Last week, the Palm Beach Kennel Club, which had hosted a WSOP circuit event, announced the results of their investigation into the unauthorized removal of a tournament chip from play when it was down to the last two players. You can read their announcement here, and the PokerNews article about the situation here.
Basically, the casino concluded that the player who won the tournament, Chan Pelton--whom I do not know and had never heard of before last week--removed a T25,000 chip to keep as a souvenir. It seems important to emphasize that the investigation determined that "the integrity of the event was in no way compromised, and the impact of the incident only caused harm to the perpetrator himself."
In spite of that conclusion, the club lowered the boom on Pelton. He was stripped of the title and the prize money, and banned from the property. Caesars, which owns the WSOP, compounded the punishment by imposing an indefinite exclusion from all their properties worldwide. Short of additionally turning him over to law enforcement on charges of theft and/or fraud, there is nothing more that they could have done to him.
And therein lies the problem, as I see it.
When I first saw the announcement on Twitter, I dashed off something about it seeming harsh, but then didn't think much more about it until Monday, when my friend Jennifer Newell addressed the subject in her column for poker.co.uk, here. She wholeheartedly approves of the maximum punishment handed out. Upon reading that piece, I knew that I disagreed, but it took some mulling before I figured out how to articulate what I think the problem is.
Let me do it point by point.
1. There should be no tolerance for cheating.
To quote Mike Caro, "I have long-ago stated that poker cheaters should be boiled and eaten. If you think I’m not serious, you boil; I’ll eat."
Even long-time readers of mine will probably have forgotten that early in my Vegas years I was very nearly the victim of a poker tournament cheater. I still think it's a pretty interesting story, and my only personal experience with this sort of thing, so go read about it here. I cite this incident in order to quote my 2007 self, to prove that I've long been on record as advocating the severest possible penalties for actual cheating in poker:
He was, of course, disqualified from the event. I’m guessing that he is also banned from the premises permanently. I hope that he also goes into the infamous big black book of barred persons that the casinos share. In fact, I hope that they turned him over to the police and that he gets charged with criminal fraud—which this surely was. I wouldn’t even shed a tear if I learned that he received a bit of the old-school-Vegas back-room security “treatment” to help the lesson sink in a little deeper.If there were substantial reason to believe that Pelton had broken the rules in an attempt to dishonestly boost his chances of winning, I'd be right there with the villagers, pitchfork and torch in hand, ready to burn the monster alive. But as far as I can tell from news accounts, that is not the case.
2. Pocketing the chip was monumentally stupid.
This guy is no newbie. He has apparently won at least one WCOP circuit event plus other tournaments before. He knows the rules. He also must know that security cameras capture everything that happens on the tables. Furthermore, he's experienced enough that he surely understands the reasons behind the rule. For one with his level of knowledge and experience, stealing that chip can only be chalked up to world-class stupidity and hubris.
3. Stupidity is not cheating.
There is a fundamental difference between the act of a major-league dunderhead and the act of a cheater. To fail to recognize this is to make a category error, and a serious one at that.
Because the club and Caesars have imposed every penalty they have at their disposal, the result is that they have no harsher punishment to hand out to a player who is caught actually cheating. And the consequence of that is that it puts these institutions in the indefensible position of saying that (or at least acting as if) there is no meaningful difference between breaking a rule in order to gain an unfair advantage--an act of cheating--and breaking it in order to take home a souvenir--an act of stupidity.
Granted, one cannot always tell the difference with perfect clarity. But here his story of seeking a souvenir checks out. Yes, it is at least theoretically possible that he intended to introduce the chip into play to his advantage in some later tournament, or that he is part of a conspiracy ring to create a bunch of counterfeits. But those seem unlikely, given the circumstances. Though one cannot achieve 100% certainty, I think we can reach a reasonable level of confidence that his actions are much more consistent with his claimed intention than one more nefarious.
4. Stupidity should not be treated like cheating.
The most troubling part of the club's announcement is this:
The player’s intent in taking the chip is not considered by the WSOP Tournament Rules.True enough. But they seem to be implying that, therefore, they are not allowed to take "intent" into account in setting a punishment. That is not the case. Tournament rules do not prescribe a fixed penalty for any violation. In fact, they take great pains to ensure that the tournament staff have maximal flexibility to assign variable penalties for infractions of the rules depending on circumstances. For all sorts of rules violations, it is commonplace for the tournament director to modulate the penalty imposed based on whether the offense was deliberate versus inadvertent, whether it was a first violation versus a second or third, whether the player is a newcomer who didn't know a rule versus an old pro who damn well did, whether any other player was disadvantaged by the action, whether the violator is being apologetic or defiant, and so on. This is all as it should be.
To treat an act of stupidity as being indistinguishable from an act of outright cheating--which is what the casino and Caesars are doing here--is akin to the moronic zero-tolerance policies of schools that fail to make a distinction between the kid who yells "bang" while making a finger-gun, and the kid who actually brings a gun to school intending to kill a teacher. It is akin to being unable or unwilling to distinguish premeditated murder from involuntary manslaughter (i.e., an act of reckless endangerment resulting in a death).
Were I in charge, I would have favored lesser punishments: perhaps knocking him down to second place instead of first (since he had apparently already earned at least second-place money when the incident occurred), maybe combined with a one-year exclusion from any Caesars-sponsored poker tournaments. But I don't think I'd go so far as to make him forfeit all the prize money, nor bar him from setting foot in Caesars properties, nor make his exclusion from participation permanent.
Those are the kinds of maximum penalties that should be reserved for the worst offenses, which this was not, and the worst offenders, which Pelton is not.