This issue has been a very difficult one for me to write about but I think that it is a topic that currently deserves discussion. I like to think that my reputation was built on integrity and that money has never been the most important factor in my career selection. I also know that the people that work for me are some of the best in the industry and deserve to be paid well for the pride they take in their work.
In most major tournaments today a percentage is withheld and most players accept the fact that gratuities are warranted when good service is provided. Occasionally, however, the system doesn't work. Some players leave a tip not knowing that money has already been withdrawn from the prize pool. Other times, players don't leave anything, believing arrangements have been made when that really isn't the case. Either way, the question has been raised as to where the responsibility lies. In short, the present system is broken and steps need to be taken to address the problem.
The 2001 WSOP was the first time I can recall where a mandatory tip was withheld from a prize pool and while many pros at the time complained, it has now become an industry standard to withhold 3% from the prize pool. The problem happens when some events withhold tip money and others don't. Combined with a lack of proper information to the players, it is a big problem. Most pros that I spoke to now prefer to have a percentage withheld in advance so that they do not have to worry about making this tough decision at the end of the tournament when they should be celebrating.
I recently directed an event at the Bay 101 in San Jose, California. The $10,000 WPT Shooting Stars event hosted by owner Marko Trapani is always a great event and one of the favorite stops on the professional tour for players and fans alike. However, I made a mistake and caused a few problems. It was really more of what I didn't do, rather than something I did.
In regard to the dealers, I apparently cost them the sizable tips they usually receive, as I or my staff may have not been clear to the winners as to the tipping situation at Bay 101. I placed a few in a position of not knowing that 3% had NOT been withheld from the prize pool, causing them to end up in a potentially embarrassing spot. Believing tip money had been removed from the prize pool and placed aside for distribution, some of the winners did not tip as they were paid and cashing out from the casino.
Regrettably, one player was outed at a popular forum and labeled as being cheap or a stiff. This was not good for anybody, and certainly not fair to the player. When the gossip began on the internet boards, both the players and the staff joined in and the bitching began. Screams of "Screw the dealers!" and "The casinos make too much money, they should pay the dealers!" were commonplace, and I was stuck in a position of defending a tournament and dealer staff that I feel is the best on the WPT circuit. In a moment of insanity, I even posted expressing my doubt as to that player's knowledge of the tip policy in place and I was wrong to do so. I still believe it is a player's personal choice whether or not to tip or not in tournaments that do not withhold and the players deserve a first-class event either way.
In major tournaments it is part of my job as tournament director to liaise between players, management, and dealers, media, and even television producers and the line is very fine between doing what is best for each entity. One thing players may not understand is that tournaments on their own are not profitable and that the ancillary revenue streams such as live games, pit play, slot machines, food and hotel are usually needed. It is also true that most management does not consider the fact that poker tournaments are the best possible way to market their poker rooms, and properties and players wouldn't be there if it was not for the tournament. I understand that the costs of touring pros are substantial, with airfares, accommodation, buy-ins, entry fees, and tips (whether mandatory or not) and I have said many times that I have a lot of respect for them and their profession.
In fact, no one can read the mind of a player and know exactly what they are thinking. Considering that no information had been officially provided by the tournament staff, how is it anybody couldn't be confused? I accept the blame for these mistakes and will try to avoid the same with the suggestions that follow.
I think all players are entitled to know exactly when tips have or have not been withheld from a prize pool. Complete exchange of information and transparency is the goal. I plan to propose to the members of the Tournament Directors Association that they create procedures to be uniformly used by its members.
One change that should be made is a requirement that all promotional material and printed structure sheets clearly state the tip policy of the hosting venue. I also intend to suggest that the exact amounts be included. The problem is that most materials include notice when tips will be taken from the prize pool, but no information as to when they will not be withheld. Let's place complete information into the documents whenever possible.
I also believe that when players reach the money, the Tournament Director should announce to the remaining field something like this: "Congratulations on making the money. All of you should know that X% of the prize pool has been withheld for the dealers and tournament staff. Thank you very much." When applicable, I also think something like the following is appropriate, "Money has not been withdrawn from the prize pool as a gratuity for the dealers or tournament staff. If you would like to leave a tip, it would be greatly appreciated." No confusion there.
I also do not believe that it is appropriate to solicit further tips from players when 3% has been withdrawn. Therefore, I will suggest that no Tournament Director make any ambiguous comments which might cause confusion. If players decide to leave additional money on top of what is already withheld of course it is appreciated but they should never feel any obligation or be talked about negatively if they don't and in fact I have fired dealers in the past for doing so.
The truth is, I always feel uncomfortable asking for tips and I'm not very good at it. The players deserve to have all the facts so they can make an informed decision. I completely dropped the ball at the Shooting Stars event and hereby apologize to all. Once players have received complete and accurate information regarding the status of the tip money of each event, they will be in a better position to make an informed decision. After all, tipping is a personal decision, and one that should be made only after knowing exactly what the circumstances are.
See you at the final table!
Matt Savage is one of the world's most recognized poker tournament directors, and has been involved with over 350 televised events including the World Series of Poker, World Poker Tour, and many others. Matt is a founder of the Tournament Directors Association, the first inductee into the Poker Managers Hall of Fame, and actor in the movie Lucky You. If you have questions about any rulings please send them to AskTheBoard@PokerTDA.com or check out Matt's website at SavageTournaments.com.