Anyone who's watched the latest episodes of the World Series of Poker on ESPN has an opinion on William Kassouf. It's just about impossible to be impartial. It's been awhile since someone was as controversial as Kassouf with his speech play.
In the fourth episode, Kassouf was highlighted by the ESPN production crew. In a hand with Stacy Matuson he used speech play to get her to do what he wanted. She wasn't having any of it, so tournament director Jack Effel came by and gave Kassouf a one round penalty.
In Episode 12, William Kassouf once more took center stage - literally. The players at his table, most notably Cliff Josephy, Jared Bleznick, Kenny Hallaert and Gordon Vayo, were agitated by his slow pace and, to a lesser extent, his speech play once more. Again, Jack Effel came by and this time gave Kassouf a warning, reminding him that poker should be fun for everyone at the table.
The case of Kassouf versus the rest of the table makes for a polarized debate. On the one hand, Kassouf makes the argument that he's in his right to do whatever the rules allow and that the rest of the table ganging up on him is anything but fair. Josephy calling him a clown and Bleznick berating him over the regular buy-ins he plays is harsh, if not offending.
The other side of the debate, one mostly shared by the other players in the room as seen on the broadcast and felt by a lot of the people in the Rio back in June, was that Kassouf sucked the joy out of the game. Him taking minutes to make seemingly easy decisions slowed down the game tremendously, giving the other players on his table a disadvantage. On top of that, the players felt he was just doing it for show and to agonize his table mates.
ESPN made Kassouf into the main character of the show. Whether you see him as the hero or the antagonist, he was there and everything was about him. In a way, it reminded of Jamie Gold and Hevad Kahn who polarized the viewers just as much in their respective deep runs in the WSOP Main Event.
The other side of the story is that of his opponents. Two nights ago, Gordon Vayo took to Twitter to clarify his opinion, if that wasn't clear enough already.
One side of the story, one that isn't heard often, is that of tournament director Jack Effel. Effel usually doesn't react to specific situations that happen during tournaments and declines most interview requests. He made an exception for PokerNews, as he was willing to explain the rest of the situation that wasn't shown in the broadcast.
PokerNews sat down in Monaco with the WSOP tournament director for a one-on-one talk about William Kassouf and some of the other controversial things that have come up in this year's coverage on ESPN.
William Kassouf has been a storyline in the WSOP broadcasts on ESPN since the beginning. At the start of Episode 4, the first big controversy hit and you came in and gave him a one round penalty. How do you look back on that situation?
The first thing that we have to remember is that TV only does so much in terms of showing the moments and the actual result of what's happening. It doesn't show all of the backstory or the interactions we've had with the player; it doesn't show any prior warnings or any discussions we've had with a particular player.
I have a very large staff during the World Series of Poker. If I get called over to make a decision, it has gotten to the point where previous interventions from my staff were unable to get a player's behavior curtailed. At that point a player has received warnings already and it has basically caused a standstill and a decision has to be made.
I'm not just walking around the Amazon Room trying to find someone that I can go and issue a penalty to or go yell at; that's not what happens. It's always about trying to maintain an environment where everybody can play in the best spirit of the tournament and in fairness.
There are rules that govern specific things, like whether you're in your seat when the final card hits the button (rule 82, pdf) or the rule that you shouldn't put any chips in your pocket (rule 107, pdf). Those things are clearly defined. Some of the situations in poker are, however, not. But within our rules, it says that in certain circumstances we can make a decision in fairness and in the best interest of the tournament (rule 45, pdf). Sometimes, when all other rules fail, we have to make a judgment call.
In the case of Will Kassouf, I don't really think it was so much of a judgment call. With everything he had done leading up to me actually giving him the penalty, I could give him a penalty for three things: excessive chatter (rule 48, pdf), disruptive behavior (rule 111, pdf) and taunting (rule 47, pdf).
He had just been warned two hands prior to me giving him the penalty. I'm standing three or four tables over and I can hear him clearly. That means that he can be heard by all the other players. From a noise perspective, I feel like it's kind of causing a scene. I don’t think that's good for the tournament.
But a bit of banter is also part of poker and table talk is part of the game, right? I'm not ready for tables full of people not saying a word and just staring at each other.
I believe that poker is about camaraderie, social interactions between people [and] banter. A little bit of psychological warfare doesn't hurt anyone. But I also believe that there is a line of what's appropriate and what isn't. The words he used might not have necessarily been crossing the line, but the way they were being used and the aggressive nature of his actions were enough to make me feel there was a tension between the players that wasn't creating a positive, fun, interactive environment where people could freely play poker.
I do believe that talking is part of poker and if you look at everybody that runs poker tournaments throughout the world, I by far have the most lenient rules governing talking. I even allow players to talk when there’s no other player left to act, when the action could be closed (rule 113e, pdf).
When it’s bothering all the other tables, then I have to come in and say, ‘Hey guys, you’re not the only ones playing in this tournament. We have to be cognizant of everyone. We have to make this a good environment for everyone to play. And while the fact that you're getting attention might be good for you, the tournament is not just about you. It's about everyone and I must think about everyone.’
Even if it’s not directly affecting the table or no one at the table cares, it could still be affecting the other tables. I’m not just telling people to be quiet because you should be quiet in a poker tournament. Not at all. I’m telling them to be quiet because I can hear them three tables over and I can see people complaining to the other floor people because he’s being too loud. That’s disruptive.
You gave him a one-round penalty and he wanted to defend himself, but you wouldn't let him. Shouldn't a player be able to defend himself or herself in a situation like that?
I didn’t want to let him defend himself because, at that point, it had reached the point that he had talked enough and he needed to go take some time away from the table.
I did give him the courtesy and the respect to have a conversation with him away from the table after he had been given the penalty. After he took a little bit of a break, he and I talked a little bit and he went back to playing. I explained to him that while he wasn't breaking all of the rules, he was definitely riding the line and if he didn't learn how to draw the line when people say they’ve had enough of him, to have enough respect for them to give that respect back, then I have to draw the line for him.
This is the conversation I had. And of course, he understood that. Because he’s a lawyer, it's easy to make the analogy to the courtroom. The judge just told him, 'One more outburst like that and I’m going to hold you in contempt.'
Again, TV does not always play these situations out in the best light but we did have a discussion with him afterward. I said that he shouldn't say another word or I would increase the penalty because, again, he had talked enough. It was time for him to go take a timeout. It was kind of a cooldown. So the players can try to relax and he can relax.
On TV, they can't show the entire interaction or the show would be hours long with a large portion dedicated to arguing. But people judge you by what they see. Do you feel that makes your job a little tougher?
Of course. What I can tell you is that my intentions are true. The goal is the same goal that we all have as the organizers of the World Series of Poker, which is to create an environment where everyone can play their best poker.
Our job is not to make people mute. Our job is not to tell them how to play their hands. Our job is not to create rules that strap them to the table. Our job is to let them play the game in the best light and that’s all we want to do.
When I feel other players in the tournament are not having a good experience because we have this one person that disrupts, I don’t want the one bad apple to spoil the bunch. It’s not fair to the other players in the tournament and I have to keep everyone’s best interests at heart here, not just Will Kassouf's.
What's also not shown on TV, is the countless players that have come up to me privately and said, ‘Hey, can you address this issue? I don’t want to cause a scene at my table but this guy is bothering me. He’s making me uncomfortable.’ They don’t want to be singled out or noticed for complaining. Some guys don’t mind and do it at the table, but others go to floor staff and have private conversations. None of that is shown as part of television episodes, of course.
Do you find it tough to draw the line? You don't want anyone to cause a scene, but you also don't want everyone to be silent and kill all the personalities in poker.
Look, I’m a personality myself. I love when people have a good time. I love the experience people get because win or lose, at the end of the day, the only thing that’s left is the experience that you had while you were competing in the event. That goes for running a race or playing any kind of sport or game for that matter.
So for me, I want everybody to have a good time. I want everyone to play their best poker. I want them to play within the rules, but when I feel that it’s not being fun or fair for everyone, we have to intervene a little bit. That’s all.
We have 70 hours' worth of WSOP Main Event and I spent five minutes with Will Kassouf at the tables and maybe 10 minutes away from the tables. He made it very deep into the tournament so he was allowed to be Will Kassouf pretty much for the entire tournament, with the exception of a couple instances where I felt it had gotten too far, where he had provoked the table or a particular player. Only then I had to intervene.
He was allowed to be Will Kassouf pretty much for the entire tournament, with the exception of a couple instances where I felt it had gotten too far...
We’re referees to a certain degree and we want a clean fight.
Do you watch all the episodes yourself?
I don’t. I really don’t. While it’s great that it’s a TV show and it’s entertainment, my job is to run a poker tournament and to make sure that the rules are being upheld, that there’s integrity, that all the dealers are doing a good job, that there are no problems and that everybody has a good experience so they can play their poker tournament. That’s my job.
My job is not to ensure that the TV is good. I never think, 'Hey, I’m going to let this guy berate somebody because it’s good for TV.'
That doesn't mean you can't watch the episodes, right?
It’s very entertaining. I love that and I want the TV portion to be represented in a good light so when people watch poker, they’re going to want to play. I don’t want people to say, ‘Well, if I have to go and listen to this guy talk to me and talk to me every time I’m trying to make a decision, then that’s not a place that I want to be.’
If we want to continue to grow poker and make it interesting and exciting for new people to come, we have to be able to have an environment that protects people from taking too much advantage of each other. Poker is a game where people capitalize on each other's mistakes. We all understand that because that’s the way poker is. But there are limits.
Where is the line drawn between what is acceptable and what isn’t? I’m not saying I know 100 percent where that line is all the time, but I can rely on a lot of experience and get input from the other players and from the other floor people.
Do you, as WSOP organizers, have any influence on what ESPN shows?
We have no editorial control over the broadcast and have no ability to look at footage during or after play. So we have no influence at all.
I mean, if it was up to me, the episodes wouldn't include me or my floor people. I think we’re the same as any sport; the referee doesn’t want to be seen because then you know he’s done a good job. It’s supposed to be about the players, it’s supposed to be about the game and it’s supposed to be about them playing each other.
But sometimes the players force a referee into a decision and then he or she just has to make that decision with the information available. And of course, since it makes for a storyline, the people broadcasting it might want to use that.
In the latest episode, there's another controversial scene where all the players on the feature table are calling out Kassouf for taking too long. Cliff Josephy calls him a clown multiple times. While calling someone a clown might not be the worst of all swearing words, it was a bit of a scene. What's your take on that?
You know what? I think Will Kassouf brought that on himself. He was antagonizing the players and they retaliated. If you push someone into a corner and you keep pushing on 'em, they're going to eventually fight back. This is just what happened with the players on the feature table.
I told the whole table to calm down and I would deal with him.
My conversation with Will two days prior was basically about the same thing. I said ‘You have to understand where that line is or I’m going to draw it for you.'
If you’re Cliff Josephy and you're continually being provoked and you end up calling him a clown, no, I’m not going to penalize you for that because I know that it was Kassouf that was causing that. I know he’s the problem because I’ve been having problems with him.
In all of these situations with Kassouf, he was the problem. Because he was the main instigator, which is pretty safe to say for everybody that was there, I had to remove him and talk to him. It fixed the problem. That's not to say that the others weren’t a little bit wrong or wrong completely, but they were wrong because of him. He’s still the problem.
Some people have strong opinions on the entire situation and vent on Twitter. Does that do anything to you, when they mention you?
I’ve been working for the World Series of Poker since 2005. I love what I do. I put blood, sweat and tears into my job and my profession so that I can take care of my family. I love and appreciate every person that comes in here, that gets to play with us.
I feel honored that people would choose us as their place to play. I am honored to be able to be part of the experiences because only one to two people of every 10 that walk through the door get to leave here with anything. So what’s left beside the money? It’s the experience that they have. So I want to create, not only a good experience but foster an environment where the best poker in the world can be played. And I care about the players, I care about the staff and I just want to make that the best possible experience for everyone.
I don’t want to ruin Will Kassouf’s time at the World Series of Poker, but I don’t want him to ruin anybody else’s either. We don’t always make the right decisions in the heat of the moment in these things, but we do what we can with the best intentions.
Generally speaking, how much trouble do you have with players during the World Series of Poker?
The Main Event presents an issue that we don’t have the rest of the summer, and that is that the television cameras are present. There are people looking for their 15 minutes of fame and are hamming it up a little bit. We actually kind of let it go. They come in here, they pay their entrance fee and do their thing. We don't go too strict there.
Yet, when that hamming it up goes too far, and the Main Event seems to be the tournament it often does, it’s obviously under the biggest microscope. All in all, it was a great World Series of Poker again and most people left with a good, positive experience. We didn't have a whole lot of issues.
Generally speaking, we are pretty forgiving. To give you an example: A well-known player was screaming at the top of his lungs in the Pavilion Room one day. He was screaming and ready to fight anyone. You could hear him in the entire room. He was screaming at me; he was screaming at security guards. He was definitely getting thrown out, as were his intentions it seemed.
I decided to have some mercy on him because I knew he had a bad night, I knew that he had had a little too much to drink and I knew that when he woke up the next day that he would regret what had happened. I got him a full refund for his tournament and I told him I would see him next year.
I don’t just throw people out because I want to. It’s my job to maintain order and civility among a very diverse group of people that are playing for a lot of money. We have to remember that money is very emotional to a lot of people. They don’t like to lose it; they love to win it and very few in between are just either way. In this environment, when you have so much money being won or lost, you have to be delicate in how you handle things because the emotions are running wild.
That reminds me; Jared Bleznick supposedly was thrown out for crumbling cards in the 2-7 tournament. I heard Phil Hellmuth came to you to talk on his behalf and you let him back in.
Jared has had a long history of issues in the casino. He had some issues at the tournament and he was asked to leave. Then he and I had a conversation, similar to this other guy I told you about just now. Jared was very apologetic. He totally understood that it wasn’t his best day and I understand that this was his livelihood and what he does every day.
People in the community respect him as a player and he belongs here. He belongs in the tournaments; he belongs at the World Series. He deserves an opportunity to compete with everyone else and I didn’t want to keep that from him. That’s his right. He belongs here. He and I just had to come to an understanding about how you’re supposed to act in the casino; that’s all.
We don’t like to talk about any incident that we have with a player in the casino because that’s private information between the casino and the player. But this was public and reported. Jared didn’t have a very good night one night and he was asked to leave. I did have some sympathies for his situation, for him as a player.
He and I talked about it and he agreed that he did not have the best of nights and he promised he would not have nights like that anymore. We agreed to let things be in the past. We agreed to move on and I wanted him to be able to compete in the rest of the World Series because he is a known player and he has been playing for a lot of years and he deserves to be there.
I also know of some players that didn't get that chance.
We have a long list of guys that can never come back. I don't always have full control. If there are incidents that violate certain rules, we can't do anything about it. If there are security-related issues, if you do something that threatens another human being or threaten the building or do anything in the casino, you’re not coming back.
At that point, Phil Hellmuth or anyone else can't say anything to get you back in. We have long a list of people who aren’t allowed to come back in the casino and we have a list 10 times as long of friends who have written letters on their behalf to try to get them back in. It doesn’t work like that in those cases.
That black book that you always hear about that casinos share around the world? That book exists. So if you get thrown out of a casino in Europe, end up in the black book, and you come to the World Series of Poker and they spot you, you will be thrown out of our place too. That’s just the way casinos work. If you travel around the world and play in casinos on a regular basis, it's probably best that you’re on your best behavior.
But let's not make things bigger than they are. We had 50,000 unique people that came through the World Series of Poker doors, about 300,000 total entries for all the side events, and that doesn't even include all of the cash games that were going on. There’s a lot of activity, there’s a lot of people, there’s a lot of money being won and being lost. And just a fraction causes a problem.
We are in a gambling environment and so sometimes things happen. People get thrown out. Sometimes people fight. Sometimes people do bad things. The percentage is very, very small. But if it happens to be that guy that everybody knows, that they follow at all the poker tours or has X amount of millions in result, it gets some attention.
We want everyone to play and have fun and enjoy the experience and take it all in. You just have to respect all the participants.
One final thing. In Episode 7, Jason Mcconnon tries to use a push-fold chart during a hand. You ruled he couldn't. I tried to find a rule that forbids this but couldn't really find it. What are your thoughts on using a piece of paper that basically tells you: These are your options?
For me, having any sort of an aid that’ll calculate statistics or anything like that is off-limits. It's not completely defined, but there are things that I feel you shouldn't be able to use. You can't ask someone ‘What do I do in this particular situation?’ and you can't use a piece of paper that answers that same question either.
We don't allow devices where you can calculate the odds. And so, I interpret him bringing that chart as a kind of an aid. It's not necessarily a cheating device or anything like that, but something not everyone else has or uses to play, so it's not allowed.
I'm playing devil's advocate here, but these charts are available for everyone for free on the internet.
We don't allow someone to be playing with their phone at the same time they're looking at their cards. They can't get information this way. We’ve never allowed an aid, so to speak. But you're right, it's not clearly defined.
Should it be?
If you go to your 20-dollar tournament in your local casino and you get a card with the hand rankings, that totally makes sense. But I don't think that it's proper for a $10,000 championship event. You should know how to play poker at this time.
Now, if you needed an aid because you couldn't see or there was some sort of handicap that you had, I think that's a much different scenario than having something help you to decide how to make a particular move.
Where is the line in terms of the aid, in terms of what is allowable while you're playing? I draw a line and say you can't use an aid like that because you’re playing the Main Event and you should know by now.
In between a hand, you can look at whatever, you can write your notes or whatever, but I think being able to use that when it’s your turn, if you don't disallow it, you're going to open yourself up to other things that are just going to make for not a good experience in the way that people play.
* Photos by Neil Stoddart.
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