Sunday, May 06, 2007

What's the absolute worst thing in poker? A cheat, that's what.

I won a poker tournament today, in spite of—and, in part, thanks to—a cheater. It’s a strange story, but worth telling as a warning to other players.

I don’t consider myself much of a tournament player. Except for the occasional freeroll, I’ve pretty much avoided them. Too much of a crapshoot for my taste. The roller-coaster ups and downs of success (and income) from cash games is bad enough; for tournament players, it’s multiplied ten-fold.

But in early April I did well in the Hilton’s monthly freeroll, which prompted me to try a few others this month. To my surprise, I’ve done well and shown a substantial profit. One that I especially like is the Hilton’s weekly Saturday afternoon tournament, which I’ve now entered for several weeks in a row.

Today I was short-stacked near the bubble (the boundary between the players who finish high enough to get paid and those who don’t), and really thought I wasn’t going to make the cut. But I got ridiculously lucky at a key moment (all in with pocket 10s against a guy with pocket jacks, and I caught a third 10 on the turn, which made *him* the short stack, and, soon thereafter, the bubble boy). Then I got ridiculously lucky yet again against one of the two remaining big stacks (my A-9 paired on a flop of K-Q-9; opponent flopped two pairs with his KQ, and I got a third 9 on the river to beat him), and suddenly I was the big stack.

In the end, it was me and one other guy. At a glance, we appeared to have roughly equal chip stacks, though I thought I had a bit more. I offered to chop the first and second-place money proportionate to whatever our chip counts were. He wanted to chop, but he insisted that it be 50-50. Strangely, this wasn’t because he wanted more than his fair share, but because, he said, it would take too long to count the chips, and if we were going to take that much time, we might as well just play it out.

Huh? It would take maybe two minutes to count, and we each had more than 20 big blinds, so playing it out could easily take well into the next 30-minute level. The chip count is the standard way of making the chop. But I thought our stacks were close enough to equal that it wasn’t worth quibbling about, so I agreed to the even split.

While we were waiting for the tournament director to make the arrangements, I counted my chips, because I wanted to know for my own satisfaction whether I had actually ended up in first place. I had 10,575. There were (or should have been) 17,000 chips in play. Eyeballing the other guy’s stack, it looked like he had nearly 10,000, also. This seemed peculiar to me, but I dismissed it as bad estimation of the other guy’s chip stacks on my part. But it reminded me that I had noticed the same thing when it was down to four players: I checked my own chip count every ten minutes, and tried to estimate the others’ stacks, and the sum always exceeded 17,000. Again, I chalked it up to bad guessing on my part.

Then the odd happenings began. A Hilton security man came in, tapped the other winner on the shoulder, and asked him to step out to have a chat. Now, this was weird—what could security want to do with a poker tournament winner? As I was left pondering this, I was getting some weird looks and smiles from the poker room staff. They clearly knew what was going on, and that it would turn out good for me. (I’m pleased that I seem to be reasonably well-liked at the very friendly Hilton, which is where I play most often.)

A few minutes passed. Then Marc Nelson, director of the poker room and today’s tournament director, came in, shook my hand, and congratulated me on having won the tournament and first-place prize money. He explained what had been going on.

The highest-denomination chip we had gotten to at that point in the tournament was a pink $500 chip. Marc said that he had put five of them on the table during a break, removing an equivalent amount in black $100 chips. But a while later, he noticed that there were *eight* pink chips in circulation. I’m not sure of all of the details, but he obviously alerted other poker room staff and security, and they caught this guy both by direct observation and on the security cameras sneaking pink chips out of his pocket and onto the table. He had swiped them during a previous tournament, and brought them back today to pad his chip count. When they pulled him out of the room, they had him empty his pockets, and found that he had even more that he hadn’t yet added to the table.

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.

It’s amazing how cheaply some people will sell off their integrity. I have read rumors of such things happening in big-money tournaments. It’s just as inexcusable, but at least it’s easier to understand the temptation, when first place pays a million dollars or more. But in a $150 buy-in weekly tournament that never fills more than 3 or 4 tables, and for which the top prize is well under $2000? That’s where you focus all your scheming??? How pathetic. I was genuinely stunned that anybody would stoop so low over so little reward.

Hey, Mister would-have-been-second-place: I hope you’re reading this, you lowlife, scum-sucking cheat. You miserable, wretched piece of slime. Stay away from poker forever, you lout. We don’t need or want maggots like you infesting our game.

I feel most sorry for the guy who finished in 5th place—the bubble boy. The cheater’s 2nd-place prize money was divided evenly among the other three money finishers, because that’s all they could do. The guy who finished 5th wasn’t known to the room staff and didn’t leave his name, since he assumed he wasn’t getting any money. I’d gladly give back part of my winnings to help make it right with him, if I could.

So, sadly, the lesson has to be that when, in a poker tournament, you notice that something is off in the chip count, you should—you must—consider the possibility of cheating going on.

My heartfelt thanks to the Hilton poker room people for, first, being alert enough to notice and identify the source of the problem, and, second, for handling it so fairly and professionally. I wouldn’t expect anything less from them, because they pretty much do everything just about right there. Still, this was exemplary. It was happening right under my nose, but I was oblivious to it, even though in retrospect I realize that I had a lot of clues about the nature of the problem. Nevertheless, the tournament director and other employees were there unobtrusively watching and fixing the problem of which I was blissfully unaware. Strong work, all of you.

Addendum, December 20, 2007

I forgot to add the end of this story. A month or so after this happened, I ran into the "bubble boy" while I was playing at Caesars Palace. He had no idea what had happened after he left. I told him the story and gave him $100 of my prize money. I really didn't have any idea what the fair amount to give him would be, since that would require figuring out a proportionate amount from each of the people who cashed. But I thought that $100 was in the right ballpark. It make both of us feel better, and it fulfilled the commitment that I had written above.