(Canada Cal, currently subbing for Haley from the summery, breezy shores of Thunder Bay---)
[Cal's note: A late update --- the WSOP has reversed itself and will now allow Holbrook to compete. As long as they found a way to make it work that's fair to Holbrook and to all the players involved, then good for him. Best of luck to Jason!]
Among the unusual poker stories currently receiving plenty of discussion-forum views is that of Jason Holbrook, a blind player from California who won a seat to the WSOP Main Event at Bakersfield's Golden West Casino. Holbrook nearly died in an auto accident just befoe he turned 21, and came out of that wreck sans sight, but with his ability and desire to play poker unquenched.
Unfortunately, despite whatever arrangements the CA casino made to accommodate Holbrook's disability, it doesn't seem as if the WSOP is able or willing to make the same allowance. It doesn't seem as if the WSOP is trying to be heartless, either, since they've offered to refund Holbrook's buy-in in full (according to reports elsewhere), which would mean that Holbrook's first tournament prize would become something like a $10,000 payday, instead of a trip to Las Vegas.
It's an interesting tale, and it brings forward several different moral, philosophical, and outright physical dilemmas. Holbrook would indeed have been the first blind player to participate in the Main Event, but poker is a game of sight, and to a certain extent, space. Holbrook participates by having another person look at his hole cards and tell him what he has, then read off the board cards as they arrive, the opponent's bets and stacks, and so on.
Sadly, it just doesn't seem workable within the context of the WSOP, which is a pity, because you have to admire the drive of Holbrook. Nor is it a flat-out refusal on the part of the WSOP to try to find a spot for players with disabilities. There was the player last year with (I believe) paralyzed arms who looked at his cards and moved his chips around with his toes --- the Rio staff found a way to get him seated at the end of a table for the duration of his tournament run.
It seems to be not the presence of the second person / helper itself that's the problem, even though that technically would violate the "one player to a hand" rule, not to mention take up precious space in what already must be cramped walkways between the tables. Instead, it may well be the communication of information between the helper and Holbrook that has caused the WSOP to draw the line. The whispering of cards to Holbrook, the asking about other players' stacks and cards, the need to clarify the action, will undoubtedly do one thing --- slow down the rate of hands played and penalize the other players in the face of ever-rising blinds.
There's also the secondary consideration that communicating board cards and opponent's holdings to other players may result in more than just a whsper, meaning that communication could be made to neighboring players as well. Imagine what happens in the possible case where one of those neighbors has misread the board, but picks up a whisper to the effect that, "There's three hearts out there now." And maybe that player misread the board himself in way that hearing the whisper changes his action.
Besides, there's definitely the chance that the helper can pass subtle clues through intonations, even if the whispers themselves are barely audible. A note of cautin from a second person in a dicey situation is exactly the type of assistance, intentional or not, that the "one player to a hand" rule was designed to stop.
So, sadly, if the reports are true and the WSOP has decided to not let Holbrook compete with the aid of a helper, it's a defensible position. And a tough break for Holbrook, who should be admired anyhow. This would be different, I believe, from something like the Casey Martin golf case you had in the U.S. a few years ago, which hinged more on the point of whether Martin's exclusion because he had to walk the golf course had any relevance to his ability to swing the clubs... and that was an arguable case on both sides as well, because of the fatigue* factor.
Here's hoping that not too many years will pass before there's an electronic system in place that will help players such as Holbrook enjoy the excitement of the World Series of Poker. Perhaps some day there'll be cards with microchips embedded within them for use at 'special needs' tables at the WSOP, with, perhaps, microchips embedded into the playing chips as well. Both things are technically doable, if prohibitively expensive. Planting microchips inside the playing chips at the WSOP is a topic that came up during investigation and discussion of the extra $2 million in chips during last year's Main Event, while one need look no further than the defunct Mansion Poker Dome program to see an example of microchip being implanted in the playing cards themselves.
(* That fatigue factor as it relates to golf is something that Erick Lindgren could speak volumes about these days, in the wake of that crazed prop bet he made with Phil Ivey, Gavin Smith and others. In that bet, Lindgren had to break 100 in four successive rounds played while walking in the desert heat, carrying his own clubs, all played on the same day. Lindgren won the bet, but I bet he could now speak volumes about the 'endurance' argument raised against Casey Martin's case by Ken Venturi in that disability case.)