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Contracts and Poker: Balancing Tables

by Scott J. Burnham |  Published: Jun 05, 2019

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A tournament pays 30 places. When there are 36 players left, they are distributed at four tables of 10, 10, 8, and 8 players. Is the Tournament Director obligated to move players in order to balance the tables?

If I could change one TDA Rule, it would probably be Rule 10, captioned “Balancing Tables and Halting Play.” You would expect to find in this rule some guidance on when the TD should balance tables, but except for what we might deduce, there is no general rule.

Rule 10 is divided into four parts. Subsection A tells us which seat a player who is moved is moved to, which is sort of putting the cart before the horse, since we don’t yet know when a player should be moved. Subsection B applies only to mixed games. Subsection C advises that “[t]he table from which a player is moved will be specified by a predetermined procedure.”

In subsection D, we finally get to what we think is going to be the rule on moving players:

D: Full-table play will halt on tables three or more players short of the table with the most players. Play halts on other formats (ex: 6-hand and turbos) at TDs discretion. TDs may waive halting play and waiver is not a misdeal. As the event progresses, at TD’s discretion tables may be more tightly balanced.

The first sentence is clear as far as it goes: “Full-table play will halt on tables three or more players short of the table with the most players.” We can deduce that the reason play is halted is that the TD will move a player, though the rule does not tell us that. In our hypothetical tournament, if one of the tables of eight loses a player, that table now has seven, which is three short of one of the tables of 10, so the TD will move a player.

But is that the only rule on balancing tables? Should the TD move players from the tables of 10 to the tables of eight? Apparently the TD has discretion to do so, for the last sentence of the subsection states, “As the event progresses, at TD’s discretion tables may be more tightly balanced.”

I assume more tightly balanced means moving a player when a table is short two players and not just three players. So the basic rule seems to be that the TD is required to move a player only if one table is three short of another. The TD has discretion to move players in other situations, but there is no rule requiring him to do it.

It seems to me this rule should be mandatory rather than discretionary. I feel particularly affected by the TD’s failure to balance tables because I tend to be a survivor rather than an accumulator, often reaching the bubble with a below-par stack. In such a situation, the failure to balance costs me a lot of chips. Let’s look at an example.

Most players are familiar with the “M Principle” or “M-ratio,” a measure of how many orbits you can survive with your stack size that was created by the late Paul Magriel and frequently applied in Harrington on Hold-em. Let’s assume I have 20,000 in chips and blinds are 1,000-2,000 with a big blind ante of 2,000. It is costing me 5,000 chips per orbit, so my M = 4 (20,000/5,000). If I am at a table of 10, I will be out of chips in 40 hands. However, if I am at a table of eight, I will be out of chips in 32 hands, so being at the short-handed table leaves me at big disadvantage compared to the players at the full table. Simply put, I get to see a lot fewer hands before I am blinded off.

This disadvantage would be eliminated if the TD was required to balance the tables by moving players even if one table was less than three players short of another table. In my example, this would mean nine players at each table instead of 10-10-8-8. I would rewrite the rule so that the rule on balancing came first in subsection A and said something like this:

A. The TD shall make reasonable efforts to balance tables when manageable and appropriate for the type of game, including moving a player late in a tournament to a table that is 2 players short of the table with the most players. Dealers will halt play at a table that is 3 or more players short of the table with the most players until the TDA moves a player to that table. Play halts on other formats (e.g., 6-handed and turbos) at TD’s discretion. TDs may waive halting play and dealing when play should be halted is not a misdeal. ♠

Scott J. Burnham is Professor Emeritus at Gonzaga Law School in Spokane, Washington. He can be contacted at profburnham@yahoo.com.