to spending all of my table thought-time concocting ways to bend the rules, have digs at everyone in charge and see how easy it would be to get another, bigger penalty.

My penalty was for folding my hand out of turn. I spent several minutes debating whether to invent something way more exciting but, like I said, I’m involved in a very quiet, middle-class form of rebellion over here. I was forced to miss two hands and mutter invectives against “The Man” (the mutterings were my own and not part of the official penalty procedure).

I’ll be honest, I had no clue that folding out of turn was a punishable offence by anything other than a tut from the dealer, but then everything seems to be changing in poker, especially tournament poker these days. Anyway, I broke a rule and did my time (a painful 95 seconds), but it did get me reflecting on how the increasing amount of “rules” are affecting the game.

Originally there were almost no rules in poker apart from the basic structure of the game. This worked perfectly for the few professional players who were really professional thieves and angle-shooters whose mission it was to find inexperienced players with money and do everything they could to relieve them of it.

It seems things have swung too far the other way. It seems the rule-makers have their fun vacuum cleaners trained steadily on games of poker and are sucking the joy out of them. The problem is that, to steal from Max Weber, once a bureaucracy exists it will only expand, as it has to continue to justify its existence. Or to put it another way, now that we have rule-makers in poker, they will keep making rules because that is their function, even though they’re seeking to deal with situations that aren’t actually problems. This creates the wrong atmosphere for poker games. Poker should not feel like school and it shouldn’t make us feel that, as players, our only role is to sit down, shut up and play our hands.

Look, I think we can all agree that my tendency to metaphorically rip up my own driving licence rather than hand it over to a traffic cop means I’m the wrong person to judge which rules should or should not exist or how they should be enforced. But I do firmly believe poker should be as much fun for the players as is humanly possible, and that the biggest priority should be that it’s an enjoyable experience. The integrity of the game is always cited as the reason for new rules but, in reality, the integrity of the game is rarely a big problem. Poker games are very effectively self-policed by players and dealers at the table and when there is a dispute – well, that’s when good floor people are completely invaluable.

As soon it’s a company paying for a prize pool then they can make the rules, but while it’s the players who have their own money at stake, we should be involved in a big way in deciding the rules and any rules should be made with our experience in mind.

Right, I’m off to fight the power. I might run the wrong way down an upward moving escalator. That’ll show ’em.

Tags: Nick Wealthall, rules