Poker partnerships are evil

This article first appeared in Card Player magazine, probably in the late 1990s.

We’ll move along to some new topics later, if we have time and space, but first let’s get rid of some old business that is still lingering atop this desk. Whenever you’re ready, I’ll begin.

OK, first of all, I have received significant support for what I said at the Second Annual World Poker Industry Conference in Las Vegas two months ago. But there is also a misunderstanding. One casino believed that the message might be misinterpreted, that politicians might warp those words and use them to over regulate poker and to mold it into something that is neither as entertaining for the players or as profitable for the casinos. We need to clear up that misunderstanding right now.

Although the majority of my speech was about poker room operations, the last part concerned poker partnerships. I asked everyone to join together – honest management and honest players – to do whatever could be done to make 1997 and 1998 especially tough on partnerships. I reasoned that the conference was the ideal place to bring up this topic, because many of the most capable and reputable owners in the industry attended. In fact, representatives of casinos that set world standards for surveillance and protecting customers against cheaters were there.

Some of these which I’ve personally dealt with in the past, included the Commerce Casino, Hollywood Park Casino, Bay 101, the Mirage, and dozens more for which I have confidence in the integrity and player-protection skills of the management.

As I’ve said many times, playing in public card rooms is usually much safer than playing in private games. Period. But, my friends, we need to band together now and do something about partnerships. I can’t back down from this position. Some people want me to, because:

  1. Customers might think the threat to their bankrolls is more widespread than it really is.

  2. There’s not much that can be done about partnerships.

What’s the truth about partnerships?
I guess the reason I feel so passionately about this is because many otherwise sophisticated players don’t fully grasp the threat that poker partnerships pose. For those readers who don’t quite understand what we’re talking about here, this is it. Poker is supposed to be a game where each opponent plays purely in his own self-interest. If that doesn’t happen, then massive and wholly unethical advantages go to those who violate this tacit agreement.

How do you go about taking advantage of opponents by playing with a partner? Good question, and not one I’m going to answer. I think we’d be surprised, if we dissected the workings of most everyday partnerships, to find just how inept they really are. They probably raise each other sometimes when folding is correct and fold sometimes when raising is correct. Fine. We’re guessing that these teams are not all made up of nuclear physicists. So what? Some, I’m betting are composed of very bright people. But the sad part is that even the most inept teams (if any exist) – teams that do nothing more than secretly signal each other and then play only the best hand among the team – can eat through your bankroll like moths amongst your t-shirts.

The arguments against strongly attacking partnerships have been:

  1. They really don’t do that much harm.

  2. You aren’t likely to catch them.

  3. They can make good customers, because – with that extra edge – they’re apt to survive the games, keep their partnership in money by lending the profits back and forth, and fill seats that would otherwise be vacant.

  4. You can’t prove anything if you do catch them.

  5. It’s not clear that partnerships are illegal.

  6. They might sue.

Fortunately, only three of these six attitudes are held by major casino management, as far as I know. Numbers 2, 4, and 5, unfortunately, are arguably true. Taking the six points one at a time…

Point 1. Partnerships can do great harm. And the harm they do is not only to poker opponents, but to the casinos themselves. That’s because, when honest customers go broke, those empty seats are ones we should worry about. By eating away at the customer base, partnerships steal from the casino and from legitimate customers.

Point 2. Yes, it’s very hard to catch a sophisticated partnership. They aren’t apt to be so stupid – after signaling and playing out their best combined strategy – as to be caught with questionable hands at the showdown. About the only way to catch them, other than to infiltrate their ranks (which is something I’ve discussed), is to perform a painstaking mathematical analysis of all the videotaped hands, then piece together the puzzle and see what doesn’t fit.

Point 3. I already explained that partnerships chase away customers, and in fact destroy some of them. This is bad for the cardroom and makes partners bad for business. If you think you’re getting good shills out of a partnership in a poker game, think again. The best shills, from a casinos standpoint, are those that break about even. But that’s another lesson, for another day.

Point 4. Unfortunately, this is true. It’s hard to prove in court that a partnership actually took place. Undercover detective work may be the best chance we have.

Point 5. Again true. I think it’s fraud, and I’ve talked with law enforcement officials. The consensus is that there are ways to make charges stick, but it’s not as clear as need be. I support laws that make it very clear that poker partnerships are a serious crime, punishable by serious prison time.

Point 6. They might, and they have. That’s why we need provisions built into any new California (where legislation is pending) gambling regulations that give casinos extraordinary powers to protect their games as they see fit without fearing lawsuits. Ideally, similar provisions would then be adopted worldwide.

As it stands, I know this is true:

  1. Public casinos today, run by honorable management, are the safest places for poker. Often, teams of cheats will simply avoid casinos governed by strong management with strong surveillance and knowledgeable players.

  2. We need to give casinos whatever weapons they require to target partnerships without management fearing repercussions. As long as you can go years to prison for robbing a convenience store of $100 and there’s virtually no penalty for conspiring to rob poker opponents of millions, beware.

Responding to Mike Sexton.
In his July 11, 1997 Card Player column, multi-time poker champion Mike Sexton starts his attack on one of my opinions diplomatically with this: “Mike Caro has done more to protect poker players from cheats than any person in the poker industry, and for that we all owe him a debt of gratitude that we can never repay. [Hey, Mike, don’t say that. They might try to repay. Cash, money orders, and traveler’s checks work best here. Sorry for interrupting.] His suggestion to protect the integrity of poker, as stated in the May 30, 1997 issue of Card Player, is to not only disclose, but to have every player register with the tournament director any deals, last-longer bets, backing by investors, or percentage trades in writing prior to the start of every tournament. (This would take a full-time secretary!)

[Interrupting Mike Sexton, here. A full-time secretary isn’t required, but wouldn’t be a bad idea. Thanks. He continues…] I think the “Mad Genius” has taken the wrong fork in the road with this suggestion. (He must have thought of this idea after a marathon session on his computer.) Does anyone really think that a team of cheaters who are planning to conspire to put other players “in the middle” and dump chips off to each other in order to keep each other alive in a tournament are really going to register prior to the event that they have 50 percent of each other? Absurd! All this would do is waste time and paperwork on the honest people.

End of Sexton. Sexton’s quotation, that is. No, Mike, I don’t think law violators are likely to turn themselves in, if that’s what you’re asking. Laws, regulations, and procedures are made so that when someone doesn’t follow them, we can point to the infraction and say, “You violated the rules and this time I caught you. Go straight to your room. Your father will speak to you later.” We don’t have that ability now. (And, yes, I know that father part will seem sexist to some. Damn, I wish I hadn’t typed it.)

By the way, in his same column, Sexton makes an excellent proposal. He suggests having an ethics committee at tournaments, consisting of peers, and overseen by the tournament director. The committee could effectively bar a player from further participation in tournaments at that casino. With slight reservations about the legal standing of such action, I fully support that proposal. Count me in, Mike. Well, in the beginning I said we’d tackle other topics today, provided we had the time and the space. We don’t. Sorry.

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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.


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