Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2010) in Bluff magazine.
I’m not a perfect person, but I try to live an ethical life. And that life is an open book, one that I examine and share with you at my Poker1.com web site.
That’s the way I want it – to be laughed at or loved, ridiculed or respected. It’s your choice, and it doesn’t matter to me. I treat every life, even my own, as just part of a bigger spectacle.
Sometimes I don’t feel as if I’m participating in my own adventures; I’m only observing them.
Anyway, I know that sharing my thoughts about poker ethics won’t seem cool to many readers. In today’s culture, cool often means cheating or stealing and getting away with it.
Movies trick us into rooting for criminals and reward us with Hollywood endings in which the thieves escape to Mexico with the girl and the loot. Scrupulously honest characters are portrayed as out of touch, as uncool, as objects of scorn, as punch lines for jokes, and as outcasts who don’t get it. Well, here I am uncool and not getting it.
I especially don’t get it when it involves poker. I don’t just teach poker tactics and tells. I teach ethics. And that can be a dangerous thing to do if you want to stay popular. Oh, well, let’s get started.
Here are the ingredients of my personal code of poker ethics:
Poker’s fundamental flaw
I always approach poker integrity with the understanding that poker itself has a fundamental flaw. The problem is that there’s only one winner of a pot (except in high-low split games and when best hands tie). Because of this, there’s a tacit understanding that each participant must play in his or her own self interest.
I enter a game realizing that anyone could team up with others and unethically take advantage of the flaw. So, there’s a sacred, unstated promise all honest players make when sitting in a poker game: We will make every decision based on individual profit.
No action can ever be made to benefit opponents. If I ignored this promise, honest opponents would probably never know, so I’d be taking advantage of their pledge to me by breaking my own pledge to them. To me, that’s the lowest form of dishonesty. Without honoring those mutual, unstated pledges, poker simply doesn’t work. Everyone is vulnerable to anyone else who breaks the pledge. That’s the flaw.
Boiled and eaten
When someone robs a convenience store, you know who the bad person is. He’s the guy with the gun. As wrong as that is, in my mind it’s not as sinister as a poker partnership. The robber and the convenience store haven’t exchanged solemn promises. With poker partnerships, the thieves usually go unnoticed and nobody knows anything was stolen.
Lives can be ruined when unethical players break their promises and directly target the honesty of others who are being fair to them. What’s worse than that? That’s why I have long-ago stated that poker cheaters should be boiled and eaten. If you think I’m not serious: You boil; I’ll eat.
Some players consider that playing best-hand poker (where partners signal each other and only the strongest hand is played) as a gray area of ethics that isn’t quite cheating. They’re wrong.
Playing best hands is a simple and serious form of cheating, and the method will usually destroy ethical players. You should never consider joining such partnerships, and if asked to participate, I believe you should report the players immediately.
Tattling may seem uncool, but you have an obligation to other players to keep the game honest. As uncomfortable as it may seem to do this, poker can’t be protected without your help.
Strangely, many players think they should give friends a break. But when you soft play friends at the table, others get hurt in the crossfire.
Aggressive opponents, who are playing honestly, especially suffer. That’s because they mistake what’s happening through secret alliances as tactical traits exhibited by the group of friends. This causes those honest players to make poor decisions for the wrong reasons on future hands.
Much worse, soft playing often means that honest players get less value when they hold strong hands, because some opponents have decided not to participate in order to make it easy on their buddies. Also, honest players may call trying to catch a bluff, not realizing that the opponent would never have bet a weak hand, due to a secret understanding with a participating friend.
Soft playing friends is cheating. If you want to be generous, win the money through honest play first. Then you can give it away to your friends later.
Obligation of pros and other players
Look, we’ve made great advances. Poker has crawled out of the dank corners of taverns and dimly lit two-table cardrooms. We’ve survived the era when scammers roamed and ruled. Now poker is in the spotlight, but it won’t stay there unless professionals and other honest players protect our game.
It’s no longer enough to look the other way and just refuse to participate. We need to let unethical players know, in blunt terms, that we don’t tolerate any form of cheating, including partnerships big or small. It’s our game and we will defend it.
The consequences of tolerating unethical poker are too great; the stakes are too high. Tell them that exactly. If that doesn’t work, it’s time to start boiling the water.
In life and in poker, each person needs to define a personal code of ethics. Some things are clearly right; some wrong. Beyond that, you must fashion your own standards to fill the gaps.
Make sure your poker guidelines reflect the fact that you must always play in your own best interest – and never to the advantage of a group. Also, your guidelines must dictate that you won’t use anything clandestine that isn’t available to everyone or isn’t within the spirit of poker. Beyond that, your code of ethics is up to you and mine is up to me.
Help protect poker. It’s our game; it belongs to us; and we have too much invested in its future to let its reputation be tarnished. — MC
30 thoughts on “My personal poker code of ethics”
Dear Mike , Had I tried , I could NOT have written my feelings about this issue any better , I have a saying , I despise LIARS , CHEATS and THEIFS ! I am excited to hear someone like yourself with your exposure to many more players than would listen to me tell how it should be and how it needs to be if we want this game that we ALL CHERISH to be around in the future . Thank you again Robert Berg
In any game at a casino or where all comers are welcome, I agree, Mike and that’s how I play. That said, I play in a regular game that includes a 93 year old guy that should not be playing. I refuse to “take advantage,” when I know I have him dominated. He really enjoys playing with the ‘fella’s’. I will soft play him every time. Sometimes he gets lucky and takes me for a big pot, but I really don’t care and I like how happy that makes him. So he is the exception to the rule. I warn the other players before the game starts that this is how I play ‘Loyd.’ They understand and most of them do the same. Collusion? Probably, but there it is.
Hi, Gary —
Since you let the other players know, I don’t see an issue with this. We all need to make reasonable gray-area accommodations with reality sometimes. And common sense often dictates that guidelines for behavior require modification.
First thing I do after sitting at a table -is to find out -who of my opponents might be playing together. Unfortunately I spot them on a regular basis. These players sit far from each other, raise or reraise each other too often in order to make a big pot and profit from players that are in the middle position. It is just too obvious. And they like big flop bets with garbage. But I enjoy to boil and eat them as soon as I get a chance, because it usually means that I will win a huge pot ;). It might be dangerous, but I take my chances.
Anyway thank you for all your books and your work, you are the best Mike Caro ;)
How about an article on why poker is not gambling, citing a recent ruling in New York on just this topic.
Actually, poker is a form of gambling, by most definitions.
The most usual court issue revolves around whether poker is mostly luck or skill. In that arena, I’ve been an expert witness and my books and opinions have been cited in many judgments, including some important ones.
My view, which is also a fact, is that there’s a large amount of luck in the poker short term, but that outcomes are almost completely governed by skill in the long term.
Note that almost every life endeavor is gambling, whether defined that way or not.
God love you MIke. I’ve been following your writings for several years. Your words reative to both poker and politics are full of common sense and wisdom. Keep up the good fight!
To me, WSOP should stop players from staking players in a tournament that they are playing in…. just saying that promotes soft play and cheating
So hud’s should be banned from online poker? Are they unethical? Tell me what you think MIke
I think heads up displays/HUDs (software that tracks opponents’ traits and display them on screen) should either be banned and blocked or made freely available to every player. — Mike Caro
I completely disagree. There isn’t a limit to who can buy a HUD. it’s not like you, or me, or the next guy can’t buy one. The reason for the cost is to be able to properly support them.Besides, if I created a program that intricate, I would want to get paid for my hard work. It wasn’t designed in an hour. So in a sense, it is avaiable to every player. You can’t have everyone that has a photographic memory not be allowed to play because you don’t have a photographic memory… just saying.
Hi, Iram — Thanks for making your first comment and joining our Poker1 family. — Mike Caro
“Free poker database” is now open source. It’s free, anyone can have it, and anyone can participate in it’s developpement.
I consider myself to have high ethics, but at the poker table I always run into one problem….I ruthlessly attack the opponents on the other side of the table far more than my neighbors(as far as aggressive play)…if it is a fun atmosphere on my side that is…on a dull table this doesn’t apply.
Not my friends, I most likely just met them that night. I wouldn’t say it is a soft play to the extent of checking back the nuts on the river; but my bluffs are smaller and less frequent…I bet less thin for value…etc…
It just seems that the atmosphere stays fun when you make your neighbors at the table happy…however the other side may not be having a great time…I don’t think it is unethical, but it is close.
I play to make money, fun is secondary. There are no friends at the poker table, even when I’m sitting with friends. I do believe in being friendly to those with position on you. (Mike has said so). One thing is certain, good poker is not a gentleman’s game, it is war and I play that way, using everything in my arsenal, friend or not.
This is addressed in Mike’s article, but in a bit of a throwaway line. Look for the words “psychological reasons”. Also while he uses the phrase the most money this time, he also uses the point that it is a long term game. In this case, your play may well match Mike’s stated goals. By creating an environment that you’re comfortable in, and that at least some of the players are “happy”, you may indeed using the methodology that you’re stating, are in his measures the “correct” plays. He does this in many articles, but doesn’t explain them, because the subtle exceptions, or deeper playing of his rules, dramatically increases the explanation, and mires the less educated with additional information that prevents them from understanding, correction, and profit from the get-go. You’re correct here, you’ve taken and extended the principles for advanced reasons and understanding, and have gotten an even larger piece of the pie. But you have to stand on the shoulders of this information to get there.
And even better, he is right. There is an epidemic of pre-flop raising. There are tons of “epidemics” in poker play. I profit from as many of them as possible. Many of them are read some where, and not or worse mis understood. That misunderstanding and misapplication, is often my edge. In a given table, I will see a large swath of players, plays, cards and positions. My “job” is to make the best decisions possible. Learning, understanding, plays, cards, positions, variance management, execution, these are my tools to make the best decisions possible, and to win as much as possible over time, and enough to make it worthwhile to do.
Needless to say, this is a serious problem which I witness quite often from real life to online poker. Cheaters are always aiming to get the upper hand, anyway they can find. What can we do about this?
A couple of times in this years WSOP players were given a one round penaty for soft playing the nuts. ( checking the nuts when they were last to act at showdown.)
Hi there. Why is checking the nuts on river penalized ?? This is strange to me.. I AM just new but i’ve noticed that to get maximum value from some players u have to check on river with nuts..
So i would like to know why someone would get penalized for trying to get maximum value..??
Thanks, please ignore my ignorance..
Only the player last to act, gets penalized if they check the nuts.
thanks for answer Stan..
checking the nuts only when you are last to act, if some is next act then you can check, this is in place to stop any notions of conclusion. if you are checking the nuts at the river and your last to act, not betting is losing maximum value. its like this you have J Tos you are last position flop comes 9s 8c 7d then after betting the turn is 5h , then again after betting the river comes 2c when the action comes you, you must raise any bets or bet if no bets have been made.
collusion i mean
That doesn’t make sense. A good reason to do exactly that is to get the other opponent to show his cards, whereas a value bet on the river might cause him to fold, and you get less information.
Good point but it is a WSOP tournament rule.
But it isn’t about you being able to maximize your play. It’s about the tournament operators stopping collusion.
That exact situation was televised. If I remember rightly it was Darvin Moon who had the A-high flush wrapped up. The feller he was playing against looked like he needed a fresh diaper. Darvin (?) said, “well if I put anything in there I won’t get to see your cards.” Somebody said that’s cheating call the floor blah blah blah penalized for a round.
I agree that it’s stupid, though. I personally think a 1 bb bet on the river wouldn’t have put much pressure on the non-nut guy. But if his read was right, it would have cost him the chance to see the down cards.
It’s not so much about seeing your opponents cards as it is building your stack. Please… give me chips! That’s how the WSOP sees it and I agree. Makes absolute sense.
ABSOLUTELY TRUE…..I WISH MANY OF THE (ALLEGED)POKER PLAYERS I FREQUENTLY PLAY AGAINST WOULD READ AND RE-READ THIS ARTICLE. THANKS MIKE FOR THE OPEN THINKING….JAIME
Soft playing is something I experience often. It’s annoying but can be beaten with tells.