I have played poker in over 100 cardrooms, in at least a dozen states, and six different countries. Inevitably, the more places that I play, the broader the range of inconsistencies I encounter with regard to house rules. These inconsistencies are confusing not only to most visitors, but to many local players, as well.
Wherever I go, the issue that seems to create the most trouble is the interpretation of player action. Such interpretation is not an exact science. Did a player intend to fold? Did a player intend to check? Did a player intend to call? Did a UFA player intend to raise? Once, I saw a floorman called to the table after one player made a subtle hand gesture. The gesture could have been interpreted either way. Three players thought the player checked. Three other players thought the player moved his hand unintentionally. The players started arguing. The blank look on the floorman’s face said it all. What really happened? It depends on who you ask.
Floor people are forced to make their judgments based on eyewitness accounts, well after the fact. It’s virtually impossible to make decisions that treat all players fairly or take into account what may have been an involuntary human response to the pressures and distractions of the cardroom. Much of the confusion about player intent would be resolved by instituting a simple change inside all cardrooms. In fact, if what I’m about to propose would be implemented universally, I believe player that disputes and floor decisions would be reduced significantly. Questions would rarely be raised about a player’s intent or action.
Here’s the idea: Place a large oval on top of the felt that rings the entire table. This means a thin white line separates players from the pot. Any chips that move across the line (and go inside the oval) are considered to be part of the pot. Chips are not “in action” until they actually cross the line. Once chips move across the line, they are irretrievable.
Having a line (or oval-shaped border) means that actions prior to moving chips across the line are non-binding. This includes cutting and counting-out chips, as well as subtle hand gestures that can sometimes be mistaken to invoke action. The line would reduce, if not totally illuminate various forms of angle shooting, since no bet is actually binding until chips enter the pot. You can take any number of chips out of your stack; you can move chips forward; you can move chips backward. No bet is made until chips cross the line. Of course, all verbal declarations of any kind must be binding.
What gave me the idea to propose this to the poker community at-large, was my recent visit to the Biloxi Grand in Mississippi. There, I saw the white line atop every table. The line drawn is about 8-10 inches in front players. There is plenty of room for chips, drinks, and assorted trinkets behind the line in front of each player. During my eight-day visit to Biloxi, there were no incidents of player misrepresentation or arguments about player intent of any kind — something that left a great impression on me.
Tony Collins, Vice President of Mississippi Poker Rooms for Grand Casinos-Park Place Entertainment, is a leading proponent of the line. Collins explained that he first saw the white line used many years ago in a few small California cardrooms. He decided to try the line when he took over poker operations in Biloxi.
“We had a pot-limit Omaha game with $25-50 blinds, which was a big game,” Collins said. “Since pot-limit players have a tendency to move their stacks around, it was confusing at times to the other players. Moving chips around called into question what exactly was a declaration of a bet. I thought the best way to avoid confusion was to use the line on a trial basis and see if it would make a difference.”
The concept proved an immediate success. Soon thereafter, all tables were equipped with the line. Later, the line was introduced in the poker room at the neighboring Gulfport Grand — by player request. Collins anticipates that eventually all Grand properties in Mississippi will use the line.
Collins pointed out that games naturally flow better with the line in place. Dealers are not burdened with the time-consuming task of reaching for stray chips, which are not always at arms length. In conventional games, dealers frequently must ask players to push their chips forward. This slows down the game considerably. “When players start pushing their chips forward (so they cross the line), we noticed they would also fold their card there, as well — and that improved the flow of the game,” Collins added.
Some players may not fully understand why these kinds of changes are necessary, particularly in areas where there are contradictory policies that address betting procedures. Atlantic City, for example, may very well be the epicenter of cardroom confusion. In one Atlantic City cardroom any forward motion with chips in-hand constitutes a bet. In another cardroom, chips can be moved around freely and must be placed clearly in front of the player and before it’s considered a bet. One cardroom has a rule that you cannot check with chips in your hand — although I’ve noticed it’s rarely enforced (another point of confusion). Another cardroom has a betting policy for live-action and an entirely different policy in effect for tournaments. Some tournament players have been shocked to discover that taking large stacks of chips in the hand and thrusting them forward — that is, counting out chips well in front on the table constitutes a bet of the entire stack. The official rule is — once the hand moves forward with chips, the action is binding. Visitors to Atlantic City are sure to find such rules confusing, especially those who play in other places and may be used to different policies.
Even an experienced Atlantic City player such as myself (I’ve put in well over 5,000 hours in Atlantic City cardrooms) is not immune from making a mistake. Recently, at one casino, I was not aware the cardroom had just changed their house rule — that a raise had to be verbally declared. I had taken a large stack and began counting my chips in front of me and then moved them forward. My raise was not allowed, since I did not declare my intent to raise. Multiply my mistake by thousands of other instances and you see the severity of the problem. Inconsistent rules and contrived confusion benefits no one, and is highly irresponsible from a management standpoint, especially since there is now something that can be done that will address this issue.
Why has the white line not been instituted in other cardrooms? Good question. In all the places I’ve played, Mississippi (and a few cardrooms in California) are the only states where I’ve seen the line used. My best guess is the line has not gained popularity because many poker room managers are simply not aware of its existence. Other managers who might have seen the line first-hand — or may have heard Tony Collins lobby for its use at the World Poker Industry Conference last year, in Las Vegas — might still not fully appreciate its value. But the line is something that can improve overall operations inside all cardrooms, in live action and in tournaments.
The white line makes things easier for everyone — players and cardroom employees alike. Players would more easily understand what constitutes a bet, be able to clearly see which players are involved in a hand, and not have to worry that a betting motion in one cardroom may violate a rule in another. Management also benefits by not being burdened with so many messy floor decisions and borderline judgments. Dealers would benefit by not having to constantly strain to reach for chips and stray cards. The game would flow better and faster. Isn’t that what its all about? Avoiding confusion? Eliminating contradictions? Speeding up the game? Making things easier for everyone? The “thin white line” is a concept that’s time has come.
Since some poker managers might be curious about how to make a line on the table, here’s a brief summary: There is no need to order customized felt or employ silkscreen printing. Tony Collins points out that simple fabric paint can be used, which is available at any arts and crafts store. Once the line (or circle) is painted, Collins recommends covering the table for at least a day or so.