Editor's note: Poker author, coach and player Tommy Angelo shares an abbreviated version of a column he wrote some time ago — before the "poker boom," in fact — that touches on an issue from live poker most would agree is still relevant today.
We have an old rule that is routinely abused and does not work. It's time to put this dinosaur to rest.
Players may demand to see called hands at the showdown. I'll call this the "I want to see that hand" rule (IWTSTH). This rule was invented with a worthy purpose — to enable players to protect themselves against collusion. Sadly, that is not the effect.
I surveyed dozens of experienced dealers and floorpersons from several casinos. I asked, "What is the purpose of IWTSTH?" They all replied, "To protect against collusion." Then I asked, "When players ask to see called hands at the showdown, how often is collusion suspected?" The answers ranged from "seldom" to "almost never."
I've talked to hundreds of players over the years about IWTSTH. Their experiences, and mine, agree with the casino employee observations. IWTSTH is rarely used because of suspected collusion.
When a young or inexperienced player employs IWTSTH with no malice, I occasionally probe. I always learn that, to them, IWTSTH is just part of the game. When I ask, "What is the purpose of the rule?" they either have no idea, or they reply, "To be able to see how people play." They see nothing "wrong" with asking to see a hand when they do not suspect collusion. And that itself is a big part of the problem. The misuse of IWTSTH spreads through innocence, ignorance, and silence.
Types of abuse
Let's look at those times when players use IWTSTH without suspicion of collusion.
In the hands of the ill-mannered, IWTSTH is used to embarrass, agitate or annoy other players, thereby generating bad vibes and tension. It's hardly different from slow rolling.
We've all seen it or done it. One player asks to see a hand at the showdown, then the other player "gets even" by later asking to see the initial abuser's hand. Whatever happened to "two wrongs don't make a right?" If the initial use of IWTSTH was considered wrong or inappropriate, then how can the vindictive use be any less wrong? And, back on topic, why do we have a rule that makes this coarse behavior legal and acceptable?
Here is a definition of one type of cheating at poker: "The willful manufacture of information that is not available to all." One could say that using IWTSTH in order to gain information about how others play is not a "manufacture of information that is not available to all," since others could gain the same information simply by asking, and any revealed information is revealed to all.
Most players, however, consider it bad etiquette to abuse IWTSTH. So they don't ask to see hands, even when they are intensely curious or when the information is potentially valuable. Those who do ask to see hands do so when the information is most pertinent, thereby manufacturing useful information of a type that is not available to those who feel bound by scruples never to ask. It's like the boxer who intentionally swings low against an opponent who never does.
Misery loves company
The player on the button has pocket aces in a three-handed pot. On the river, the first player bets, the second player calls, and the aces call. The first player shows a rivered flush. The second player mucks. The aces ask to see the second player's hand, merely curious as to which of them had the best hand on the turn.
This is an innocent, natural request. Even if not compelled by IWTSTH, the second player often shows his hand or tells the truth about what he had, that is, if he is the showing type. But what if he isn't? What if he doesn't want to show or even talk about it? What if he made a hopeless call on the river and is embarrassed? Or what if he had, say, a straight on the turn, got beat on the river, but just wants to get on to the next hand without a fuss? Why should he be forced to show his hand?
The Lucky Chances Casino rulebook mentions abuse of IWTSTH. "Any seated player may request to see any and all active hands at the showdown. However, this is a privilege that may be revoked if abused."
This is still too soft. In practice it means that in order for an abuser to be stopped, he must abuse once, then abuse again soon after, then someone must call a floorperson, and then the players will be protected from the abuser for some period of time, probably only that day. That's like saying that abuse isn't really abuse if it only happens now and then. That's not good enough. Think of physical abuse and you'll see what I mean.
IWTSTH does not catch or deter cheaters
Savvy collusion teams can easily sidestep IWTSTH by having all partners but one fold before the showdown. For example, on the turn, player A has the nuts. He signals his strength to his collusion partner, player C. Player C has no pair and no draw. Player B, the victim, has a good hand. A and C then punish player B by jamming it up on the turn. On the river, player A bets out. It doesn't matter what B does. Player C is going to fold.
In this case, no one can use IWTSTH to view C's hand, no matter how great the suspicion of cheating. This is a typical collusion-betting scenario and IWTSTH gives no protection whatsoever. IWTSTH fails at its only purpose.
Some defend IWTSTH by saying that it deters cheaters in the same way that speed-limit laws deter speeders. But laws do not deter law-breakers just by existing. Speeders can be caught; that's why speed-limit laws deter. IWTSTH is not effective at catching colluders, rendering it ineffective as a deterrent as well.
Existing variations reveal something is wrong
One variation is that only those players involved in a pot may ask to see hands at the showdown. This rule defeats the very purpose of IWTSTH by forbidding us from protecting the game whenever we happen to fold early.
So why does this variation exist? Because it drastically reduces opportunities for IWTSTH to be used, thereby reducing opportunities for abuse. The sole purpose of this variation is to reduce abuse of IWTSTH.
The goofiest variation: If the betting on the river begins heads-up and the winner asks to see the loser's hand, the loser's hand remains live and can still win the pot if he has the best hand. Can there be suspected collusion in this scenario? No. This is another bizarre attempt to curb abuse of IWTSTH.
The mere existence of these variations shows that the poker community is aware of the problem and is willing to change rules to fix IWTSTH. But so far it's not enough. We are trying to heal gangrene with Band-Aids. A valiant effort, but alas, in vain, because amputation is the only guaranteed cure.
Much writing and discussion centers on the growth of poker, on how to make it appealing to new players, and how to make the public poker table a fair and pleasant place. IWTSTH allows, and even encourages, petty behavior that ranges from bad etiquette to unethical to just plain rude. This is bad for poker, present and future.
Rules designed solely to protect the many against the few are inherently inconvenient. A good example is airport security. We tolerate the hassle because we like the peace of mind. With IWTSTH, we are also forced to tolerate inconveniences, but we get nothing in return.
Rules are made to be changed. From speed limits to dress codes, from goal posts to pitching mounds, from blind structures to smoking policies, nothing is set in stone. Thank goodness for that, because flexibility spawns improvement. We have the liberty to test new rules and variations, keeping the ones that work and rejecting the rest.
The purpose of IWTSTH is to protect against collusion, yet it fails to do so. Further, it is often used, yet rarely used for its intended purpose. This rule is ineffective and has been abused to death. What should we do with a dead thing? Get a shovel.
World-class coach and author, Tommy Angelo is considered a modern master of poker's mental game, and has helped pros and rec players alike achieve less tilt and more focus. Called "the seminal poker text of the 21st century" by The London Times, Angelo's Elements of Poker has revolutionized how serious players approach the game. His latest book, Painless Poker, already a bestseller, can be found on Amazon.com. Connect with Tommy on Twitter @TheTommyAngelo, and visit his website: tommyangelo.com.
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