Uniform Poker Rules

Brian Alspach

Poker Digest Vol. 4, No. 12, June 1 - 14, 2001

I was about to sit down and write part IV of the series on board probabilities when I happened to find a large envelope from Poker Digest in my mailbox containing a 74-page booklet entitled ``Official Rules & Procedures Manual for Poker'' by Ron Kramer. The accompanying letter from June Field prompted me to interrupt the series on boards and insert a column about the movement toward uniform rules for poker.

Anyone who has read my columns will not be surprised when I admit that when it comes to mathematics, I am a details person. The same readers may be surprised to learn that when it comes to other issues, such as uniform rules for poker, I am much more interested in the broad picture. Let's take a look at the three main issues surrounding the introduction of uniform poker rules. In order of importance, they are:

1) Industry-wide acceptance of a uniform set of rules; 2) An amendment mechanism; 3) The rules themselves.

First, let's be very blunt about industry-wide acceptance of a uniform set of rules. If the owner of a small cardroom or the manager of a large cardroom asks, ``Why should I adopt this particular set of rules?'' how does one answer? Personally, I don't think there is a compelling reason pushing. I am reminded of the chaos in timekeeping in the 19th century. Every town had its own time. Town clocks were set so that twelve o'clock noon was actually midday. This worked fine until the advent of the railroads. The railroads quickly assumed domination in intercity and interstate commerce, leading to considerable pressure to rationalize timekeeping. Eventually, there was a major international gathering; the prime meridian was chosen (in spite of the French) and the current time zone system was created.

There were two forces in operation which lead to the change in timekeeping. One was strong economic pressure toward making the change, and the second was a gathering of people who had prestige and influence backing them, as well as the establishment of an official body to govern the change. We have neither force at work in the world of poker. I see no strong economic pressure on cardrooms to adopt a uniform rule system, and there is no official body for poker to spearhead a movement in that direction. There have been some fine individual efforts to produce a set of rules (Tom Bowling, Ron Cramer, Bob Ciaffone and Mike Caro have made notable efforts), but it is extremely difficult for individuals, or groups of individuals, to bring about their adoption.

Do I believe anything can be done to address the problem of industry-wide acceptance? As far as economic pressure is concerned, I see this coming about only if there is an infusion of external money via corporate sponsorship for poker tournaments. That would catch the attention of many of the decision makers. Even then, unless there was a tournament sanctioning mechanism in place, individual cardrooms could carry on independently with corporate sponsorship and ignore pressure for uniform rule adoption.

That bring me to an important point. The United States needs a strong official poker organization. Such an organization would have several roles to play. One role would be to sanction tournaments. If corporations would provide sponsorship only for sanctioned tournaments, then there would be some economic pressure on cardrooms to adopt uniform rules. Such an organization should then get together with the European Poker Players' Association and the Canadian Poker Players Association (I'm president of this group) to draft the rules. If the rules came out of such a union, there would be an extra sense of legitimacy and broad representation.

I am not optimistic about a strong United States poker organization. By its very nature, poker tends to attract individualists and they are not always adept at organizing. I laud the individuals who have spent time producing rule systems, but first there has to be wide acceptance of adopting them.

Let me move to my second point about an amendment mechanism. Another advantage of having an organization behind a set of rules is that this implies the existence of a mechanism for changing rules that do not work. It is virtually impossible to write a set of rules for something as complex as poker without writing something that turns out to be done better another way. Over time the game or conditions under which the game is offered evolve and there must be a way to adjust the rules accordingly. Having an amending procedure in place also helps sell the adoption of the rules because people will understand that if something doesn't work, it can be changed. The amending procedure is really as important as the rules themselves.

As far as the rules are concerned, I would be willing to abide by a set of rules produced by an organization that ensured broad and expert representation, as well as an adequate amending procedure. Here are a few things to consider: There could be one rule system for large cardrooms and a slightly adjusted system for smaller cardrooms. Also, the system could include some flexibility. For instance, let's suppose you are deciding how to punish a player who has behaved badly. There are some cardrooms that can handle a two-week banishment of a regular player. But I have played in one-table cardrooms where it is essentially impossible to banish a player. The two cardrooms need to be able to handle these situations differently.

There are many complex issues involved in instituting a uniform set of rules for poker. Perhaps my thoughts on the topic have given you something to think about.

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