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The Rules Guy: How To Conduct Yourself At The Poker Table

Did William Kassouf Deserve A Penalty?


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.

Dear The Rules Guy:

No doubt you saw one of the more exciting episodes of ESPN’s coverage of the main event where William Kassouf talks Stacy Matuson into a fold. Did he deserve a penalty?

- I Don’t Just Watch Poker; I Watch Poker on ESPN


You know how you get this inner smile when you river the nuts, and the action goes bet, raise, and reraise before it gets back to you? When TRG saw this hand on ESPN with William Kassouf and an understandably tilted Stacy Matuson, he got a similar frisson of anticipatory excitement. This is etiquette in action! Etiquette with consequences! Etiquette played out on national television! TRG is mystified as to why Lon and Norm didn’t bring him in for some expert commentary.

To set the stage (with help from Card Player’s own Erik Fast, who wrote about the hand and the ESPN coverage on Sept. 19): It’s day five of the main event, and the stakes are monumental. ESPN picks up the action at an outer table where Kassouf has moved in on the river with the board showing 5Diamond Suit3Heart Suit2Club Suit8Heart Suit10Spade Suit. Kassouf has nine high; Matuson, holding pocket queens, has the best hand.

This is never an easy call. And Kassouf does everything in his power to make it impossible to call. He is coffee-housing big time. He’s British, and apparently across the pond table talk or coffee-housing is referred to as “speech play.”

He talks about the size of the pot. He tells her that “I want you to call 100 percent.” Then he switches gears. “You don’t want to bust out with the whole camera crew watching now…This will be embarrassing.” And then he’s in faux-geniality mode. “It’s a friendly table. If you show, I’ll show.”

Kassouf sells the hell out of his bluff. But let’s be honest: Kassouf is annoying. The dealer is annoyed (to the point that he rebukes Kassouf for talking about the size of the pot, which is not a violation of the rules.) Matuson is annoyed (to the point that she appeals for his hand to be killed, which in this scenario could never happen.) And the floor men around the table (TRG counted three) are annoyed – because the incessant chatter. Speech play is, well, annoying.

But being annoying is not a violation of the rules (up to a point; we shall get to that.) As Kassouf has revealed in interviews, speech play is a key part of his strategy, as it should be. Social engineering in all its forms is a key part of poker, live poker in particular. Kassouf is not colluding and not harassing Matuson in any egregious way, like belittling her play or attacking her character or making fun of her. He is simply trying to talk her into a fold, which is of course the only way he can win the hand. (He has nine high!)

There’s a predictable logic to Kassouf’s banter. He is turning Mike “The Mad Genius” Caro’s classic notion about poker behavior and tells (“strong means weak, and weak means strong”) on its head. By acting exceptionally strong, he hopes that Matuson will go beyond the “obvious” conclusion that he’s weak and read his behavior as a double bluff. It was brilliant. Easy to see through in retrospect (or when you can see the hole cards); not the least bit easy to see through at the moment. And, it should be said again, perfectly within the rules.

To Kassouf, selling his bluff was such an overriding priority that he kept talking even after Jack Effel, the WSOP tournament director, told him to shut up: “You will receive a penalty if another word comes out of your mouth.”

Here’s a pro tip for all you live tournament players: If a TD tells you to be quiet, STFU. But Kassouf could not contain his communicative nature; he actually mimed, with his hands, several times, that if she folded and showed, he would do the same. Effel had to admonish him not to make another gesture.

To TRG, Kassouf did cross a pretty substantial line when he went against the TD’s directives – and that alone merited a penalty. (Effel was well within his rights and responsibilities to hand one down.) The most applicable rule here is “Etiquette Violations” (Rule 116 of the WSOP Rules), which cites “excessive chatter…that causes a disruption of participants who are in a hand.” When The Rules Guy watches the hand, there’s no question that Kassouf’s chatter was excessive and that it caused a disruption – particularly when Matuson called time. At that point, etiquette demands that Kassouf shut up and give her the peace to make her decision. This hand might even be a good candidate for a tournament rule: When time is called, table talk should cease. But even if it’s not an explicit rule, every player should abide by it. You could be in Matuson’s seat someday, and you’ll appreciate the quiet minute-plus to ponder your action.

And Kassouf really compounded his sin after Matuson folded her queens face-up and he turned over his nine high with a phrase that will undoubtedly be heard in card rooms around the world for years to come: “Nine high like a boss… big heart of a lion.” Must be the British equivalent of “that’s what I’m talking about.”

“Like a boss” may be trending on social media, but Kassouf’s comments when he showed his bluff were out of line. It was fine, even strategic, to show. But he seemed so full of himself that his comments came off as self-congratulatory and in your face; highly disrespectful to Matuson. He taunted her, not a punishable offense unless there’s a pattern of it, but there’s no good reason to rub salt in that particular wound.

TRG doesn’t particularly admire Kassouf’s demeanor – and would really dislike being at his table – but Kassouf played this hand with great skill. He sold his bluff and won a big pot. But he did antagonize players (reasonable, within reason) and floor people (potentially a colossal error in judgment for his future tournament life; he will be on every floor person’s radar.) Ultimately Kassouf did extremely well, finishing in 17th place ($338,288) and Matuson busted soon after this hand in 169th place ($42,285).

Kassouf went out of his way, during the hand and in interviews, to point out that “I am just trying to be friendly.” No one should be fooled. A friendly player would not have thrown his bluff into Matuson’s face. Kassouf is not trying to be friendly. He is trying to win pots and go deep – as each of us tries to do in our own ways.

Everyone knows that poker is a game of incomplete information, but it’s also a game of misinformation and disinformation. Kassouf is good at these skills, but his efforts should not be mistaken for geniality and friendliness. They are calculated and manipulative – and, as people say from time to time, “that’s poker.” ´

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



over 4 years ago

His demeanor was annoying but he did nothing illegal. The TD should have left him alone.

There are too many double standards at the WSOP. Hellmuth can MF someone back and forth and the camera crew and WSOP staff laugh. Perhaps Kassouf should get on the player advisory board so he can do whatever he wants.


over 4 years ago

im disappointed they bothered the guy he was just doing table talk its apart of poker


over 4 years ago

Kassouf is a monumental pain in the ass. You don't have a choice about tables. I wouldn't have any problem with him because I could just turn off my hearing aids.


over 4 years ago

Etiquette should include spoiler alerts TRG. Thanks