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Hold’em with Holloway, Vol. 26: Is Keeping the Short Stack Alive Collusion?

The Short Stack

Last week I had the opportunity to sit down and actually play a poker tournament. I’d been traveling a lot both for work and on a family vacation, so it had been awhile since I’d played. Granted, it was only a $60 nightly at my local casino, but I was still excited to get back in action. As fate would have it, an interesting scenario came up during the course of play, one I wanted to explore in more detail in this week’s column.

The basic question I’d like to address is this: “Does keeping the short stack alive in tournament poker constitute collusion?”

Keeping an opponent alive in a tournament may seem counterintuitive, but there are certain situations, however rare, where the short stack’s survival can be beneficial to you. I encountered one such situation in this tournament, which attracted 43 players and created a prize pool of $2,150.

Here’s the setup — we were down to the final six players, but only five would make the money ($107.50 for the fifth-place finisher, and $967.50 up top). The player in Seat 10 and myself were the overwhelming big stacks, while the other four players were extremely short with less than 10 big blinds each.

It was clear all the short stacks were anxious to make the money, so they were playing tight waiting for one of the others to bust. This provided a prime opportunity for me to accumulate chips, and accumulate I did. Then, shortly after I crippled one of the short stacks, my curiosity about the question regarding keeping a short stack alive was piqued.

With the blinds at 1,000/2,000, the crippled player was forced all in for his last 900 from the big blind. Action folded to me in the small blind, and I couldn’t help but wonder — am I forced to play or can I fold and allow this player to survive, thus extending the bubble and giving me more chances to accumulate chips?

My initial thought was that, of course, I had to call — which I did and subsequently eliminated my opponent. However, it made me question whether or not I really am forced to play in that spot. In this very rare instance, can I elect to fold even though the amount of the small blind covers the big blind’s all-in? Players usually have three options preflop — either to fold, call, or raise — so why should my option to fold suddenly be taken away, especially if I feel it’s negative-EV not to fold?

I understand folding in that spot would scream collusion, which is defined as “a secret understanding between two or more persons to gain something illegally, to defraud another of his or her rights, or to appear as adversaries though in agreement.”

I didn’t have an agreement with this other player. I simply felt him staying alive in the tournament, at least for the short term, benefited my game in the long run. If I had a choice, I would have folded there. However, rules are rules — or are they? I decided to present the scenario to three of the most reputable tournament directors in the business and get their takes.

“The blinds also are referred to as ‘forced blinds,’ so I feel like if we were to look that up in a poker dictionary it would define it as a ‘forced bet’ put in ‘blind’ before the action starts, at least that would be my definition,” said Hollywood Poker Open tournament director Bill Bruce. “So my interpretation would be if all the action is folded around to the player in the small blind and the big blind is all in for less than the big blind amount, like you have described, the action/options would be complete at that time and we would need to see both hands with the big blind all in and covered by the small blind.”

He went on to add, “The main basis for my decision is the definition of blinds being ‘forced’ bets. Secondarily, even though I think the first reason is sufficient, I feel the action is complete once the button folds and the small blind already has an amount in the pot that has the all-in big blind covered.”

Both Jack Effel and Matt Savage, noted tournament directors with the World Series of Poker and World Poker Tour, respectively, echoed those sentiments, while citing collusion concerns regardless of intentions.

“Anything other than turning over both hands and running them out could be considered collusion regardless of why you would want to fold,” said Effel. “Could be a friend you don’t want to bust either.”

“Yes, you are forced to call in my opinion because the player is all in without any further action and by rule at that point hands must be turned face up,” Savage explained. “If this wasn’t the case then you could also be soft playing a friend which is far worse than the reason for trying to keep the bubble alive.”

“The scenario of him folding opens up other soft play angles which if allowed would be really bad for the game,” Savage continued. “For example, a player has 21K left and I want the bubble to continue — or worse I am trying to keep a friend alive — and so I raise to 20K and he goes all in and so then I fold for 1K more. Am I entitled to fold here?”

The triumvirate of TDs confirmed what I figured would be the answer all along. While my intentions of keeping the short stack alive were 100% selfish, it was too close to collusion to stand. Likewise, had the big blind had 1,100 so that I didn’t have him covered, by rule I could have folded, but doing so would trigger collusion concerns. Tournament scenarios, not intentions, can sometimes dictate what constitutes collusion. That’s something worth keeping in mind.

For what it’s worth, I went on to win the tournament.

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