Increased integrity of tournaments: My proposal

This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.

One of my early excursions into $400 and $800 limit poker was 1976. Because of inflation over the last 21 years, an $800 bet in 1976 was much more significant than it is today. The game was at Binion’s Horseshoe during the World Series of Poker, and it was six handed.

So, why do you need to know this? I’m not sure yet, but I’m possibly leading up to something here. Back in Gardena, California where I lived and played in the mid-seventies, a municipal ordinance limited the upper bet to $20, and the only games allowed were traditional five-card draw poker and five-card draw lowball. We got around this creatively with raise-blind games, re-raise blind games, and even re-re-raise blind games.

Needless to say, when the blinds were $20, plus $40 (the blind raise), plus $60 (the blind re-raise), plus $80 (the blind re-re-raise), and the bets were fixed at $20 increments before and after the draw, the game tended to be VERY loose. I mean, when your lowball opponent bets $20 after the draw into a $680 pot, you better think about those 35-to-1 pot odds, consider your pair of deuces, and be ready to call.

The contrast between this action and the $400 and $800 seven-card stud game at Binion’s was clear. In the stud game, you could actually bluff quite often. Not so in the re-re-raise blind lowball game back in Gardena. Anyway, my bankroll wasn’t really large enough to be calling $2,400 re-raises on fifth street, but that didn’t stop me. This was back in the days when I was willing to risk half a bankroll on a snarl or a challenge.

So, I played, and I survived by winning marginally. But that’s not the point. You knew we’d get to the point eventually, right? The point is that I later found out that ALL of my opponents in that game were either wholly bankrolled by others or had sold chunks of their action to their friends. Even more surprising, several financial partnerships existed among competitors in the game, where opponents actually held percentage shares of each other’s outcome.

Well, if you’re a seasoned poker pro, this won’t come as a surprise to you. It’s expensive playing big-limit poker, the risks are high, and the day-to-day fluctuations can wipe out many potentially winning players. The natural inclination is to pool resources. Assuming you can trust the players you’re doing business with, this actually limits your risk, because it’s much less likely that two or more players will suffer big losses at the same time. It means, mathematically, that players pooling their bankrolls can play at higher limits than they could otherwise, and theoretically their profits will be bigger.

So, I don’t object to that practice. But often players with financial interest in each other end up in the same game. While this might tempt players to choose strategies to their mutual advantage, doing so is unethical. Actually, it’s much more than unethical. It’s cheating. Poker requires that each opponent be honor bound to play with his own selfish interests in mind. Anything else is a scam, and it’s not poker. Repeating: No matter who has a piece of your action, you must ALWAYS play poker as if everyone is an equal enemy. No exceptions. No favors. No economic considerations. Period.

I think that the $400 and $800 game I played more than 20 years ago WAS treated ethically by all the participants. However, it was unnerving to find out later that there were financial ties among the other players, and that I was in effect the ONLY one who was REALLY playing $400 and $800 limit. My opponents had much less to win or lose.

Would I have preferred that my opponents’ financial arrangements had been disclosed to me in advance? You bet! But that might be more than a human can hope for in the tangled interrelationships of real-life high-stakes poker.

But what about tournaments? Here there is so much wheeling and dealing, so many shares of each other traded back and forth, so many backers, and so many opponents who have interests in each other’s fortunes that I’m proposing a major change in procedure.

The reason for the proposal I’m about to set forth should be obvious. Walk the outskirts of any major tournament and listen. Listen. Do you hear it? No, because it’s rarely spoken aloud. This is the sound of spectators singing a song of suspicion. Often it is thought and not uttered. And the song goes like this…

“That was stupid. Jack just knocked out the guy he had 40 percent of. He could have just checked and they’d both be in good shape.”

“This is gonna be a good day for Larry. He’s backing three of the five players left. Hope they don’t gang up on Mary. I’ve got 10 percent of her.”

“Those two act like they’ve got big pieces of each other. Makes you wonder.”

Don’t tell me that teams can’t take advantage of a tournament. They can. The easiest way is to simply equalize the stacks. For mathematical reasons beyond the scope of today’s column, a group sharing financial interests is better off if they have relatively equal amounts of chips. Having a chip leader and small stacks is not as profitable. So, there’s reason to wonder about tournament deals.

What do I recommend? Abolish backers? No way. We’d lose half our tournament fields. Abolish trading shares with other players? Probably not a great idea. These deals tend to minimize risk and keep more players in action. Then what’s your proposal, Mad Genius?

OK, here it is. I simply propose that all deals in a tournament must be disclosed. Even more than just disclosed, they must be REGISTERED. All tournament financial arrangements, prize pool splits, percentage trades, last-longer bets, and backing by other entrants must be registered in writing with the tournament director.

A list of these registered deals should be made available for all participants to see! Further, no deal among last-table finalists can be made without the approval of all remaining players, whether part of the deal or not. That’s my proposal.

See you later. Play good and I’ll be proud of you.

Published by

Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.


5 thoughts on “Increased integrity of tournaments: My proposal”

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  1. They talk about it out loud. That’s all I hear about whether playing tourney or cash games.

  2. I have looked on the sites for ways to cheat at poker. So here we could have Jumbo and Villian in cahoots and Jumbo is short stacked and Villian is healthy. Jumbo bets 90% of his stack and Villian calls with 72 and they check it down. Keeps Jumbo in the tournament.

    Hi Mike,
    Your insights into high stakes poker is greatly appreciated. The problems that I encounter at the lower and middle limits is far worse than the mere appearance impropriety. I'll relate some recent experiences at a major casino.
    Played in a two day no-limit Hold'em tournament with a $500 entry. I was short stacked on the button. Everyone folded and I went all-in. The Small and big blinds both called. The small blind turns to the big blind says, "He's all-in. Let's check it down to the river. OK?" It's not unusual to see players check it down in this situation, but to openly solicit a team approach to the hand was shocking. Even more shocking was that the dealer and other players saw nothing wrong. I smiled and wished everyone good on my way out.
    Played a medium stakes no-limit game at the same casino later the same day. I noticed that the ace dealt to me had a major blemish on the back of the card. I alerted the dealer to the card. There was also a king with a major blemish in the same deck. I'm not accusing anyone of cheating. However, at the very least players should be getting their money’s worth. This deck should have never been in play. These blemishes appeared to be from excessive wear and should have never been in play. If these cards were found at the blackjack tables people would have been fired. 
    Mike, your ethics are commendable. Unfortunately, you're on the endangered spieces list.
    Note: I intentionally omitted the casino's name. This is an industry wide problem. No individual casino deserves to be singled out.

  4. Wow Mike. You and I think alike. I always preach real poker is fair and honest poker. Anything else is a scam. I with you bud on all this but I think you and I and others here are dreaming. It’s just a guess but I’d say a good 1/3rd the poker world are hustlers and it’s all they know.

    I don’t see it happening, let’s dream anyways..

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