Ban Hoodies, Phones, Headphones, and Sunglasses: Will the Social Experiment Work?

Using phone at the poker table

We’ve all been there. You’re on the button looking down at a hand you want to three-bet, but the guy with the headphones in middle position doesn’t know the action is on him and instead is bopping out to Maroon 5. Well, OK, maybe we haven’t all been in exactly that situation (really, who listens to Maroon 5 anymore?), but the point remains the same: distraction from electronic devices can be a real problem at the live poker table.

Back in the day, poker was a social game. People got together in smoky rooms to play cards, win money, and interact with fellow humans. The banter at the table was as much a part of the poker experience as the cards or the money, and being distracted from the game was not only considered rude, but also an invitation to become the game’s “mark.”

In recent years, with the rise of online poker, as well as the ubiquity of electronic devices like smart phones, wireless headphones, and personal music players, the social aspect of the game has diminished in many areas. Players who learned the game online are often socially awkward, especially in their first few live experiences, and other players use personal electronics to either stave off boredom in the tournament setting or as way of maintaining concentration by blocking outside influences.

Further, the use of hoods and facial coverings, ostensibly to help hide live tells, tends to wall players off from each other. While there are live tells that can be hidden by covering your neck and eyes, hoods and glasses can also be used to help keep out the outside distractions or reduce social anxiety.

Whatever the reason, the social aspect of today’s live poker experience is often severely lacking as a result of overuse of personal electronics and players covering up. Enter “The Social Experiment (PDF),” an event in the upcoming California State Poker Championship at Commerce Casino that is looking to ban the use of personal electronics as well as hoods and sunglasses for the duration of the tournament to promote the social aspect of the game.

In the words of tournament organizers, “The #SocialExperiment is an attempt to create social interaction amongst players. Cell phones, sunglasses, headphones, and hoods will only be allowed outside of the tournament area, or on break. Escalating penalties will be assessed for rule violations, starting with three hands, and a minimum of one lap after registration closes. Complimentary updates on any world news will be provided by tournament staff.”

As the name suggests, the event is an experiment to see if fewer distractions and less hiding behind dark glasses will result in a more social experience on the felt. It’s one of the many ideas in recent years, such as the idea of time clocks in live tournaments, seeking to improve the modern live game. As with other such innovations, the real question will be whether it actually improves the game and enough players find value in it.

No phone allowed

The truth is, the vast majority of electronic use during live poker today is innocuous. Players check their social media between hands, but in most cases, it doesn’t severely interfere with play. In most of the world, where the general rule is no phones in the hand, players are very good about dropping their electronics when the first card is dealt, and not touching them again until they muck their hands. Only in the more rare, extreme cases is play severely impacted, but even in the innocuous cases, the ubiquitous use of electronics between hands does tend to limit the physical interactions between players.

There is a jurisdiction in Canada that has put some of this idea into practice for years. Casinos in Ontario have long banned electronic devices (or, in fact, even pen and paper) as a means of controlling “recording devices.” As well, hoods are banned in the casino to ensure players aren’t wearing headphones. This has produced a poker environment where players are never on their phones or listening to music on headphones for fear of penalty or expulsion. While the sunglasses may still be ubiquitous, poker players in Ontario aren’t distracted by electronic devices during play. Still, Ontario players often leave the table to check their phones, and that in itself can have a detrimental impact on game play.

In the modern world, this creates a trade-off situation where some players may well be more engaged in the game and with the other players, but for other players there is real danger of boredom or of distraction. For more socially awkward people, the electronic devices can provide an escape from what is a very overwhelming environment. And ultimately, in our modern world of always-on devices, some players may be so attached to their devices they have psychological, or even physical, reactions to the separation.

The upcoming experiment in California will no doubt produce an interesting example. It’s hard to think of a place in the world that is more saturated with personal electronic devices than Southern California, so it’s easy to guess that there will be more than a few people in the “jones for their phones” category. That said, it's also easy to see how that kind of saturated environment might create a real need for a "quiet space" that a tournament like this would provide.

The Ontario experience does show more engagement at the tables, but also highlights some of the expected issues that will arise such as more players leaving the tournament area during play. While that mostly affects the player leaving the table, it does affect the flow of play for the rest of the table as well, so it’s not entirely one-sided. Forcing that sort of change may well have a detrimental impact on tournament flow.

At worst, the April 29th tournament at Commerce will be an interesting one-off that the poker world can learn from. While it seems unlikely, or even impossible and unwanted, to roll back the clock and ban electronics from all poker, having the opportunity to play in one event in a larger series that bans the devices might be a welcome distraction for some players to get a break from their devices, uncover their faces, and interact with their fellow players. And for others, it might actually be the thing that they’ve been looking for — a chance to play poker with other people,in an environment where the poker and the people are the main focus.

It’s probably not a format for everyone, and it’s certainly not a format for every event ever. As one event in a larger series, however, this seems like it could be an amazing idea for live poker.

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