Rounders’ Rules

Poker can be a heartless game, but it’s never a lawless one. With so much riding on each turn of the card, rules are important. Unless everyone’s playing by the same book, even a friendly game can dissolve into accusations of cheating and mutual recriminations, to say nothing of high-stakes tournaments.

Unfortunately, there’s no single agreed-upon set of rules for playing the game. That can make for some challenges, particularly in a place like Las Vegas, where players from all around the world come to test their luck.

In 2007, Las Vegas-based poker pro Michelle Lau collaborated with Netherlands pro Marcel “The Flying Dutchman” Lüske to assemble a list of rules that could be used by tournament directors and players around the world. They came up with the International Poker Rules, a set of 81 guidelines and procedures that set the terms for everything from registration to the final hand.

Lüske and Lau created the Federation Internationale de Poker Association, a body whose name conveys its international reach. Poker is an American game at its core, but has grown tremendously around the world, particularly in Europe. German poker pro Pius Heinz’s recent $8.7 million payday as the 2011 World Series of Poker Main Event champion shows just how big an impression international players have made on the game.

It makes sense that you’d want an international body issuing rules that everyone can agree on. And there are a few sets of rules floating around out there. The Poker Tournament Directors Association has its own guidelines for tournament play, and every poker room in the world has its own rules governing how the game is played.

Lau says another set of rules was needed because existing rulebooks were vague and confusing to novices. For example, they might declare that rabbit hunting was prohibited. That’s great to know, but a good portion of players might think this would only impact Elmer Fudd. As the International Rules spell out, “rabbit hunting” means looking through discards after a hand has been dealt.

Jamie Gold, the 2006 World Series of Poker Main Event champion, knows a few things about rules. In the 2006 World Series, he created a storm of controversy with his “table talk,” in which he told opponents, sometimes truthfully and sometimes not, what cards he was holding. Purists argued that this was another sign of the game’s demise—and clearly against the rules.

Or was it? “When I was playing in Los Angeles-area card rooms,” Gold says, “I was told everything I was doing was within the rules.” And, at the Bicycle Casino, where Gold won his first major tournament in 2005, it was. At the World Series, however, it wasn’t. The director didn’t penalize Gold for any of his actions during the 2006 tournament, but the fact that a skilled pro could make it to the final table of the world’s biggest tournament without a crystal-clear understanding of the rules shows what a gray area this is.

With poker moving online, there’s an even greater incentive for live poker rooms to adopt a common set of rules.

“If we want to use online poker to help grow live poker, we need a standardized set of rules for both venues,” Lau says. Since online poker is, one way or another, likely going to be where the next generation of players gets its start, this is going to be essential for Las Vegas’ poker rooms. To stay relevant, they’ll have to play by the same rules.

The same goes for the international game. “When I’m in the U.S. and I have a question,” Gold says, “I usually ask Matt [Savage, World Poker Tour executive director] or Jack [Effel, World Series of Poker tournament director]. And I’ll get the same answer. But when I go overseas, the answer’s sometimes different. I’ve learned to ask now before playing, but I have a feeling many players aren’t clear on the exact rules if they travel a lot.”

So far, the Bellagio poker room has adopted the International Rules—a key endorsement, since it’s one of the top places to play on the Strip. If other Strip casinos get on board, there will be a good chance that Las Vegas poker, played by a single, easy-to-understand set of rules, will be that much more attractive to potential players.

As with online poker itself, this is an area where Las Vegas will have to keep up with the times—or risk being left behind.