Will Kassouf was a lightning rod at the WSOP Main Event this year due to a variety of tactics he employed, including his often painful slow and deliberate play. But what really got under the skin of some players, and many viewers, was his habit of talking to opponents during hands. While some, like his countryman Andrew Christoforou, seemed to treat the exchanges as sport, others were incensed. Floors were called, lengthy side debates engaged, and players and commentators weighed in with varying perspectives on the legality, effectiveness, and morality of Kassouf’s tactics.
While the merits of Kassouf’s specific antics could be addressed ad nauseum, the more global issue is whether, and to what degree, table talk is appropriate or advisable at the poker table. Given the amount of air time that a player who did not even reach the final table received, one can anticipate there will be players in future televised tournaments latching onto Kassouf’s techniques for more self-aggrandizing, and less strategic, reasons. Anyone who has ever played in a cash game or tournament has encountered players in love with the sound of their own voices. Some are good-natured, others less so.
What are the Rules?
Casinos and card rooms vary in what they will allow in terms of talking during a hand. There are generally strict and understandable limitations of table talk when there are more than two people in a hand. Trying to goad another player into an action is not fair to others in the hand. Even if there are only two players in the hand, there can be explicit limits. At the card room I most frequent, the rules are liberal about what can be said during two-handed cash play, but in tournaments you are explicitly banned from discussing a live hand in any way.
Clearly at the WSOP that level of rigidity does not apply. Kassouf was allowed to openly speculate on other’s holdings and to try to extract information from his opponent. That is, until his talk crossed some seemingly subjective standard of “too much and too often.” Kassouf and Jack Effel’s televised interchange underscores another important tenet: tournament directors have to make judgement calls for the good of all players. And what they say goes.
Why are You Doing It?
When you engage in banter with players actively in hands, you should ask yourself: why am I doing this and what am I hoping to achieve? If you cannot answer those questions, you should probably stop speaking because you are likely talking due to some characterological need rather than an advanced poker strategy. If your goal is to get a read on a player, you should have a reasonably firm grasp of tells (peruse Mike Caro’s seminal works on tells at minimum) and have a decent sense of how this specific player would respond to your fishing mission. Without a game plan, engaging in chatter is likely more an exhibit of your own anxieties than it is helpful to your cause.
Perhaps your goal is to engage in a campaign to put a thin-skinned, volatile player on tilt. We’ll discuss the morality of this action later, but can likely agree that playing poker is not joining the Peace Corps. There is a measure of gamesmanship that is allowable and perhaps expected. A player who can stay cool and logical while someone else is slamming his hand on the table and swiftly retreating to a calming nicotine oasis clearly has an edge. There is a perverse delight in telling someone “I know you missed your draw” and then calling their bet with bottom pair, or to showing a bluff to their fold and uttering patronizingly “Ah, there’s no way you could call that, probably the right lay down most of the time.”
Are You Any Good at It?
It is hard enough to assess how good we are at poker in general, never mind how our verbal exchanges are enhancing or undermining our outcomes. However, if you have passed the threshold above and know why you are talking, you need to evaluate whether that talk is yielding positive results.
If you take notes on your play for later review (and if you don’t, you should), include descriptions of the nature of your table talk, your goals, the reactions of other players, and your outcomes. The outcomes should not only include the proximal – what happened in that hand (e.g., was your desired outcome achieved) – but also the potential ramifications of that action long-term (e.g., did this early action backfire later resulting in an unwanted call by a player who was irritated with you). If you frequent the same cardrooms and engage with a generally finite set of players, you also need to think about how your play on a given night might affect your long-term image and how that image will impact the future actions of others.
Even if Legal and Effective, Is It Right?
While we can fall back on the A League of Their Own quote and say “There is no crying in poker!” poker is still a game played in civilized settings that can only thrive if it does not become a hostile environment. Just last week Heather and I were playing in a tournament where a shoving match started between two large men. Floors jumped in to separate them, security and local police were summoned, and both men were escorted from the room. No one wants their poker game punctuated with “and then charges were filed.”
So there have to be standards, perhaps normative and unwritten, supported by the wide body of players at a venue, but existing nonetheless. Those accepted codes may vary from room to room, but it is clearly overstepping decency to engage in personal insults, racist or sexist remarks, or general disregard for the physical and mental space of other players.
So before you become a dyed-n-the-wool Kassoufite, have a game plan and a set of internal limits for your actions. Otherwise, you’ll likely gain more animosity than profit from your poker activities.
Any widespread parroting of Mr. Kassouf’s obnoxious commentary will make watching a tournament on t.v.as interesting as watching paint dry.
Even within cash games, there will undoubtedly be those who want to “act like the guy who was on t.v.” Such behavior would ultimately be damaging to the game. If you don’t believe that, ask yourself these questions: 1. Are there players who will JOIN a game because a Kassoufite is present? Answer, resoundingly “NO!”. 2. Are there players who will not join a game if a Kassoufite is present? Answer, resoundingly, “YES!”
There is much potential fort damage, and no benefit, to the poker world to have a Kassouf run amok at the table, as he did in the WSOP.
Perspectives on the appropriateness of Kassouf’s tactics, and their entertainment value, really do divide people (see comment below for a different take). There is no doubt this kind of banter irritates some players, as we saw at the WSOP, although it was a bit confounded by his slow play which bothered some players more than his talking. Talkers come in various forms; I probably have more trouble with the incessant talkers who are not even talking about the game, but want to socialize non-stop for hours on end at the table.
Seems like ESPN felt Kassouf was entertaining enough to focus on for several episodes, so whether this alienates more viewers than it draws is a debatable point. But your point is well taken, that some players in their local card rooms would be driven to distraction if players started mimicking Kassouf’s style.
I watched the WSOP and I thought Kassouf was brilliant. He extracted information as often as he could, he never once was disrespectful. Surprisingly Mr Josephy was more so.
I think you also have to remind yourself, this is the WSOP with 8 million on the line and your 10k entry, you have to use your skills to your advantage. Kassouf is a lawyer, talking is his game. I am an introvert at the table, more of a thinker, I actually admire the players that talk more. I think that is a skill in its own. Talking too much like the article says can lead to your own tells or anxiety and more thinking. But if you can get a grip of the talking game and use it within the rules, like he did, all power to you.
I loved this WSOP more than the last one. Kassouf, Ruane, Keating and Nguyen were all entertaining to watch.
I actually loved this year’s WSOP more than most I have watched too. For me, the attractiveness of poker on television has always been enhanced by the characters who often seem straight out of central casting. Not all of them are likable, but they play the villains in the theater of the game well and when the behavior is clearly more strategic (in the case of Kassouf) versus emotionally explosive and verbally aggressive (see Hellmuth, Phil) it lends intrigue about how valuable this banter is if done well.
I think you are correct that in many ways Kassouf’s verbal tactics were not as disrespectful as those who called him on it; however, there were moments where his talking while another player was contemplating action strayed into that zone, perhaps not in content, but in what is generally reasonable decorum at a table. But, as he said at one point, if a player simply asked him to stop talking at her/him to allow time to think, he would have respected that request.
As I tend to play more tournaments these days at venues that don’t allow much talking during hands, it’s not something I get much practice at, but I do like some of the byplay when it does happen, if kept respectful.
To also be fair to Kassouf, I thought the murkiness of just what the rules were did not help matters. And, of course, we were only expose to the snippets of what ESPN wanted to show us in the story line they were building.
What’s with all the verbosity? It’s as if you’re trying to prove you’re an intellectual?
> the attractiveness of poker on television has always been enhanced by the characters who
> often seem straight out of central casting.
1. Central Casting would not have sent someone like Kassouf, or any of the other “enhancements” at the table. CC is about casting background, always stereotypical types.
2. My “enhancement” is done by larger, clearer screens; better reception, nicer sound (or no announcers)
> Not all of them are likable, but they play the villains in the theater of the game well and when
> the behavior is clearly more strategic (in the case of Kassouf) versus emotionally explosive
> and verbally aggressive (see Hellmuth, Phil)
Oh please. “Intrigue?” You think Hellmuth is berating players for no reason? (you’re wrong fyi)
> “it lends intrigue about how valuable this banter is if done well”
I have no idea what that means.
> I think you are correct that in many ways Kassouf’s verbal tactics
> were not as disrespectful as those who called him on it
What a crock, the guy was an ass. I suppose killing terrorists is worse that terrorists killing us? Same logic.
> there were moments where his talking while another player was contemplating action strayed into that zone,
You just contradicted yourself.
> perhaps not in content, but in what is generally reasonable decorum at a table
Because there’s a difference?
> reasonable decorum
Did you mean EXPECTED decorum, or reasonable behavior?
I agree with those who say the slow play was more irritating than the talking. That gets under my skin at a table much more than a guy who talks too much. It’s abusing a courtesy that has been extended to all players.
I’d love to see a shot clock (like 30 seconds/decision) become a standard part of major tournaments. Then not only is play not bogged down but guys like Kassouf can only talk for a short time. Atleast partially addressing that issue as well.
I don’t especially like either one of them, players who talk too much or players who play too slow. Contrary to what every one thinks Hold Em isn’t rocket science and when someone bets they have one of two hands 90% of the time or better, a draw or a made hand. C bets may be fairly common but outright bluffs are rare. If someone flops a draw they go all in on the flop most of the time. All of this isn’t really too complicated and in truth if you are going to win a tournament you need luck on both sides of the equation. 1 you need to get lucky and beat Aces when you are dominated and 2 you have to get lucky and have your Aces hold up when you are top dog.
In summation as far as I’m concerned those who talk to much and play too slow ruin the game for the rest of us, the reasonable and respectful players out there.
Kassouf is a Lawyer! He did what all good lawyers do he use the Law/Rules to his advantage! Things are only going to get worse unless a proper set of Rules are adopted worldwide! We have the World Series of Poker now we need World Wide Poker Rules hereafter called WWPR! Anyone interesting in serving on the rules committee?
I remember something I read in Amarillo Slims book when it came out years ago. He was playing in a 7 card stud game in England. Slim likes to talk a lot too. In fact he’s well known for it. In jolly old England when playing poker you are allowed to say 3 things during the play of a hand. They are check, call, or raise. Slim said something else during the play of one hand and immediately he was greeted with a course of “foul, foul, forfeit the pot.” and forfeit the pot he did. During the play of another hand later he said, “well now, I think I got me a big pair down here in the hole. I’m going to introduce this cat to Mr. More.” He forfeited that pot too. As he said in his book, nobody would have recognized old silent Slim after that.
I had a home game a lot of years ago and that was one of my pet peeves, all the talk and noise that went on in that game. If it were up to me every place would play poker like the game Slim described in England.