Let’s talk about tournament tokes in poker

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Emily Post, the queen of etiquette, suggests you tip your server 15-20 percent of your pretax bill.

But I guess Emily Post doesn’t play cards. She offers no advice on how much to tip your dealer after your big score in the Ante Up Poker Tour event.

You won’t see Nic Cage trying to solve the tournament tipping riddle in National Treasure 3. He’s smart enough to know even a dozen sequels won’t get him any closer to cracking this confusing code.

But with no apologies to Emily or Nic, I think I just might have an idea. And I have an idea that it’ll never fly.

Let’s be blunt. Dealers make their living from tips. And who can really blame someone who makes their living off of tips from wanting people to be as generous as they possibly can — especially in this economy? And since we’re being blunt, that’s why this issue will forever remain a mystery akin to how VH1 is able to keep churning out new reality shows that really are just recycled ones.

PERCENTAGE OF WIN

Here’s the old school method. When your palm is filled with the winning cash, the poker room manager smiles and says, “Congratulations! If you’d like to leave anything for the dealers, they’d appreciate it.” And just like if you’re at Outback Steakhouse, you fork over a predetermined percentage of your win. A little more if the dealers were efficient and friendly, a little less if not.

But let’s remember Emily Post. Tipping in restaurants has a widely agreed-upon customary percentage. Poker tournaments do not. Google “poker tournament tipping” and you’ll find various numbers, all calculated by people with different interests. Dealers, of course, will suggest a higher amount. Pros grinding out a living say it should be much lower. Most of us shoot in the middle and hope our generosity is met with a “Thanks, Boss!”

It’s not a bad method, but just like the U.S. Constitution, no matter how good it is, we’re always looking to improve upon it. And because of the best intentions of folks trying to “fix” this, those percentages get more out of whack than they already are. If the room takes a piece of the entry fee out for staff, or suggests an “optional dealer add-on,” does that mean we should deviate from the ballpark percentage?

OPTIONAL DEALER ADD-ON

Here’s the new kid on the block. Poker room managers offer a carrot to players. Tip $5 or so before the tournament and get extra chips. Sounds like a good deal, right? Who doesn’t want extra chips? And especially if it goes to the hard-working dealers?
Well ….

A Florida dealer told me last week that tournament tipping is way down in his room after they switched to a dealer add-on. Players don’t feel as if they should have to tip beyond what they already have when they win. I believe it also may have to do with how many extra chips the room gives you for the money. If you’re starting with 8,000 and the extra $5 gets you 500, don’t be surprised if players decline your generosity. But if you’re giving them 2,000 for that same $5, you might see more participation.

And a Florida poker room manager has told me he’s resisted making this change despite players asking for it. His reason? He says dealing is a “service,” so why would you reward service before it’s performed? He has a point.

But perhaps the biggest flaw in the dealer add-on is it shifts the financial burden from the winners to the losers. Imagine if in a cash game the guy in Seat 5 wins a big pot and then says, “OK, everyone, toss in a buck for the dealer.” You’d be livid. But is the add-on really much different?

WITHHELD FOR STAFF

The World Series of Poker does this. Every structure sheet for this year’s Series listed a percentage that Harrah’s took from the prize pool to give to the staff.

Hey! Maybe we’re on to something here. The room says, “Hey, players, we’re taking care of the dealers for you.” But wait, they’re NOT saying that. What they’re saying is they want to be sure the staff doesn’t get stiffed (and let’s hope nobody wants that), but they certainly don’t mind, and even expect, that winners will tip in addition.

And that brings me to my brilliant, but dead on arrival, idea.

I’d love it if the poker room manager got on the loud speaker, and just before the tournament she says, “Shuffle up and deal,” then she says, “if you cash, please show your generosity to our dealers. An X percent of winnings is considered customary in this room.”
THAT’S what I want. And I think that’s what most players want. We just want a guideline. Not a guideline we Google, but one the staff in the room understands and is comfortable with. One the manager tells his staff to expect. And I have no problem with tipping more than that if the staff treats me well, just like I’d have no problem tipping less — and telling the staff why — if I believe they didn’t treat me well.

But to have no idea what the staff expects is the root of this problem.

So why is it dead on arrival? I just can’t imagine any poker room manager telling his dealers he’s going to suggest a specific tip amount. I just can’t. And to prove my point, I asked our poker room manager on August’s Ante Up Poker Cruise to do a dealer add-on with generous chips for all tournaments. I want to make sure our dealers are taken care of, even though I personally don’t think the add-on is the way to do it. It’s different when you’re the boss and not the player.

Anyone else want to take a crack at this riddle? Nic Cage, we need you!

— Email Scott at scott@anteupmagazine.com