The horrible reality of poker partnerships

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2011) in Bluff magazine under the same title.

Poker isn’t one thing. Poker is playful or poker is provocative. Poker is paying the price for tonight’s entertainment or poker is pure profit. Poker is hoping to get lucky and beat the odds or poker is the power of probability working in your favor.

Poker is psychology or poker is tactics. It’s some of that; it’s all of that. And it’s more. For me, poker is a wonderland of good times and glorious giggles. It’s an amusement park where honest players compete and collide. It’s designed for an arena where superior skill eventually matters. It is a test of short-term luck and a quest for long-term earnings.

And it can be spoiled so easily.

This isn’t an easy column to write. It’s a downer. But you and I must face truth together and protect the game we love. Poker is worth our protection. So, why am I saying this?

A flaw

It’s because poker has a fundamental flaw. Poker doesn’t work unless everyone plays selfishly. It is a game designed to be devoid of compassion. Decisions must be heartless or poker doesn’t work.

I’m not saying that poker players can’t be caring and compassionate. I’m saying that they must never let those traits influence their decisions while they’re competing for a pot. They can be (as I try to be) friendly and even giggly during play and empathetic in their everyday lives when they leave the poker table.

But, showing compassion by modifying your poker tactics to help friends is a form of cheating. You can’t go easy on favored opponents and not influence the outcome. Even if the so-called “soft playing” of friends doesn’t directly affect anyone else who is competing for a pot, it’s using allies to create a false image about when you bet and how you play. That phony history misleads. Of course, it’s legal to mislead opponents. In fact, that’s a main component of making money at poker. But you must do it on your own, without the help of others. Anything else is unethical.

That’s why the seemingly innocuous practice of soft playing can damage poker. By choosing not to compete aggressively against friends, you’re reducing the size of pots won by other opponents when they hold strong hands. It’s a secret conspiracy that does invisible damage – but the damage is real, nonetheless.

Next step

But let’s talk about the next step up from slow playing. That would be poker partnerships. There seems to be an attitude among a sizeable minority of players – especially online – that the practice is okay. It’s not. It’s a criminal offense that should be prosecuted far beyond what is possible today. Ten years in prison doesn’t seem severe enough of a penalty to fit that crime.

Before you scoff, let me explain. When someone robs a convenience store, you know who that bad guy is. He’s the one holding the gun. But poker partnerships steal enormously more money and ruin lives of opponents while violating a sacred oath.

What sacred oath? Well, the reality is that when you play poker, you’re tacitly pledging to other players that you will compete in your own selfish interest. There is only one winner of a poker pot, and that’s the fundamental flaw I was talking about earlier. If second and third places were paid proportionally, then the opportunity to destroy a game through teamwork would be reduced.

But we don’t want that. Having the pot awarded to a single winner is at the soul of poker. It must remain that way. This key ingredient is also what gives unscrupulous players the chance to partner up, to send each other signals, to – as an example – play the best hand among the team and fold the other hands.

The real horror

Partnership strategies can be designed to add minor advantage or to be so sophisticated that they steal money without much risk. But the real horror is that partners break the pledge to play selfishly. Each player is at the mercy of others who could quietly team up and take advantage of poker’s fundamental flaw. When you pledge to each other to play honorably, opponents who invisibly break that vow are evil almost beyond definition. Few common crimes equal that, in my mind.

Poker is a proving ground for honor. You must play ethically. We all agree to that when the cards are dealt. To act differently and take advantage of others’ trust when there is no certain chance of proving a violation – well, that’s among the lowest forms of human behavior.

Okay. Our discussion has been unpleasant today. Sorry. But, here’s the deal. I began my poker career in an era when partnerships often were overlooked and, at best, management would bar participants for a week. But poker is our game now. It has crawled out of dingy barrooms and shimmers in the spotlight. Our game doesn’t belong to the crooks.

We’re proud of today’s poker. And we will defend it. It is your obligation as an honest player to protect our game. It isn’t enough anymore to avoid tables where there is cheating. You must warn others. Lives can be destroyed by any form of cheating at poker, especially by poker partnerships.

We must do what’s uncomfortable. If we know there is cheating, you and I must defend poker by telling weak opponents when conditions aren’t safe. It’s our duty to each other. And if you don’t believe this is true for moral reasons, here’s a practical one. If you walk away from a game and let the partners scam weak players, those are people you could have won money from. But now you can’t. The partnership has stolen your money, even though you didn’t play.

We have too much invested. Let this be our warning to those who try to drag our game back into the dark days. We will defend our game. We will defend poker. — MC

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.


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