Watching Episode 3 and 4 of the World Series of Poker on ESPN this past week left many players puzzled, and in some cases, angry. Angry and also pretty darn entertained. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the altercation between Stacy Matuson and William Kassouf and the subsequent penalty doled out by tournament director Jack Effel was what behind those feelings. To many, it felt unjust, unfair and against what so many believe is good for the game.
That being said, let's dissect the rule before we debate this one.
First of all, if the question would've been, "Was Jack Effel within his rights when he gave Kassouf a penalty?" the answer is much easier. Absolutely. Officially, the tournament's floors and director can do whatever they want. Rule 111 of the rule book makes this absolutely clear:
111. Penalties: In its sole and absolute discretion, Rio may impose penalties ranging from a verbal warning, one missed hand away from the table up to disqualification and expulsion from the Casino.
The sole and absolute discretion part of that rule kind of makes all the other rules on the subject irrelevant. Even so, other rules the WSOP has compiled over the years back up Effel's decision to give Kassouf a one-round penalty:
113. Table Talk / Disclosure: participants are obligated to protect the other participants in the Tournament at all times. Therefore, whether in a hand or not, participants may not:
a. Disclose contents of live or folded hands.
b. Advise or criticize play at any time.
c. Read a hand that hasn't been tabled.
d. Discuss strategy with an outside source while involved in a hand.
- A participant is allowed to mention the strength or content of his/her hand if no other participant in the hand will have a decision to make.
- In heads-up events or when down to the last two participants in a Tournament, participants may speak freely regarding the contents of their hands.
William Kassouf was heads-up in a pot with Matuson and she still had to act, so exception 1 didn't apply. There were still at least 200 players left in the tournament, so exception 2 didn't apply either. Kassouf attempted to advise Matuson so he broke point b of rule 113.
47. Any participant who taunts another participant through theatrics or gestures or engages in any form of inappropriate behavior intended to disrupt other participants in the tournament will be subject to penalty in accordance with Rules 40, 111 and 112.
While some don't agree with Jack Effel that Kassouf was taunting his opponent by making hand gestures, one could certainly interpret him screaming "9-high like a boss!" after the hand was finished, that way.
116. Etiquette Violations: Repeated etiquette violations will result in the imposition of penalties assessed by the Tournament Staff. Examples include, but are not limited to, unnecessarily touching other participants’ cards or chips, body, or clothing, delay of the game, repeatedly acting out of turn, betting out of reach of the dealer or excessive chatter. Excessive chatter includes, but is not limited to, talking or conversation that causes a disruption of participants who are in a hand.
This one is easy as well, he broke rule 116 by excessively chattering; no doubt about it.
Effel, according to William Kassouf in Daniel Negreanu's podcast, said the following on camera:
He admitted on camera that I wasn't actually breaking any rules. [...] he said 'Listen, you're a smart guy, you're a lawyer, you know what you're doing, you're getting under the player's skin, and you've taken their chips, and you're getting them frustrated. While you're not actually breaking any WSOP rules, you're bending them to the max. You're forcing me to intervene for the integrity of the game and sportsmanship behavior at the table."
(29:37 into the show)
"Your speech play strategy is too advanced for the WSOP rules"
(42:49 into the show)
So while Effel said this, according to Kassouf, he wasn't right according to his own rule book. Unless they changed the rules in the official PDF document on the site since the tournament ended, the rule book clearly gives Effel every right to give Kassouf a one-round penalty.
But the question today isn't, "Was Jack Effel right to give Kassouf a penalty?" The question is, "Did William Kassouf Deserve A Penalty?"
No, Kassouf Absolutely Did Not Deserve the Penalty
I was in the room for the entire tournament and I heard Kassouf talking constantly. I saw people laughing and enjoying the antics and I saw just as many players rolling their eyes and getting annoyed by the theatrics he put on.
For me, poker is about exploiting your opponent, doing everything you can to gain an advantage over other players to make a profit. Kassouf did exactly that. He got under her skin and made her make the wrong decision. That's poker. Did he gain an advantage because of his speech? Definitely!
Kassouf did nothing out of line in the hand; he didn't force Matuson to listen to his "speech play." I consider it a skill for poker players to focus on what's important instead of getting influenced by an opponent. I would say bring a pair of headphones if you can't stand someone talking to you.
The imposed "say another word and you're getting a penalty" is just ridiculous. If you don't want to be talked to, head to the library or go play poker online. Don't enter a poker room expecting everyone to be silent. In my opinion, the floor and tournament director took things way too personally in this situation. They got agitated and lost control. The fact that Matuson was out of her comfort zone shouldn't warrant any action by the tournament directors. In fact, Kassouf should get a medal for optimizing his strategy.
After Kassouf was taken aside by Effel, things really got out of hand. Effel, after what must have been a long series for him, clearly wasn't having any of it and would not tolerate contradiction. That should be unheard of at the World Series of Poker. A player should at least have the option to argue against a penalty as severe as the one imposed on Kassouf: a one-round penalty.
There shouldn't be a rule against being annoying (excessive chatter); there shouldn't be a rule against talking when you're heads up; there shouldn't be a rule saying that everything is just up to the tournament director's sole discretion.
-- Frank Op de Woerd
The Penalty was Warranted
The poker community appears to be lining up against World Series of Poker Tournament Director Jack Effel and his decision to give outspoken Brit William Kassouf a penalty after the entire situation played out on ESPN last week. So much went wrong here and Effel did appear to make an emotional decision. It would be easy to pile it on. However, having seen the events unfold live, and now having watched in on TV, I'm leaning towards the other side.
First off, let's be clear about one thing: Speech play is a part of the game, but Kassouf is no master of it. In earlier hands, he was seen pushing further toward, and eventually over, the line of fair play and respect for his opponents. Using speech play to toy with an opponent is one thing; using it in an aggressive and unfriendly manner is another and it's not quite within the spirit of the game. Kassouf continually used abrasive speech to force his opponents into making bad decisions, and while that's not technically against the rules, it's at the very least unethical.
What is against the posted WSOP rules is advising or criticizing play and excessive chatter, both of which Kassouf was guilty of here. That may have been the reason why Floor Person Charlie Ciresi handed out multiple warnings to Kassouf during the hand. It may have also been the reason Effel gave him one final warning to keep quiet or face the consequences of a penalty when he turned up on the scene and took over. He may or may not have been justified in doing so, but in the end, that wasn't even the reason Effel finally decided to penalize Kassouf.
Effel ultimately gave Kassouf a penalty for "taunting," and while many of the more outspoken members of the poker community have taken to Twitter correctly arguing that Kassouf's actions during the hand really don't fit that description, they're missing the fact that his actions immediately after definitely do.
When Stacy Matuson folded queens face up, ending the action, Kassouf asked mockingly if she wanted to see his hand. He aggressively spiked the bluff on the felt and exclaimed, "Nine-high like a boss! Big heart. Big heart of a lion," essentially taunting her with it.
Kassouf's pantomiming motions during the hand — after being asked to keep quiet — continued a disturbing pattern of disrespect for the other players and the floor, and in my opinion, they alone would have been enough to warrant some kind of action against him, even if it was only a further warning. However, there is little doubt his exclamations after Matuson folded fit the textbook definition of taunting and definitely justify Effel's decision to give him the penalty.
-- Marty Derbyshire