Poker ethics

When the flop came both blinds checked to the player in seat three who came out betting. Seat four folded, and the woman in seat five called all-in. The players in seats six and eight called too, and both blinds folded. Four players were contesting the pot: the bettor in seat three, the woman in seat five who went all-in, and players who called from seats six and eight. I folded before the flop, and was in good position to witness what happened next. The ensuing brouhaha was so interesting that I described it in a posting to the Internet’s newsgroup as soon as I got home. It must have interested that audience, too, because of the number of responses it generated. Some thought there was collusion along with a breach of ethics. A few thought nothing wrong happened, while still others agreed with my take on the situation: Although a clear breach of ethics, no collusion took place.

Because of the number of responses and variety of opinions I received on the Internet, I decided to give you, the reader, an opportunity to assess your own poker ethics against this real-world occurrence.

I’ll set the stage for you. The all-in woman is an experienced, solid player who usually plays £15-30 or £20-40 hold’em or stud. She is not an “angle shooter,” and always well-mannered. I don’t recall her ever causing even the slightest ruckus at the table. The players in seats three, six and eight were less experienced, and it showed in their play, demeanor, and table talk. I never saw them before; they just seemed like recreational players out for a bit of Friday night poker. It was also quite clear that none of these players knew each other; they just happened to be at this particular table.

Before the dealer could deal the turn card, the last player to call said: “Hey, why don’t we just check it all the way down?” The player in seat six quickly agreed, and the original bettor in seat three said: “Sure. Let’s do it.”

The all-in player objected, saying that “… agreeing to check the hand down provides fewer chances to win. If someone bets the turn,” she said, “and one or two of you fold, I would have to beat only one or two opponents, instead of three, to win the pot.”

She was correct. Once all-in, she was unable to influence the action of her opponents because she had no chips left with which to bet, call or raise.

Although she griped about the agreement to check down the hand, she never asked the dealer to stop play and ask a floorperson to make a ruling. The turn and river cards were dealt, and when all was said and done, she made two pair and won a relatively small pot. As she gathered in her chips she asked the dealer to call a floor supervisor.

When James, the floorman, arrived at the table, she related the facts, then opined that: “…the other three players engaged in collusion and unethical behavior.” Her three opponents said: “We never colluded, don’t even know each other, and besides – she won the pot.” Since there was “no harm, no foul,” the player who initially suggested checking the hand said, “It’s over. Let’s just play cards.”

James, whose experience, good judgment, and interpersonal skills, make him a top-notch floorman, asked some of the others at the table to corroborate the woman’s story. I told James that in my opinion, the other three players’ behavior was unethical, but “…since it was clear that the offending players were strangers to each other, no collusion was involved.” James agreed, saying that “…agreeing to check a hand down to the river when an all-in player is involved is not ethical, even when done innocently and no collusion is involved.” He admonished the offending players, telling them: “The spirit of poker requires each person to play his own hand, and an agreement to check to the river should never be made whenever there’s a player who doesn’t have an opportunity to protect his own hand by betting or raising.”

That ended the incident as far as the players at the table were concerned. But it was just the beginning as far as the Internet’s poker aficionados were concerned. At the bottom of my posted message describing this incident, I asked readers to post their opinions – and post they did.

Some players took a hands-off approach, suggesting that “…all’s fair in love, war, and poker.” Though in the minority, they tended to be quite vehement in their views. Some even chastised the all-in player for allowing herself to get so short-stacked that she could no longer defend her hand.

Still others felt that there was collusion, since the other three players did agree to check the hand down to the river. Whether there was any intent to minimize the all-in player’s chances of winning was not relevant to them. In their opinion, the act of agreeing to check the hand down diminished the all-in player’s opportunities for winning – and was collusion regardless of whether it was planned or entirely inadvertent.

Most respondents took my point of view: It was unethical but not collusive. To no one’s surprise, everyone agreed that this kind of behavior in a tournament should definitely be verboten, and ought to result in the offending player losing his interest in the pot – and maybe a time suspension on top of that.

Frankly, I was surprised that this incident engendered so much controversy. But it did, and one lesson I learned is that ethical concerns are of more importance to most poker player than I ever suspected. Since I seem to have started something, I’d like to stimulate even more debate? What’s your take on all this? Who’s correct? Who’s in the wrong? How important are ethics in poker? Send me your view and opinion, or just think about the issue and see where you line up on it.

Just to give you a heads-up on the answers I’ve received, thus far every respondent believes his or her viewpoint to be ethical. Not one person answering my Internet posting suggested something that was either devious, or an “angle shot.” It’s personally rewarding to see that most poker players have a very strong ethical sense about them. Poker, after all, is an endeavor where a person’s word is his bond; where you can leave thousands of dollars on the table with complete safety; and where most debts are repaid – even in the face of laws that until quite recently held that gambling debts could not be collected through the legal system.

Given poker’s history, it’s no secret that players, particularly professional players, have developed a code of ethics that in many cases is stronger than the law. Like Bob Dylan said many years ago: “To live outside the law you must be honest.”