Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2007) in Poker Player newspaper.
I’m having fun with this question-and-answer series. I get to pose the questions and then answer them — and that saves time, because I don’t have to wrestle with questions that lead to uninteresting discussions. Also, I don’t need to mostly ignore a question by giving a polite and perfunctory few sentences in response, before cleverly steering my answer to something I think is more important.
Today’s questions relate to poker rules. If you’re ready, so am I…
Question #11: What’s the worst rule in poker?
There’s no doubt about this one.
The worst rule in poker, very common in many tournaments, is that you can’t tell opponents truthfully what cards you have. I call it the idiot rule.
That’s because it only stops you from giving information about your hands through verbal assertions if both you and your opponents are idiots. Of course, the rule would make sense if you were always telling the truth about your hand and opponents could rely on your word. But you’d have to be pretty dumb to always tell the truth — and opponents would have to be pretty dumb to rely on your word during the course of a poker hand.
The essence of poker is deception. It isn’t just a game where you play your own cards as if you were in a bingo parlor. In poker, you look for tells. You employ psychology. And you manipulate your opponents — if you’re capable of doing so.
When I’m in a poker game, my goal is sell my image and steer opponents in directions that will bring me the most profit. As Doyle Brunson says, “Poker is a game of people.”
One of the significant ways I treat poker as a game of people is to talk at the table. Sometimes I do this just to involve opponents in conversation, hoping that their responses will give me clues about what type of hands they’re holding.
Sometimes I’ll babble about the strength of my hand, gauging my opponents’ reactions. I might say, “Are you sure you want to be betting that small pair into my obvious pair of nines?” I might declare directly what I claim to hold.
Usually I’m lying. But once in a while — for the sake of deception — I actually tell the truth. That’s poker.
Can’t tell the truth
But the worst rule in poker states that you can’t tell the truth about your hand. For instance, you can’t say, “I have three aces,” if you actually do. That sucks.
It sucks because, by rule, anything I say must be a lie to be legal. So, if I say I have a full house, opponents are given information. They know I can’t have a full house or I’d be in violation of the idiot rule.
So, I guess, if I wanted to tell someone I had aces full, I’d have to say something like, “One thing I can say positively is that I don’t have aces full.” If I said that and didn’t have aces full, I’d be telling the truth and in clear violation of the idiot rule. For that reason, astute opponents would know that I’m lying — which is legal — and that I absolutely do have aces-full.
The idiot rule not only makes no sense, it actually gives opponents reliable information about opponents’ hands, when they would otherwise be guessing about whether the declaration were true or false.
Question #12: What’s the most annoying rule in poker?
Okay, so this isn’t a big deal. But it drives me crazy every time.
It’s the rule that governs the so-called “chip races” in poker tournaments. Every so often, the tournament structure dictates that smaller denomination chips need to be removed from the tables and exchanged for fewer chips of higher denominations.
At these times, players trade all their smallest chips for bigger ones, but usually there are stray small chips left over. For instance, if we were taking all the $25 chips out of the tournament when moving to $200/$400 rounds, we’d exchange $25 chips for $100 chips.
Fine. Let’s say you had $325 in $25 chips. You’d buy three $100 chips, but you’d have $25 left over.
What happens with that extra chip? Lots of methods were used during the evolution of poker tournaments:
(1) The surplus small chips were left in play;
(2) The surplus small chips were confiscated;
(3) A bigger chip was given if you had any remaining small chips after buying what you could;
(4) A bigger chip was given only if you had at least half the number of small chips required to purchase a bigger one, otherwise you lost your small chips; and
(5) A bigger chip was given only if you had more than half the number of small chips required to purchase a bigger one, otherwise you lost your small chips.
Then the chip race was introduced.
Using this method, you got one face-up card for each small chip and the highest card won all the stray chips, exchanged them for bigger ones, and — assuming there were still a few left over — either got an extra big chip or didn’t in accordance with the procedure du jour.
That chip-race method seemed reasonably fair to me. If you had three extra $25 chips, you had three times the chance of winning the race as someone who only had one extra chip
But then someone decided that all the small chips shouldn’t go to the same player, so no one scored a minor windfall. Instead, enough big chips were given to the table to cover the entire sum of small chips, rounded off however tournament management saw fit.
Then the race continued as before, but instead of the high card getting all the big chips, it only won one chip. The second-high card got the next chip, the third-high card next, and so on as needed.
This was also reasonably fair.
Here’s where it got insane. In a quest to make the system better, it was decided that any single player could only win one chip. They’d spread out the prize.
So, if you had three small chips in the race and were dealt ace-ace-king, you’d still only get one chip, losing out to a player who only had a spare $25 and ended up with a queen.
To be fair (and actually you could be even fairer), you should have a chance of winning the second chip, even if you already won the first. If you buy three tickets in horserace, each should have independent value. Nobody says, well, you already won something, so you can’t cash in your other tickets.
Theoretically, there are even obscure, very borderline plays during the tournament in which you might modify your tactics in order to not have three extra chips, which will be mildly penalized in the chip race.
I’m not saying this is an important example of a bad rule, as rules go. In fact, it’s a trivial matter. But although the mistake isn’t important, it’s obvious and easily fixed. And that’s why its common use today annoys me. Jeffrey Pollack and Matt Savage, are you listening?
Sometimes I point out that this latest chip-race rule — in striving to make things perfectly fair — actually injects a new degree of unfairness. I’m usually met with friendly nods and vacant stares, indicating an absence of understanding.
When that happens, I usually find the nearest corner appropriate for sulking. And whenever I witness a chip race, I become depressed all over again. It is the result of someone meddling with the nature of fate, changing the original chip-race that was fair into one that is unfair, and declaring it an improvement.
In two weeks, I’ll answer some more questions about poker rules. Right now, I’m too emotionally upset to continue. — MC
The following announcement preceded the entry above, when the column was first published in 2007. It is included here for historic purposes.
Let me share a closely guarded secret. I just returned to my forest in the Ozarks after spending most of last week with Doyle Brunson in Las Vegas. We filmed a poker course for iAmplifyVegas.com that should be announced shortly.
Although iAmplify (the main site covering all kinds of online lessons, in addition to the gambling ones found at iAmplifyVegas) isn’t saying much in advance of a worldwide announcement, I did coax this statement from their VP of Creative and Content Acquisition, Kipp Marcus: “iAmplifyVegas.com is honored to be creating a course with two legends, Doyle Brunson & Mike Caro. This course will bring a whole new level to those who are serious about elevating their game. Working with scholars like Caro and champions like Brunson prove once and for all that the game of poker is 99% skill and 1% luck.”
My only quibble with that, as my students know, is: I teach that poker is 100% skill in the long term, but much, much more than 1% luck in the short term. In any case, stay tuned for pending iAmplify announcements.