Calling the Clock | Matt Stout Poker Blog February 19, 2016

Matt Stout (Las Vegas, NV)

“Who called the clock?”

Anyone who has played poker before has heard this question asked before, usually rhetorically.  It’s the first step in a series of disdainful comments made by a player who is offended that someone would call the clock on them.  It can lead to awkward confrontations, especially when the player who had the clock called on him just lost a big pot.

I’m here to tell you that the person who is out of line is probably the one who had the clock called on him, not the clock caller.  Although the ability to call the clock on another player, after which a player has one minute to act, has been a rule in poker for decades, it seems that in the “old days” of poker it was somewhat taboo to do so.  Well, it’s a new day, especially in tournaments where the blinds are constantly going up and there’s a lot more pressure to increase your stack than in a cash game.

Tanking has become an epidemic in poker tournaments and is very bad for the game.  Not only does it make the game more boring and less enjoyable when you have to sit through 2 to 4 minute decisions throughout 8 to 10 minute hands, but it also makes everybody at the table a little less likely to win the event.  Per-hand edges are small – the less hands you play per hour, the harder it is for you to accumulate chips and give yourself a chance to win the tournament.

Tournament directors and organizers have gone so far as to consider instituting a “shot clock” in poker tournaments and providing Tournament Directors the ability to call the clock rather than relying on players to do it.  I personally stood up at the Poker Tournament Directors’ Association’s (“TDA”) most recent summit while they discussed this idea and told them that while I appreciate their efforts, I think the onus is on us as players to speak up when someone’s tanking habits are out of line.  While I think a shot clock would combat the tanking epidemic effectively – and I initially liked the idea – I’ve realized that it would probably be bad for poker in the long run.

The first problem is that it will create difficulties in trying to get the average dealer to fairly clock every player for all actions while performing their other tasks.  The far more significant issue is that many recreational players are intimidated enough by the rules and etiquette of poker tournaments in casinos and implementing a shot clock would probably make the average person less likely to make the jump from his home game to taking a shot at the next $560 opening event at Borgata.

While I’ll obviously take the size of the bet, the size of the tournament, and the experience level of the player involved into account when considering when it’s appropriate to call the clock, I think 3 to 4 minutes is long enough to make the biggest decisions in most cases.  The average hand takes around two minutes, so when you tank for four minutes you’ve kept your table from playing two more hands that blind level … and that was only ONE decision in the hand!

The bottom line is that you should try to be reasonable in how long you take for your decisions and expect your table mates to do the same.  If they don’t, you should not be afraid to call the clock to speed things up.  Even if people make slightly worse decisions by tanking less, they are likely still going to benefit in the long run by playing more hands and maximizing their chance to accumulate and make the final table.

You should only give a person 2 to 3 minutes max before you call the clock the first time, and if the decision is a trivial one or the player is a habitual tanker, you should give them less and less time before you call the clock.  While the TDA rules which govern most poker tournaments specify that players should be given a “reasonable” amount of time for decisions, they also allow tournament directors to give less than one minute to act to habitual tankers.  Most tournament directors agree that the game needs to speed up, but the power is in OUR hands.  Use it!