Ethics in Poker.
What a big topic this is! As late as the nineteen-sixties there was a lot of bad behavior, outright cheating in many cases, that permeated poker. Going backwards in time the cardsharps and cheats of the old west were common and many a player used the acceptance of that as a path to being a lowlife. Many games and many players were just outright crooked. The situation was seldom as grim and nasty as it has been recently portrayed in the television series 'Tilt' but it was plenty bad enough. After all when the playing field is not level it is not much of a sport and if you lost your bankroll, or a meaningful chunk of it, to a gang of thieves you were mighty unhappy and, if aware of it, quite frustrated and likely to take an action which would be bad for everyone.
1965 to 2000 was a time of great transition, where corporations took over a lot of casinos and cardrooms, and poker came out of the backrooms and was played in a big variety of legal ways and places. Slowly the game grew and was common fare on the internet and television as we began a new century, and a lot of the slimebag ways of its past were left behind. Does this mean that I think there is no cheating in the modern game? Unhhh, no. I am not blind and dumb. But do I think there is a lot less unsavory behavior than in decades past? Absolutely. I am patient with the way in which changes happen, as long as I can see those changes occur. At this moment we all face a hidden tax of ten percent or so on our winnings, rather we play live or on the internet. This does not keep winners from winning but they had better come to terms with the behind-the-scenes reality of the situation.
The segue is to ethical areas that occur all the time in poker. It is okay (though bad for most games) to soft play your friend[s] in a live poker game but it is cheating to soft play those same friends in a tournament situation. This is because you are not allowed to choose who gets the chips in a pool that is constantly shrinking, both in terms of players and in terms of chip values. Furthermore you are often playing against hundreds of entrants, not just the nine in front of you at your table. Now, as obvious as this is, I have found that I have to explain it to players over and over again, usually early in a tournament. If they do not want to listen I simply call a floorperson over and then endure some wrath for the duration of the session. If they do listen I let it go, not because I am some type of saint, but because I understand that they have simply not thought about it. If it happens late in a tournament where it affects the distribution of prizes I ask for immediate penalties from the tournament staff. Sometimes they are harsh and sometimes they give an explanation and a warning. You never know in advance how they will treat it.
On televised shows elaborate point awards have been put together, with compiled results leading to contestants advancing. This has introduced yet another strange usage for the science of mathematics. As many of you know I have worked on television shows for NBC, Fox, the Game Show Network, and other networks this past year and have seen a lot of bizarre situations arise. Watching David Sklansky struggle to explain the elaborate points system at Superstars II at Morongo Casino in Palm Springs to other contestants was rather hilarious. In many situations that then arise your action is not a natural one as you do not wish to see player X finish above player C, and so you have to devise way to make that happen in order to advance yourself! Now how does one decide what is ethical in this situation? You are not allowed to play your best and natural poker because the system has dictated that you must see certain others finish in a preordained order! At the 'Battle of the Sexes' in Las Vegas this past December I watched Chris Moneymaker quietly make plays that I thought were brilliantthey were brilliant because of the situation, not because they were correct poker. Should this be mentioned? Should it be brought up? Should it be ignored? I have a lot of questions but I am short on answers. Chris's play is mentioned here but many others have understood the problem and they have acted upon their understanding without saying a word. My intuition says that this is okay, and if it is not, then the system needs to be changed.
At this past weeks taping in Hollywood of 'Battle Royale, Comedians versus Pros' the twist was that when we arrived at Segment VII a situation arose where the last three player were Tammy Pescatelli (a comedian), David Williams(a pro), and Connie Kim (the last pro) and although David had the most chips he needed Connie to go broke before Tammy in order to lock up his advance to the wild card segment. He tried to explain this to Tammy over and over but she did not get it and made him lay down the best hand several times! This was, of course, ruining the television show. His frustration grew and finally he was told that he could not coach an opponent at the same table as him, no matter what his own actions might be. This apparently infuriated him and he began to go "all-in" in the dark on every hand! On the second hand he did this Connie picked up 88 and called and David had J-10 and it came A-10-x and his mission was accomplished in a circuitous way. Interesting, yes?
Now how far is this from the situation where you 'back' someone? In that circumstance someone often puts up the money and the player plays for some piece of the profits. If this happened in a vacuum, or if the backer was not a participant, then we would have very little to talk about. What actually happens in real life is that quite often a successful player puts his friends in tournaments, or backs others that he considers to be good players that have an excellent chance of coming in near the top. Still not much of a problem. The problem arises when a player and his 'horse' arrive at the same table late in a tournament, sometimes even the final table. Now what? Does anyone imagine that it does not affect their play? What if you are playing for millions of dollars? Again I have a lot of questions but very few answers. I do know that when I enter a World Poker Tour event that I first have to sign a contract, and one item in that contract says that when I arrive at a final table if I have a financial interest in another participant's result that I am to divest myself of it. The reality is, even when it is widely known, that this does not happen. Who is supposed to enforce it? Should backing be allowed? In what situations?
Finally the play of the hand discussed in the previous column, where I held Kh Kd and 8100 in chips versus three opponents early in the PPT at the Mirage with a flop of 10s 7c 4s and the big blind for each hand still at only 50. I made a bet of 4000 into the pot of 4,650 thinking that this was a committal bet and that only a good hand could call me but I believe that my play was inaccurate. The correct play is to move all-in. Of course it is a scary situation where you might have to get lucky against someone who has flopped an ace high flush draw or has a set, but are you going to lay the hand down? If this is a possibility that you wish to entertain you should bet 2000, a healthy bet that leaves your escape as an option and you still keep a reasonable stack together if and when you are going to bail out.
I promise to talk about the play for the holding of KK at some length in the next column.
Play good and get lucky!
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