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Six Ways in Which Cooperation is a Virtue in Poker

Six Ways in Which Cooperation is a Virtue in Poker

An article recently appeared in Scientific American magazine about how humans conquered the planet.

Anatomically modern Homo sapiens appeared about 200,000 years ago, but for their first roughly 140,000 years were stuck in Africa. Then there was a rapid migration out into the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. Within the space of about 50,000 years — a mere blip in geological and evolutionary time — our kind had inhabited every major land mass on the planet except Antarctica, had wiped out all other hominid species such as the Neanderthals, and had hunted to extinction many large mammals, including the mammoths and mastodons.

There is a scientific mystery here: What accounts for humans' sudden success, in competitive terms? The article's author, anthropologist Curtis W. Marean, presents evidence that the key was our ancestors' wielding of what he calls "the ultimate weapon" — cooperation.

He postulates that humanity underwent a rapid genetic shift favoring cooperation. Though small tribes had existed before this change, the emergence of cooperation between tribes made for an unstoppable force. In a way that the world had never seen before, people were able to band together to share technological innovations, defend food-rich territories, hunt and conquer less-organized species.

This insight about our nature as a species got me to wondering whether cooperation plays any role in our favorite game, one that we usually think of as completely individualistic. After some thought, I believe that it does.

1. Checking it down

The most obvious example of cooperation between poker players occurs during multi-way pots in tournaments when one of the players is all in. In many such situations, though not all, it is to the advantage of each of the other players not to bet.

This allows them all a chance to catch lucky cards, so that at least one of them ends up with a hand strong enough to beat the all-in player, thus eliminating him and advancing everybody else. This advantage is often big enough to outweigh any gains one might get from aggressively contending for the pot.

2. Enforcing social norms

If one player is egregiously in violation of social norms, it is in the best interest of everybody to cooperate to let him know that his actions are unacceptable. Examples of someone violating such norms might include:

  • berating other players for how they play
  • making sexually suggestive remarks to a female player
  • making racist jokes or comments
  • slowrolling an opponent
  • habitually taking excessive time for even trivial decisions

I'm not proposing here anything grandiose or heroic. A simple, quiet remark can do the job. "That's not cool," or "Please stop it" may be all that it takes, especially if the first one bold enough to take such an initiative is quickly reinforced by words or gestures of agreement from the others present.

We are an intensely social species. Few people enjoy being the object of the united disapproval of their peers. We would have to tolerate a lot less bad behavior if we all stuck together to extinguish unacceptable conduct with our collective disapproval.

3. Playing along

Sometimes you'll encounter a situation in which one player proposes a change in the game — for example, playing with "overs" buttons in a limit game, adding a "rock" or a "kill," having a round in which everybody does an under-the-gun straddle, or introducing a group prop bet to pay a small bounty to anybody who wins a pot with deuce-seven.

As long as the rules of the casino allow such things, it's in your best interest to go along rather than be the stick-in-the-mud that spoils it. After all, you're the best or one of the best players at the table, right? (If not, you should be finding another game in which you are!) You should, then, be able to adapt your play to the new circumstances better than your opponents can, thus giving you an additional, profitable edge.

4. Being social in home games

As I argued in a previous article, your main goal upon finding a potentially profitable home game is to be invited back. As home games are even more fundamentally social situations than casino games, you in turn need to be more overtly sociable. This means being willing to go along with whatever the group wants to do, including playing crazy poker variants, using wild cards, or whatever.

Well-organized and long-running home games don't disinvite players for being too skilled. They disinvite them for not being fun, for not getting along with the group dynamics, or for not going along with what the majority want to do. If you want to keep going back, you'll have to cooperate — and at least pretend to be happy doing so.

5. Following Tommy Angelo's list

As I was mulling over how cooperation plays a role in poker, Tommy Angelo stepped up to share an article listing about a dozen ways players can cooperate to make the game run more smoothly.

"Tommy Angelo Presents: Good for the Game" explains the most efficient and courteous ways to enter and leave a game, how to help and how not to help the dealer, and more. He says it all better than I can, so go read his advice.

6. Keeping the store open

Also in the good-timing department was this recent blog post by Kat Martin. He complains, with ample justification, about nitty locals in Vegas poker rooms who refuse to start or stay in a short-handed game.

When I was living there and playing on a near-daily basis, this was a frequent source of annoyance. Of course, everybody would like to do just about anything more than sit at an idle poker table waiting for the game to start. So everybody figures, "I'll wait until there are seven or eight people seated, then I'll join in."

The problem is that if everybody does this, the game never starts. You can't have everybody selfishly choosing to be among the last to join in. Starting a game requires — say it with me, class — cooperation.

The late Chip Reese was reported to be a champion of this concept. When asked why he was willing to sit in a short-handed game with only other sharks playing, he responded that you have to "keep the store open," because you never know when a wealthy fish will come in.


The actual play of poker is, with few exceptions, completely individualistic, to the point that cooperation between players is a major violation of the rules and fundamental integrity of the game. But the circumstances of a game require cooperation between the players to get started, to move smoothly, and to keep everyone happy.

While cooperation may not be the "ultimate" poker weapon, it is certainly a necessary one you'll have to deploy if you want to conquer the world of poker.

Robert Woolley lives in Asheville, NC. He spent several years in Las Vegas and chronicled his life in poker on the "Poker Grump" blog.

  • Robert Woolley examines different uses of an unexpected poker weapon -- cooperation.

  • Poker is "individualistic" in most ways, but the game also benefits from cooperation between players.

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