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Tipping the scales of tournament poker.

by Darryll Fish |  Published: Feb 09, '18

In light of some recent controversy about the concept of tipping in poker tournaments, during which a Facebook post of mine got passed around and taken somewhat out of context; I'd like to articulate some of my thoughts on the subject.

   First of all, I’ve decided to make it known that I did leave a gratuity for my recent WPT victory (/brag). Originally, I didn’t care to divulge this information, because I didn’t want to make any of this about me. However, upon further reflection as well as some feedback from both players and industry professionals, I’ve realized that I may have inadvertently given the impression that I didn’t tip and, worse yet, that I was discouraging others from doing so. This is NOT the message I was hoping to get across, and is potentially damaging to not only my personal reputation and relationships, but much more importantly; to the industry as a whole
   Reciprocity is an important value of mine, and I am very much in favor of tipping in spaces that call for it. The poker industry is one such space, and I view the industry as a machine with several moving parts that must work together for the machine to run properly. Players make up one of these moving parts, dealers/floor staff make up another. If we want the industry to thrive, we must all work together, rather than seeing ourselves as separate entities. In recent years there has been a major decline in terms of service quality, especially when it comes to the WSOP and the dealers who work for the most important organization in poker. For players, its easy to write this off and assume this has nothing to do with us, but it is directly correlated with our decision whether or not to tip on our wins. 

   The Facebook post I referred to above was simply intended to clarify, for those who may not have known, some of the things that go on behind the scenes in the world of tournament poker, from the perspective of a struggling “grinder” who is pursuing freedom through poker, as I was one such grinder for many years. Whether or not I think those grinders have made a wise career decision is another story, but that isn’t up to me. In a perfect world, professionals would thrive off the losses of recreational players, and these professionals would be comfortably able to factor tips into their bottom line without it having a significantly negative impact.
   As it turns out, the world we live in is far from perfect, and there are many “professional” players who barely make ends meet. 
Some of these players do have the potential to become very profitable in the long run, but many of them will get by on minimal income, putting enough value on a flexible lifestyle to make it worth the financial rollercoaster of tournament poker.
   Similarly, there are a great deal of industry professionals (primarily tournament dealers), who often struggle to get by. In their case, however, it rarely correlates with their actual abilities. 
   A poker dealer’s base salary is minimal, and the biggest variable they face lies in the hands of the players who have big scores. The decision whether or not to leave a gratuity, and how much, can only be decided by the somewhat randomized group of people who finish at the top in their respective tournaments. The players who win smaller prizes may tip, but it is probably less common, and doesn’t account for nearly as much of the prize pool.
   If a millionaire who plays a few times a year wins 100k, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if he left a 5k tip since the money doesn’t matter to him and he plays just for fun. If a 20 something kid with maybe five thousand bucks to his name who plays 200k in buy-ins a year wins 100k, there are additional factors to consider. The biggest question becomes “how much of that 100k actually went to the player?”. By my estimation, the majority of full time tournament players (especially those in their 20’s) are not properly bankrolled for the tournaments they play, so chances are they either have a full time backer, or they sell action in order to play bigger buy-ins than they can afford. This may or may not be wise on their part, but as someone who was in that situation for years and is pretty happy with how things have worked out, I can’t exactly blame them.
   This player must also take their bankroll into consideration. When you rely on poker to pay the bills, there are times when every dollar counts. If the 20-something in this example takes home only 20k of the 100 for himself, it would be pretty crazy and unsustainable if he tipped as if he had made 100k. At most, he can be expected to tip on the 20k, but due to the expensive nature of the tournament player lifestyle (travel, lodging etc) and the uncertainty of when the next 100k score will come, the thought of giving up any of that 20k can be a daunting one. Even if this player would love to generously reward the people who helped make this score possible, avoiding going broke will always be his number one priority as a professional. Let’s say he decides to leave a $1k tip, which is a fairly significant 5% of his earn. This is probably a best-case scenario in this situation, yet still a mere 1% tip on the actual prize. 

   Another issue here is that the player may not even realize that he and the dealers face similar struggles, which can create a lack of empathy where it might otherwise exist. Dealers and floor staff pay out of pocket for travel expenses, and there is variance to their income. Due to a general lack of discussion on the topic as well as a lack of transparency throughout the industry, it is unlikely that most who enter a tournament have knowledge of how much the staff is being paid. The house collects the majority of the rake, other fees go mostly to the tournament organization and the higher ranked employees within it. This leaves little to be distributed amongst the dealers and floor staff, who are the true lifeblood of a poker tournament. Without their hard work (sitting and dealing cards all day may seem easy, but I can tell you from experience that it comes with many challenges) we wouldn’t have the amazing opportunities that currently exist in poker. I mean, where else can a 21 year old make a million dollars in the span of a week?
   The lack of transparency, combined with the other factors, leads to a situation where many players don’t feel obligated to leave anything extra when they win big. It is common knowledge that almost every tournament dedicates ~3% of the buy-in to the dealers and floor staff, which would be somewhat reasonable compensation if it were fairly distributed, but it isn’t always so. Even then, when we consider the expenses of a somewhat nomadic lifestyle, it becomes pretty obvious that more than 3% is needed if we want to keep our dealers happy. When conditions are good, we end up with happy, competent dealers. It may not be obvious, but having competent, fast dealers is quite beneficial to a professional player’s bottom line, as well as the overall quality of experience we create for those who aren’t playing for a living.

When we zoom out and look at the big picture, it becomes obvious that there is a “circle of life” in the poker economy. 
   Higher pay incentivizes competent staff, competent staff creates a more enjoyable environment for recreational players, happier recreational players leads to bigger prize pools, bigger prize pools increase a professional’s ROI, and an increased ROI allows more room for contributing to higher wages for the staff we rely on. This is a microcosm of life in general, and the concept of “what goes around comes around” rings very true here.
   This isn’t to say that the players are entirely to blame, because the house play a major role in this as well. While I don’t know the exact breakdown of how the money is distributed, I am quite certain that there is room for increased wages for those at the “bottom” of the food chain, especially since their competence is often more relevant than those at the “top”. I’m not exactly sure if or how players can contribute to restructuring the payroll model, but if we hope to cultivate and maintain a sustainable poker economy, it is paramount that we find ways to attract competent staff. At the very least, there needs to be an ongoing dialogue about this to create more awareness of how these things all relate to each other. We need to work together and create a more symbiotic environment, and that starts with players being as mindful as possible about the system we’re part of.
   While it may not be fun to leave a chunk of our winnings behind, if we consider the ripple effect created by our contribution, it becomes clear that it is not only imperative for sustainability that we be as generous as we comfortably can, but it is mutually beneficial for us to do so. Like many elements of poker, this is a parallel to life. Being as generous as we can without over-extending our resources is a fine line, but an important one. 
   I like to think of it like this:  “Is this gift (in this case, money) more valuable to the person who receives it or the person who gives it?” If its clear that the money we leave as a gratuity will have a more positive impact on the staff than it does negative impact on our personal finances, it seems clear to me that the right thing to do is give as generously as possible until that impact shifts in the other direction.

   I hope all of this can help create a deeper understanding of the poker ecosystem, and how crucial it is that we be mindful of the big picture when we are lucky enough to be on the right side of variance. I may be able to sympathize with the young pro in the example I used, but I would encourage him to take all of this into consideration as he maneuvers through the ups and downs of full-time tournament poker.
   At the end of the day, it all comes down to gratitude and finding ways to show our appreciation for each other. In poker, this means supporting those on the other side of the box, because the moment we lose quality dealers, the whole house of cards begins to fall apart. That doesn’t end well for anyone involved, so lets be as considerate as possible of the other parts of the system we are lucky to be part of, and hopefully we can work together in creating the best future possible for the game we all love.

Darryll Fish is a poker pro from Cape Coral, Florida. In addition to final table appearances on the World Poker Tour and at the World Series of Poker, Fish also owns a WSOP Circuit ring.

His blog, A Small Fish In A Big Pond, can be read in its entirety here. Fish is also involved with the Live High Community, a project dedicated to promoting joy by inspiring a more passionate, kind and loving humanity. Follow Darryll on Twitter.

Any views or opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the ownership or management of
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