Monday, September 03, 2007

What--chips into the pot aren't enough for you?

Every time I think I've seen it all, some idiotic player comes up with a new way to complain. This time it was a guy who--no kidding--thought that his opponent putting the right number of chips into the pot wasn't enough to constitute a call of his bet.

Hilton, Sunday. Player A is a 60-ish Floridian I've never seen before, one of those who likes to brag that he usually plays at much, much higher stakes than this--which is incredibly annoying and condescending. Player B, on my immediate right, is a 20-something tourist, friendly and inoffensive. I didn't learn either of their names. A is clearly a more experienced player, but B is a whole lot more fun to be around.

They get involved heads-up in a pot. The final board is A-4-3-4-5, with no flushes possible. Player A has been leading the betting all the way, with B just calling. The same pattern occurs on the river. A bets $40. B thinks quite a while, with the $40 in chips already counted out and in his right hand.

Finally he decides to call. He puts the chips well over the betting line with his right hand, and maybe half a second later flips up his hole cards with his left hand. He has A-9, for two pair (aces and fours) with a 9 kicker.

Player B nods in apparent acknowledgement. He picks up his down cards with one squarely on top of the other, and flashes the face of the bottom card to Player A. I see it, too--a 3. Then he tosses both cards face-down toward the dealer (Jessica), who dutifully mucks them. Jessica then begins to push the pot to B.

Here's where the surprising thing happened. As A sees the pot going past him toward B, he gets a startled look on his face and says, "Hey, what are you doing?"

Several of us at once say, "You mucked your cards!" He protests that Player B never called the $40 bet on the river. Apparently he was so distracted with looking at B's turned-up cards that he didn't notice that that action was preceded by B putting eight red chips out in front of him.

Player B was playing straight up, no doubt at all in my mind about that. He did nothing at all to conceal or mask his action. He wasn't shooting an angle, trying to barely have the chips touch the betting line, or any funny business like that. And I was watching him--he unquestionably put the chips in before exposing his hand (although it wouldn't have made any difference; in cash games when heads-up, it's usually allowed to expose one's hole cards to see if an opponent will react to them, before deciding what to do). He did nothing wrong whatsoever, just took the unusual (but not illegal or unethical, by any means) step of showing his hand first, rather than waiting for the bettor to show first. It's true that he never verbally announced "call," but he doesn't have to--actions with chips speak for themselves, by every rulebook of poker ever written.

Player A then compounded his problem by attempting, first, to pull the pot toward him. Jessica sternly rebuked him for this. He then attempted to fish his cards out of the muck. Again, Jessica correctly covered the muck with her hands and told him that he was not allowed to touch the cards. She did all this while calling for the floor person (Ken).

After sorting out the usual cacophony of voices and opinions offered to him all at once, Ken made the only possible decision: the pot went to Player B. Each player has the resonsibility to know what other players' actions have been, and to ask the dealer if it isn't clear.

Player A just screwed up--it's that simple. He failed to notice B putting out his chips, and, upon seeing B's cards face up, assumed, without asking, that B was folding. On the strength of that error and that assumption, he mucked his hand after flashing the 3.

His whole argument came down to two points. First, he claimed that Jessica hadn't announced the call. She says that she did. I don't know whether she did or not; because I knew by watching him that B had made the call, I would have completely tuned out the redundant announcement even if I had heard it. Furthermore, there is no rulebook in existence that says that a dealer failing to announce a player's action makes it as if that action hadn't occurred!

Second, he claimed to have had pocket 3s, for a full house (3s full of 4s). We should believe him, he said, even without having seen his second card, because he wouldn't bet $40 with just the lowest pair on the board. Oh, right--there's no such thing as bluffing in his world, I guess.

Well, too bad, dude. You folded your hand before the dealer awarded the pot, end of story.

In The Professional Poker Dealer's Handbook by Paymar, Harris, and Malmuth, p. 18, we find this (emphasis in original):

1. Players must protect their own hands at all times. This
may be the most important rule in all of poker. A hand may be declared
"dead" if even one card touches the muck or if another player's card touches a
hand that is not protected.... Although the dealer should be aware of only
mucking discarded hands, a player who fails to take reasonable means to protect
his or her hand usually has no recourse if the hand becomes fouled or if the
dealer accidentally collects an unprotected hand.

While it is not necessary for the winner of a pot to show the hand if there
were no callers, it is suggested that the player protect the winning hand until
the dealer is actually pushing the pot to him. The dealer should not ask the
player to relinquish the winning hand before pushing the pot.

I read this shortly before attending poker dealer's school, and it changed how I do things. I now habitually hang on to my down cards until the pot is coming my way (if I'm the winner, or think I am). That way, if the pot is heading to somebody else by mistake, I still have a live hand I can show to claim it. I look at the transaction as a trade: my cards for the pot. Since starting this practice, I have twice accidentally mucked the winning hand (by misreading the board--until it was too late), but I have never had to forfeit a pot that was rightfully mine because of releasing my cards prematurely and letting the dealer muck them before the pot was pushed, or because the dealer uncorrectably pushed the pot to the wrong person. Retaining the cards makes any such error easily correctable.*

The same concept is expressed in Cooke's Rules of Real Poker, p. 75, rule 11.10:
A player with a hand he believes to be the winning hand is responsible to
hold onto his own hand until the pot is awarded. No player with an interest in
the pot should release his hand to the dealer until his portion of the pot has
been pushed to him.

Kreiger and Bykofsky use nearly identical language in their Rules of Poker, p. 140, rule 5.22:
A player holding what he believes to be the winning hand should retain his hand
until the pot is awarded. A player with an interest in the pot should not
release his hand until the dealer pushes the pot, or his portion of the pot, to

Finally, we have "Robert's Rules of Poker," most recently Version 10 (found at numerous places around the Web, such as
Cards speak (cards read for themselves). The dealer assists in reading hands,
but players are responsible for holding onto their cards until the winner is

So in terms of the rules and how they apply here, this wasn't even a close call. Player A in today's incident was just a guy who made a mistake--two mistakes, actually (not noticing that his bet had been called, then throwing away his hand before the dealer pushed him the pot) and was looking to place the blame everywhere except where it belonged--squarely on himself.

Player B rightly got the pot--not necessarily by having the best hand (because we don't know who did), but by having the only hand turned face-up on the table after the final bet and call. I was glad that he didn't apologize or appear to feel guilty over the decision going his way (as it had to, under the circumstances). He did nothing wrong--at least as far as the rules are concerned. (Making that call with his hand was pretty questionable, though!)

Player A, if you're reading this, I have a message for you: I hope that you learned a valuable lesson today. It only cost you about $240 or so--chump change for a guy who is used to playing for tens of thousands at a time, as you claim to do. Maybe it will save you from losing a pot back home in your Big Game there, and you'll come to see it as having been a cheap piece of education. Pity that in all your years of playing for such high stakes, you never bothered to learn some of the most basic rules of the game.

*Incidentally, dealers are supposed to award the pot before killing the winning hand, just to prevent that kind of problem, but unfortuntely many don't follow that correct sequence. Sooner or later, players who don't hold on to their cards until receiving the pot will lose one in an ugly controversy such as today's incident became.

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