A couple of weeks ago I posted a story from the Venetian in which I anticipated a potential problem about how much money a guy was playing and spoke up, trying to get it resolved before it became a crisis. I admit that I was kind of surprised that not a single commenter agreed with my action. (Nevertheless, I think we can all agree that the player involved, the dealer, and the chip runner all bear part of the blame for the situation arising as it did.) I reject the specific form of criticism that was based on the retrospective observation that the player involved got mad and left, when he was clearly a donkey and likely would have donated a lot more money to the table. That was completely unknowable in advance, and it might just as well have turned out that my intervention saved him money and made him grateful and happy. Still, although I don't exactly conduct myself according to reader-majority rule, it has given me cause to reflect, and I'm now not sure that I would do the same again.
But thinking about that experience and whether I did the right thing triggered memories of a tangentially related class of incidents in which there has been uncertainty about cash playing.
The most common rule in Vegas poker rooms is that $100 bills on the table are in play the same as chips (and are subject to the same buy-in cap), but other denominations of currency are not.
(In card rooms that take the rake in half-dollar increments, there are a bunch of weird and inconsistent rules about when and whether the half-dollar coins you get back are in play. E.g., they might be usable for paying your blinds, but not count if you're all-in, or only count in full-dollar amounts, or other such nonsense. For purposes of this post, I'm only talking about bills, not coins.)
However, there are variations on this. The most peculiar one I know of is the Sahara, where all denominations of currency are in play--even $5 and $1 bills. At the old Hilton poker room, no bills played, nor did $25 or $100 chips. Their reasoning was that it was too easy for other players to overlook these items and thus inadvertantly misjudge an opponent's stack and make a crucial error.
The Imperial Palace is an example of a room that follow this same policy now. A few weeks ago I was playing there. On the river I missed a flush draw but made some sort of small pair. I checked. Opponent moved all in: he had a single $1 chip and a single $100 bill, both of which he pushed forward. The bill had been sitting in front of him for several hands at least, but the dealer had failed to notice it until this moment. He informed the player that the bill was not in play, so the all-in bet was only $1. Floor was called and made the same ruling. The player was livid. I called his $1, though I was about 99% sure I was losing. He had the nuts--a straight. He was ranting about how he was being cheated out of $100. I reassured him that $1 was just about the most I would have called, so the error actually made him an extra dollar that he otherwise would not have gotten, because if his bet had been $101, I would have folded. That calmed him down.
The point, though, is that dealers frequently don't notice currency on the table. Last week at the Venetian I noticed that a player had a stack of $20 bills sitting behind his chips. I don't know how long they had been there before I spotted them. I waited until the hand was over, then told the dealer, "We should probably get clarified whether that cash is in play." The dealer, too, had failed to notice whenever it was that the player had added the money to his stack. He got it changed for chips, and all was well.
Similarly, during the last week of the World Series of Poker, I was sweating Cardgrrl as she played a juicy $2/5 game at the Rio. At some point I noticed a similar situation--a player had quietly added some $20 bills to the table. I was pretty sure that the Rio followed the standard rule of only $100s playing, so I whispered to her that she might want to ask the dealer about it between hands. She did. Again, the dealer had not noticed the issue, and it got resolved before it became a big blow-up.
The obvious problem is that when this sort of thing goes unnoticed and unresolved until there is an all-in move, somebody is going to end up unhappy--whoever has or believes he has the winning hand will want as much in the pot as possible, and the loser will be arguing against counting whatever he can. That's the worst possible time to try to resolve the matter.
Yes, dealers should always notice when a player adds cash to his stack, both to be sure that it is eligible for play and that it does not violate any buy-in cap. But dealers have a lot to do, and this kind of thing slips by unnoticed all the time. So today's helpful hint is to simply ask. Don't assume that any particular poker room follows the standard rule if it's a place where you are not a frequent visitor and certain of the house rule. If you're told that no cash plays and there is cash on the table, or that only 100s play and there are 20s on the table, just wait until the current hand is over and ask the dealer to clarify. Of course, once in a while the player affected will get upset, because people can be irrational and stupid. But you'll be doing everybody at the table a favor by getting the question resolved definitively before there is a big blow-up.