How The Threshold Model of Collective Behaviour Slows Down Poker And How Dealers Could Speed it up

TAGs: dealers, Lee Davy, poker game

Inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast, Lee Davy, takes a look at how the threshold model of collective behaviour slows the flow of poker and how dealers could speed it up.

My son and I are having dinner.

He’s a bag of nerves; fidgety, his fingers always working, adjusting a lapel, a button, or shaping his hair. A group of lads his age walk in and take a seat next to us. I see another change; more solemn this time, the conversation is stilted, the tone is quiet, almost imperceptible.

I look across at the lads.

They are all picking, preening, postulating.

“It must be tough being a kid these days,” I say with my head tilting towards the table next to us.

He nods his head.

I don’t ask why.

I don’t have to.

My son feels a compulsion to be perfect.

And I know it’s my fault.

The Greatest Show on Earth

The World Series of Poker (WSOP) gathers the greatest collection of poker stars in the world. This year the event attracted a record 107,833 entrants, from 107 different countries, and they awarded $221,211,336 in prize money.

How The Threshold Model of Collective Behaviour Slows Down Poker And How Dealers Could Speed it upIt’s a well-oiled machine, and one of the vital organs is the dealer. Life at the heart of the table can suck balls. I have seen them picked on, shouted at, cold-shouldered, dismissed, demeaned, and belittled. I have seen them subjected to ageism and sexism.

The pay is relatively poor, they rely heavily on tips, the role itself is menial, and the hours they are forced to work often fall beyond the boundaries of decent health and safety requirements.

When you watch a dealer flicking out cards with his eyes closed you know something isn’t quite right.

There is a lack of respect, they have no authority, and even if offered the olive branch of change, most of them would be petrified at the thought. An unfulfilled purpose in life can often become a rut that you cannot escape from, even if someone is holding the door open and ushering you through.

It’s time we gave them something else to do, and I think I have the perfect solution.

The Sloth Like Pace of Poker

The not so perfect pace of poker has been at the foremost of thought for some years. The sloth-like pace makes it too boring for TV, and it also reduces the stickability of recreational players because they find the game boring or intimidating.

When the creators of the Global Poker League (GPL) started whacking Post-It Notes on a whiteboard, they knew a shot clock system was imperative to speed up play if the game was going to stand a chance of being spoken of as a new eSport.

The European Poker Tour (EPT), World Poker Tour (WPT), Aussie Millions, and the Super High Roller Bowl (SHRB) have recently introduced shot clocks into their higher buy-in events to great effect and have received positive feedback.

But we have a long way to go.

The Word Champion Joe McKeehen was the guest Shuffle Up and Deal announcer on Day 1C of the tournament he had won one year before. He used the majority of his mic time encouraging players to call the clock on their opponent’s if they felt they were stalling.

During one event there was a highly publicised spat between Chris Klodnicki and Jordan Cristos over the pace at which Cristos decreed was acceptable. Klodnicki called the clock on Cristos several times. Cristos is a player who prefers patience over speed.

The WSOP and the organisers of the Big One for ONE DROP have decided to move the $1m buy-in to Monte Carlo and to ban pro poker players from entering. I heard it on Daniel Negreanu’s grapevine that one of the main reasons was the lack of enjoyment the non-poker professionals were finding in the game due to the slow pace and seriousness of the professionals.

And then, during Day 7 of the WSOP Main Event, the WSOP Tournament Director (TD), Jack Effel, took a unique line of removing the player’s rights to call the clock, and instead handed authority to the TD team, because the pace was too slow.

We have to bear in mind that he made his decision with 10-players remaining and a pay jump of $350,000 and a seat in the November Nine staring everyone in the face. However, I like Effel’s move and believe he may have stumbled upon the easiest way to go all Bucks Fizz and speed things up

Time for a Change?

Niall Farrell is a former EPT Main Event winner. This summer he had a sterling series with five cashes, including three final table appearances, and he believes it’s time for a change.

“There is a definite need for a change,” said Farrell. “I believe a shot-clock with some time extension chips is the way forward. The presence of an actual shot clock in play has a psychological effect on the field. People play faster without even using the clock in my experience.”

Steve Frezer, Director of Operations for Planet Earth Poker Events, doesn’t like the idea of a shot clock. He prefers leaving things as they are, but does like the idea of making stalling less appealing my increasing the punishment.

“I would change how we enforce penalties.” Said Frezer. “I wouldn’t give players time away from the table. I would fine them a big blind for the first infraction and additional BB’s for new violations. Nothing gets a player to act correctly more than taking chips from them.”

I like both ideas, but before we touch on potential solutions, let’s explore why this phenomenon might be expanding and we will look to former NBA stars Wilt Chamberlain and Rick Barry for our answers.

The Granny Shot

Wilt Chamberlain is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and widely thought of as one of the most dominant players in NBA history.

In March 1962, while representing the Philadelphia Warriors against the New York Knicks, Chamberlain became the only man in history to score 100 points in a single game. But he also set another record when he made 28 of his 32 free throws (an 87.5% success rate). It was an incredible feat not least because Chamberlain achieved notoriety as being one of the worse free throw shooters in the game.

In that single season, Chamberlain added 11% onto his free throw statistics moving from 50% to 61%, and many people believed that his teams would never lose if he could maintain that average. And then something changed. By the time the 1967-68 season came about, Chamberlain’s free throw percentage had dropped to 38%.

How can you go from being the worse free throw shooter in the game, to one of the best, and then back to one of the worst?

Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s new podcast Revisionist History I have the answer, and it links nicely to the problems we are currently facing with pace in poker.

Chamberlain changed his free throw style from overarm to underarm and when he did his stats started to go through the roof. Then, as he hits his peak, he stopped and reverted back to the overarm method he knew weakened his performance.


“I felt silly, like a sissy. I know it was wrong to change, but I did.” Said Wilt Chamberlain.

He felt like a sissy.

They call it the Granny Shot for a reason.

What people thought about him was more important that being the best.

Shaquille O’Neil, another star of the game, but with an appalling free throw percentage said he would rather shoot a zero than try an underhanded throw.

And then you had Rick Barry with a free throw percentage of 89.98%. Only three other players have a better percentage in the history of the game and Barry always shot underhanded.

Le Bron James misses 150 free throws a season.

Barry would miss 10.

So what was the difference between Barry and Chamberlain?

Barry cared more about being a perfectionist; Chamberlain cared more about what people thought of him.

The Threshold Model of Collective Behaviour

Malcolm Gladwell believes the answer lies in the Threshold Model of Collective Behaviour and the research conducted by the American sociologist Mark Granovetter.

Granovetter was interested in establishing why people tended to follow a crowd and wanted to challenge the widely held belief that the mob mentality was the primary reason why seemingly rational individuals would pick up a rock and start hurling it at people if everyone else was doing likewise.

He believed the question was one of the thresholds. A threshold being the number of individuals who would have to take part in an act before everyone else joined in. Using Granovetter’s research Wilt Chamberlain would have a low threshold, meaning he wouldn’t need a lot of persuading to accede to the flock, and Barry had a high threshold meaning it would take a whole lot of people to change before he did, and even then he may stand resolute.

And this is where it relates to poker.

Jordan Cristos comes in for an incredible amount of stick when he plays live poker. His reputation proceeds him meaning people are ready to call the clock before the action has even landed at his chair.

His reaction to this name-calling, abuse, and constant calling of the clock will make you believe he has skin as thick as a rhino. But it’s because he has a high threshold. He doesn’t care what people think about him. He is more interested in the pursuit of perfection. It’s why he is a WPT Champion.

And he is not alone.

Think about it.

Why has Vanessa Selbst been so successful at poker? Is it because she follows the lines drawn by the stars who won all before her, or does she approach the game in a unique way?

Every player who becomes great in this game does so because they have a high threshold. You could almost say it’s in their DNA.

The Domino Effect

Having a high threshold like Jordan Cristos is a good thing in poker. It’s a dynamic game. You need to move like water. One of the criticisms of weaker players is they don’t adapt, and they play each hand the same way irrespective of their opponent.

I believe the vast majority of top tier poker pros have high thresholds and what has happened over time is the perfectionist plan has kicked off a domino effect. The more recreational poker players, or wannabe pros, that watch players like Cristos taking their time, the more likely they are to follow him.

And now everyone is at it.

In a way, making a quick decision has become the Granny Shot of poker, and it’s not going to be easy to change. Poker players are so fearful of making a mistake. The need to be perfect has been accentuated in modern times both through the rise of social media and the parenting skills of people like myself who consciously or sub-consciously drive our children to pick and preen when sitting in Nandos waiting for their chicken.

So how do we turn this around?

There are three schools of thought.

1. Players have a responsibility to change.

“It’s up to the player’s themselves to change the way they are playing.” Said November Niner Kenny Hallaert. “The way they are handling it right now is not good for the game of poker in general. It’s not good for recreational players who want to have fun. If they are only playing one hand every five minutes, they are not going to have a good experience. Pros need these recreational players, so tanking on easy decisions doesn’t help.”

2. Players Need to Call The Clock More Often

“My solution is to keep it the same way it is now. The players must call the clock, and if it’s called too many times on a player, the floor can now impose a penalty, which usually solves the problem, once players start missing hands and giving up blinds their behaviour starts to change.” Said Steve Frezer. “It is a competition, and players should use everything at their disposal to win the event, including upsetting your opponent. Players have to respond by calling clock or not and letting the behaviour continue or not. Stalling every hand can be considered bad etiquette and that can be penalised.”

3. Introduce a Shot Clock or Give More Powers to TD Staff

“I think giving the TD the power to call the clock is a fine solution, but only in extreme cases.” Said Steven Van Zadelhoff.

I think the answer is far simpler.

Dealer Power

What are the constants in a game of poker?

1. Players
2. Cards
3. Chairs
4. Table
5. Chips/Money
6. Dealer

It’s no good trying to stick a band aid on this problem. Introducing shot clocks in high stakes games doesn’t go far enough. We need to start at the grass roots of the game and for this to happen we need a quick and easy solution.

We can’t rely on poker players to change their threshold. Wilt Chamberlain knew that he could have been virtually unbeatable if he threw underhanded and he refused. Shaq said he would rather score a zero.

The responsibility for game flow must rest with the dealer. It’s the simplest and most obvious solution. There are nothing but positive outcomes and hardly any negatives.

But I am alone in my thinking.

“I wouldn’t want the dealer involved as getting his head in the game would badly influence what he should be focusing on, being a good dealer.” Said Steven Van Zadelhoff.

“Your opinion is something I would never do. Putting the power with the dealers is not fair to the dealers. They should not be made to be the bad guy; that’s why we have the floor. They rely on tips and pissing off the players who tip them is not good for them, and dealer pay is going down every year.” Said Steve Frezer.

“Taking away the power from players to call the clock was an awful move {referring to Effel’s decision}. As soon as non-players have more control over in game situations, it gets a bit dicey. You can end up with a situation where the clock is called by someone who doesn’t have the necessary playing experience to understand why a situation is tough/requires more time and maybe won’t call it when it’s an easy situation but seems to have taken less time.” Said Niall Farrell.

I don’t think poker players and tournament officials can see the woods for the trees when it comes to the role of the dealer. They have been in the game too long to look at the matter objectively.

James Akenhead was a train driver. Niall Farrell worked at Carphone Warehouse. Kenny Hallaert was an electrician. Today, they are world class poker players. And people are trying to tell me that a dealer can’t take charge of the flow of a poker game?

I have yet to this day heard a single sensible reason why the dealer can’t do for poker what the referee does for football or the umpire does for cricket.

And an upgrade would solve a heap of problems.

If we gave the dealer more autonomy and power, then they would command more respect. The position would be more interesting and attractive. We could eradicate wasted time calling the floor to make a decision.

The dealer’s rate of pay is irrelevant. If you want higher quality dealers, then pay them more and make their job more enjoyable. If dealers don’t want the added responsibility, then let them find another job minus responsibility.

Referees are not bad guys.

They are paid to make decisions, and players won’t like them all. It’s the way sport has been for thousands of years, and any poker player who also plays a form of sport should have no problem taking orders from referees or umpires in football, tennis, or rugby, so why not poker?

The greatest officials in the world of sport all make mistakes. Training, education, and patience are critical.

Let’s not try and be perfect.

We will never get 100% perfect officiating.

But what we can get is a way for poker to defeat the threshold model of collective behaviour, by allowing dealers to manage that threshold and not the players.

Nobody likes to be the first domino.

Let the dealer give it a flick.


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