In an earlier entry in this “Casino Poker for Beginners” series of articles, I explained how agreements between friends to soft play each other — a practice called collusion — is unethical, against the rules, and a form of cheating. But there’s another form of collusion that frequently crops up spontaneously at the poker table between strangers. It is just as wrong as the planned variety, though those who do it often aren’t aware of that fact.
Let me tell you the story of the first time this happened to me.
It was in 2006, at the Hilton (now known as “The LVH”) poker room. I’d had a bad session, was getting tired, and was about to go home when I looked down at . The two players to my right were extremely loose, involved in almost every pot. So when the first of them raised it to $12 and the other called, moving all in for my last $30 or so seemed the obvious move.
The action was folded around back to the original raiser and caller, both of whom called. Then one asked, “You want to just check it down?” The other agreed.
I protested to the dealer. He said, “What’s wrong with that?”
(Which, by the way, tells you that not knowing rules sometimes afflicts not just players, but the dealers, too, as Chad Holloway was discussing just last week in “Hold’em with Holloway, Vol. 54: Dealers Aren’t Always Right.”)
Let me explain what’s wrong with it.
As I talked about in that earlier article about soft play, one of the fundamental principles of poker is that every player must make decisions in his or her own best interest — not in the best interest of any other player. When you enter an agreement not to bet against another player when another is already all in, you are conspiring. You are reducing you own potential gain, because if you developed a very strong hand, your best interest would be served by making another bet and hoping an opponent called with a worse hand, making a side pot you could win.
If you want to maximize your chance of winning the biggest possible pot, you don’t agree to “check it down.” The effect of the collusion is that each of the agreeing players shares the risks and rewards — that is to say, they trade off maximum chance of winning the biggest possible pot for a reduced risk of losing what they’ve already put into it.
Look at it this way: if you’re all in against two opponents, wouldn’t you love it if one of them made a big bet and drove the other out of the pot, so that you’d only have to beat one other hand at the showdown? Even better, wouldn’t it be great if the person betting did so with a weak hand, and drove the best hand out of the pot? Of course. So when those two players instead explicitly agree not to push each other off of their hands, it hurts you by making it harder for you to win.
In my situation, the floor person intervened when the dealer didn’t know what he was supposed to do. But, of course, the damage was already done. Even if two players are officially required to recant their agreement, there’s still the wink-wink, nudge-nudge knowledge that they’re going to abide by it anyway.
As it turned out, I won the hand. One player was very apologetic, and clearly had not understood that it was against the rules. When I explained the reason behind the rule, he immediately saw why it was. I’m confident that he gets it now, and won’t do it again.
The other guy (the original raiser), however, was annoyed that I was accusing him of collusion. He showed me his -offsuit, and asked, “If I was trying to collude, why would I do it with the worst hand in poker?”
I didn’t respond, because I didn’t want to escalate into an argument. But a moment’s thought answers his question. Think about it — it is precisely in those situations in which he has the weakest range of hands that he wouldn’t want anybody betting or raising! The collusion allows him to see all five board cards and keep at least some small chance of winning the pot, where a bet or raise would probably force him to fold.
There are two important exceptions to this general prohibition regarding “checking it down” worth noting.
Occasionally when there is a bet or raise and everybody folds except the last player who still has the option to call, that player will make an agreement with the bettor: I’ll call if you agree to check it down after this round of betting. That is, the potential caller says that he’s only willing to call if he doesn’t have to risk any more of his money after the call. Although I think this isn’t good form, it doesn’t have the problem of collusion. The bettor can accept the call on the terms offered, or decline it and take the pot as it is. Either way, he’s making a decision based solely on what he thinks is best for him. There’s no conspiracy of two players against a third.
The other exception comes in tournaments, particularly in the late stages, when two players will often check down a hand when a third one is all in. There’s nothing wrong with this, as long as it isn’t being done by means of an explicit agreement between the players.
In a tournament, each player’s interest in moving up the pay scale and knocking somebody out of contention for the title may well be greater than the interest in winning a particular pot. Therefore, in such a situation, each player is still acting in his own best interest by keeping as many opponents in the hand as possible. Put another way, it can be in the best interest of all of the other players that anybody wins the hand except for the guy who is all in. But that’s not true in a cash game, since a player losing all of his chips will either just buy more or be replaced by a new player bringing new chips into the game.
You probably won’t have to play for very many hours in a casino poker game before you’ll hear two players try this kind of one-hand collusion. Many players have no idea that it’s unethical and against the rules. But now you do.
Robert Woolley lives in Asheville, NC. He spent several years in Las Vegas and chronicled his life in poker on the “Poker Grump” blog.