Poker tanking: breaking down shot clocks, chess clocks and other potential solutions

Dave Consolazio Poker Writer Photo
Dave Consolazio
Posted on: November 25, 2021 04:38 PST

Anyone who has played or watched poker in the last decade has seen their fair share of tanking at the poker table. The act of tanking -- another word for taking time to think deeply about a hand -- used to be a rare occurrence that was only reserved for the most difficult and complex decisions a player would face. Nowadays tanking happens in some capacity on virtually every hand. Many pros have complained about the practice, and 2021 WSOP Main Event Champion Koray Aldemir even responded to criticism about tanking at this year’s final table.

Virtually everyone agrees that something should be done about tanking. But what method of handling it is best? In this article we’ll break down the shot clock and chess clock, and why encouraging players to call the clock might still be best.

1. The shot clock

In tournaments and cash games that use the shot clock format, dealers control a physical clock at the table that generally gives players 30 seconds to make a decision whenever it is their turn. Players are given a certain number of time-bank cards that can be used to extend their clock by a set unit of time (usually an additional 30 or 60 seconds). This incentivizes players to save their time banks for big spots and to act quickly in minor ones.

The shot clock has become quite popular in high-stakes events and is best suited to these games. That's because high-stakes games tend to draw more experienced players that can handle the added stress of having their decisions timed. The system’s main drawback is that it is not beginner friendly. Poker’s ecosystem relies on big fish playing and being happy. Forcing them to make decisions in a timely manner or risk having their hand automatically folded may disincentivize weaker players from playing. Do poker players really want the table drunk to move over to blackjack because he keeps getting timed out and auto-folded?

2. The chess clock

In timed chess formats, both players at the table have a set amount of time in which to play their moves throughout the game. The clock runs when a player is thinking and is paused when it is their opponent’s turn. This format gives players who act quickly on easy decisions more time to think about the harder ones.

In chess, timing out causes a player to lose the game (or draw if their opponent has insufficient material to deliver checkmate). What would timing out do in poker? A version of the chess clock has been implemented at final tables on GGPoker, and on that site, a player who runs out of time on their clock only has five seconds to make decisions.

On paper the concept of a chess clock in poker is kind of cool, but upon inspection it isn’t really any different than a shot clock. In both instances you have a set amount of time to act before your extra time is activated, whether that time is in the form of expendable time banks or an expendable running clock. The clock idea is in theory a bit better as you could tap into it for less than a full 60 seconds of extra time when necessary. But this advantage might be offset by the nightmare of implementing and enforcing individual chess clocks in a live game setting.

3. Calling the clock (with some modifications)

There is no obvious solution to dealing with excessive tanking. If there were, it likely would have been implemented already.

The shot clock method generally seems to be a net positive and should be used far more frequently than it already is. But while it is a great system for getting pros and regular players to be more mindful of the time they take on decisions, it could be quite detrimental to amateur players. Playing live poker is stressful and intimidating enough as it is for the uninitiated. Adding and enforcing a shot clock or chess clock might be anxiety-inducing enough to drive beginners away from the game.

For this reason, situation-based calling of the clock may still be the best solution for low-stakes games. The first step to making this work on a larger scale though would be to destigmatize clock-calling. Many players believe that calling the clock in a hand you aren’t involved with is poor etiquette and others will never do it under any circumstances. The poker community needs to get over this dated idea that calling the clock is rude or unacceptable. If it becomes a more widely accepted practice, it will be used more often.

Digital clocks and tank timers

In the tournament format it's easy for players to see how much time a decision is taking, but not all cash game tables are located near clocks. For players who aren’t on their phones, having a digital clock displayed at dealer stations could be a useful tool. A digital clock could help both in the hand and out of it to keep track of how long a tank is taking.

Building on the idea of each dealer carrying a clock, perhaps dealers could be equipped with “tank timers” that they could start when a player is taking more than 15-20 seconds on a decision. This would give the players at the table a rough estimate of how long the tank has gone on, and rules could be put in place as to when an “appropriate” amount of time has passed before the clock can be called. Maybe that amount of time could be lowered at the floor’s discretion for serial tankers.

In general, once a player is talked to or has the clock called on them once or twice, they tend to speed up. Creating an environment where the players self-police tanking without the negative stigma of calling the clock is far from a perfect answer, but it would be a start.

Featured Image Credit: Marco Verch - Flickr