If You’re Calling 17… You’re Calling 22

The most talked about hand at this year’s WSOP Main Event centered on a ruling rather than the play of the hand itself. And really not even on the ruling, but a comment made after the ruling was affirmed.

PokerNews describes the scenario (with light edits in parentheses):

Playing six-handed with 11 players left, one elimination away from the unofficial final table of the biggest tournament of the year, (eventual runner-up Dario) Sammartino picked up pocket tens under the gun plus one and raised to 1.7 million with blinds at 400,000/800,000 with a 800,000 big blind ante.

Nick Marchington moved all in for 22.2 million in the small blind and when Sammartino asked for a count, apparently the dealer counted his stack at 17 million and Sammartino (who started the hand with 62.2 million) rather quickly pushed out a stack of chips to indicate a call. The Italian high roller thought he was calling a shove for a bit more than 21 big blinds, but it turned out to be for just shy of 28 big blinds.

With huge money on the line and the unofficial final table looming, the mistake wasn’t caught until it was too late. Sammartino called rather quickly after hearing the amount, failing to notice the discrepancy before his chips went forward.

It was caught at that point and the floor was called, ruling that the call for the full amount would stand per the “accepted action” rule, and the cards went on their backs. Sammartino, well behind with tens versus queens, naturally looked displeased in a frustrating situation.

Then, the flop went out but Sammartino protested further, demanding a higher ruling and proceedings were paused — though the clock was not.

Vice president of the WSOP Jack Effel arrived and eventually confirmed the floor’s ruling but Sammartino persisted. “This is not my fault, for sure” he said.

The Accepted Action Rule is very straightforward and clearly applies here. It may not be Sammartino’s fault, but he doesn’t have a valid case for any alternative outcome. Here is the rule:

Poker is a game of alert, continuous observation. It is the caller’s responsibility to determine the correct amount of an opponent’s bet before calling, regardless of what is stated by the dealer or participants. If a caller requests a count but receives incorrect information from the dealer or participants, then places that amount in the pot, the caller is assumed to accept the full correct action & is subject to the correct wager or all-in amount.

While the ruling is correct, the controversy was just beginning.

As Sammartino protested that the difference in amounts could have affected his decision, Effel tried to stop the conversation. Let’s roll the tape:

You can hear Alex Livingston (who eventually finished 3rd) defend Sammartino with “he shouldn’t say that” while Sammartino was incredulous. Twitter lit up, generally ganging up on Effel.

Poker is situational. Calling for 17 million chips would be 21 BBs or 27% of Sammartino’s stack. 22 million chips would be 28 BBs or 35% of his stack. He also has to consider whether he thinks Marchington’s shoving range with 28 BBs is different from his shoving range with 22 BBs. At the time, at least two players had fewer chips than Marchington. At the final table bubble, those factors could be enough to change a decision.

The real problem, however, is Effel’s complete lack of empathy towards a player who was understandably emotional. It’s the final 11 players in the Main Event. He just called an all-in bet after the dealer gave him an incorrect count. After being forced to put in 5 million more chips, he found out his pocket tens were dominated by pocket queens. 35% of his stack is about to disappear. The ruling goes against him.

Tell me, dear readers, wouldn’t your emotions run a little hot if this happened to you?

Effel, as the tournament director, should be the adult in the room. That means showing empathy… the understanding and sharing of Sammartino’s emotional state. 93% of communication is non-verbal and Effel’s tone and body language range from apathetic to downright hostile towards Sammartino’s distress. The non-verbal message is “I don’t care!”

Empathy isn’t difficult.

After affirming the floor’s ruling, Effel could have shown some (much!) sensitivity for an unfortunate situation. It wasn’t Sammartino’s fault that the initial count was wrong. Effel doesn’t even acknowledge the dealer’s mistake. Rather than a calming voice apologizing for the error and need to enforce the Accepted Action Rule, he needles the affected player. Rather than giving Sammartino enough emotional space to vent his frustrations, he attempts to shut him down.

Have you ever tried telling someone who is upset to just stuff those emotions back where they came from? Trust me when I tell you it doesn’t help. A better approach would have been for Effel to engage Sammartino in a quiet, unrecorded side conversation while the remainder of the hand was dealt out, simply saying “look, Dario, if I was in your shoes here I’m sure I’d feel the same way you do. I’m really sorry this happened and hope there are no lasting affects that hurt you in the rest of the tournament.”

A little empathy goes a long way. The adult in the room should know better.

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