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TDA Rule Changes: Less Than Meets the Eye

by Scott J. Burnham |  Published: Dec 14, 2022


A tournament is down to the final four tables. At two tables there are eight players and at two tables there are six players. Do the Tournament Directors Association (TDA) Rules require the Tournament Director (TD) to balance the tables?

A few years ago, I wrote that if I could change one rule in the TDA Rules, it would be the rule on balancing the tables. The 2022 meeting of the TDA rewrote that rule, but the result is disappointing.

The wording in Rule 11 that the TD “may” balance the tables has been changed to state that the TD “should” balance the tables. This is a slight improvement – may merely suggests that they have the power to do it, while should suggests that they ought to exercise that power – but neither is as strong as stating that they shall do it or must do it; if that sounds too much like they get a penalty if they don’t do it, then make it will do it or is to do it. And the language that balancing is “at TD’s discretion” remains in the rule, undermining any pressure on the TD to do it.

Unbalanced tables can be hard on a player at the short-handed table. In my example, players at the table of six are posting 33 percent more blinds than players at the table of eight.

The situation is exacerbated by the big blind ante. Even if the situation lasts only eight hands, players at the table of eight have each posted the big blind ante once, while two players at the table of six have posted it twice. At the late stages of a tournament when the blinds are high, this loss of chips can be significant. Frequent blinds also increases variance, which benefits less-skilled players.

A player at the short-handed table might well feel justified in slowing down play so that the orbits of the each table take the same amount of time. But another change in the rules states that it is a player’s responsibility to “play in a timely manner.” This rule change is welcome, as players often unnecessarily waste time, but in this case a player could be penalized for slowing the game down in an attempt to make things fairer.

The rule on balancing begins by providing that “play will halt on tables three or more players short” and only at the end of the rule does it state that “at TD’s discretion tables should be more tightly balanced.” I think this wording misleads dealers and TDs into thinking that there is a balancing problem only if one table has three players more than another table. The rule should first emphasize that the TD shall balance tables.

Furthermore, the use of the passive voice as in “play will halt” evades responsibility (like saying “my drinking really needs to get under control.”) Play does not halt itself – someone has to do it, and who is that someone?

While in theory this power could be exercised by a dealer, I have rarely seen a dealer exercise it. If my table is down to six when another table has nine and I protest that the dealer should halt play, the dealer will usually say that they are waiting for instructions from the TD. This makes some practical sense, as it can be difficult for a dealer to determine how many players there are at another table, while the TD can more easily make this determination.

Perhaps the rule should address this situation by stating that if the dealer believes his or her table has three fewer players than another table, the dealer shall hold up play while they ask the floor if they should continue to deal.

So, what is the answer to the question posed at the beginning of this column? The TD has discretion to do something about it, and should do it, but good luck actually seeing that it is done.

There is less than meets the eye with other changes to the rules as well. For example, it has been reported that solvers may no longer be used at the table. But this has been the rule for a long time. Rule 5 continues to state that “betting apps and charts may not be used by players with live hands.” Note that a player may use a chart when not in the hand.

The only thing added to the rule is a sentence stating, “Violations of this paragraph may be subject to penalties in Rule 71.” But this has always been the case. The TDA has a bunch of rules and enumerates the penalties for violations of the rules. It doesn’t have to state in a rule that violation of that rule is subject to a penalty. In fact, by doing that, it may suggest that there is not a penalty when that language does not appear in a rule.

When I read the changes to Rule 2 and saw that “Players should … verify they’re dealt the correct number of cards before SA occurs,” I must admit I was ignorant as to what “SA” is. The previous clause in that rule refers to “seat assignments,” but that can’t logically be the SA. I finally found in Rule 36 that “SA” means “Substantial Action.” It might be helpful if the rules stated the definition the first time a defined term is used.

I don’t have any problem with the changes in Rule 2 that tell players they should “play in a timely manner … inform the house if they see or experience discriminatory or offensive behavior, and generally contribute to an orderly event where all players feel welcome.” These things would indeed improve the game. The big question is whether poker rooms will enforce them. ♠

Scott J. Burnham is Professor Emeritus at Gonzaga University School of Law in Spokane, Washington. He can be reached at