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The Rules Guy: Should I Call The Clock?

by Card Player News Team |  Published: May 11, 2016

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Most players learn poker’s explicit rules pretty quickly: the “one-chip rule,” for example, or “verbal declarations are binding.” But not everyone seems to have digested the game’s vast book of unwritten rules, admonitions like “don’t berate other players (particularly bad ones)” or “say ‘nice hand’ even when you mean something entirely different.”

Enter “The Rules Guy.” TRG believes that civility and sportsmanship are never wrong, and that bad behavior (even when you’re simply trying to get an edge) is bad for the game. What’s wrong? What’s right? What’s an angle? Got a question about how to behave at the poker table (or a comment about a column)? Email TRG at editor@cardplayer.com.

We Don’t Need No Stinking Badges

Dear The Rules Guy:

No one likes stalling poker players – not even the stallers like stalling poker players – but am I the only one who feels like a complete d-bag when it comes to calling the clock? How should I handle this? What’s the etiquette here, TRG?

—The Quintessentially Nice Guy


Dear TQNG:

As a quintessentially nice guy, TRG feels your pain, knows your pain, and wants to unburden you of your pain. The pain comes from fear of confrontation, and unless you’re a super-aggressive person, situations that smack of confrontation can be challenging in poker and in life.

Of course, at one level, poker is all about confrontation. We “attack” the blinds. We “force” players to make tough decisions for all their chips or for their tournament lives. Poker rewards aggressive confrontation and those of us not predisposed to it can find it decidedly uncomfortable. To some players, even a standard raise or a straightforward position move can feel uncomfortably aggressive. But we learn to function this way in order to play the game; it comes easier for some.

Still, calling the clock can be over-the-top confrontational, and very “in your face.” It’s pretty easy to say, “That’s a string bet” or “Could you not show your cards to your neighbor?”—but calling the clock? Feels pretty aggro.

It should not be. It need not be. Two-time WSOP bracelet winner Keith Lehr has it exactly right in the Tweet posted above, heartily endorsed by Tournament Director extraordinaire Matt Savage. Poker doesn’t need a shot clock. Poker doesn’t need dealers checking the tournament clock, their watch, or their iPhone. Poker needs other players to step up and speak out.

Calling the clock is not a taboo; it’s a tool. Use it. Policing ourselves is part of the game.

There are lots of precedents for the notion of self-policing in poker. Players are expected to point out errors and call out misdeals, incomplete bets and string bets – and this is widely practiced and generally accepted. Players are even expected to point out the winning hand (among tabled hands) if the dealer misreads the cards. Calling the clock should be no more aggro than pointing out a string-bet. In fact, TRG believes it’s our obligation as players to make the game run smoothly and fairly; letting errors in dealing or betting go unnoticed does neither.

If we let players string-bet, we damage the game by opening an angle (of course, some players are just guilty of cluelessness; it won’t take them long to learn how to make a proper raise and take a step towards having a clue).

When we let players stall, by not saying anything, we facilitate their ability to slow the game down, which hurts winning players in the short-term and hurts the game as a whole in the long-term. How can poker attract new players in the “Twitch Era” when it’s played at a shuffleboard pace? Stalling may be good for the staller, but it’s horrible for poker, so call the damn clock, already.

But you must demonstrate judgment. You should call a string-bet 100 percent of the time if you see it (if you’re wrong, no real harm done), but you should not call the clock 100 percent of the time, because it won’t always be obvious that someone is stalling. Compare these two scenarios:

OK to call a clock: Level 2 of a deep stack tournament with blinds at 25-50, and the under-the-gun player has tanked for a full minute before folding in three consecutive orbits. This time: Call the clock after one minute (which is more slack than he deserves, but is clearly reasonable and completely justified).

Not OK to call a clock: On the final table bubble of a televised event, and the big blind is facing an all-in bet. If the big blind is tanking, there’s probably a good reason, and you should respect that.

Obviously, the right course of action at these extreme ends of the spectrum should be obvious to anyone. So TRG will clarify:

1. Give every player the benefit of the doubt for one or two hands or orbits. Trust TRG on this: This will give you a very clear sense of whether someone could be tanking.

2. Give every player in every hand one minute before you even consider calling the clock – and longer in the later stages of an event or at inflection points like the money bubble, the final table bubble, or big money jumps. Even in the early stages, you don’t want to be calling the clock all the time, which is a slow process itself. (TDA Rule #27: “A clock will be approved only after reasonable time passes.” “Reasonable” is reasonably vague.)

3. Be polite, not confrontational. Just ask the dealer for a clock or, if you must, say, “I’m sorry, but I’m going to ask for a clock here.” (Not that you have anything to apologize for! It’s just easier for quintessentially nice guys to say sorry first; you know, like the English who apologize for everything: Someone smashes their car in a parking lot. Posh English guy: “Sorry, was my motor in your way?”)

4. Don’t abuse the responsibility. Again: You’d call out a string-bet 100 percent of the time. You won’t be calling for a clock anywhere near that often.

Note that these guidelines suggest a reasonable length of time to wait before calling the clock. This does not and cannot mean you should take anywhere near a full 60 seconds to act in routine situations. Acting quickly – say from 10 to 15 seconds for routine decisions – is not only good for the game, it’s also good for you when you do need extra time. You’ll have banked some goodwill. If you’re a slow player or a particularly deliberate one, choose your tanking spots wisely. Concerned about timing tells? Learn how to make reasonable actions in 20–30 seconds. Most players will then give you whatever time you need (within reason); if you routinely use a minute or more, expect to have the clock called on you. Daniel Negreanu has said, in effect, he gives players one free pass, but then calls the clock quickly and often if they routinely tank.

We don’t need no stinking badges, and we don’t need no shot clock – if we all exercise our judgment and responsibility in keeping the game moving at a reasonable pace.

And finally, to players who tank in order to tilt other players: That’s just wrong. You will succeed in tilting people, surely, but you’ll never be invited to TRG’s home game. ♠