March 10, 2010

Poker Is Not a Team Sport

Despite my recent paean to the Venetian poker room, there is always room for improvement.  In fact, this past weekend, I observed one of the more unsettling scenes of collusion I can remember witnessing at a poker table.

The scene was a 2/5 NLHE game late Sunday night / early Monday morning.  I was playing alongside my IMOP teammate Barbie in what was a juicy, action-packed game.  Most players had $1,000 or more behind, and monster pots were common.  It quickly became apparent that three younger guys at the table—Larry, Moe, and Curly—were friends away from the table.  Now, I often play at the same table as friends, though I try to keep the number to one or two.  I also don't hold back when playing against friends, and they don't hold back against me.  In some respects, it is actually more satisfying to beat friends who know my game, as they pose a greater challenge than many random players who are donkey arks passing in the night.

Larry, Moe, and Curly were aggressive, even by this game's hyper-aggro standards, so they often found themselves against each other in pots.  They would then do a lot of annoying chatter, stuff like:  "I've got a hand, get out", "I know you're on a draw", "Jacks are no good", that sort of thing.  It's annoying but generally harmless, unless you count the minutes being sucked out of the game by all the posturing.

Then this weird hand came up.  Larry raised to $30 preflop, and was called by Moe, Curly, and Irish Guy (not because he was Irish, but because he had on a Notre Dame windbreaker).  The flop came down something highly coordinated, like 9-8-6 with two of a suit.  Larry bet $75, Moe called, Curly raised to $150, Irish Guy called, Larry raised to $300, Moe muttered and folded, and Curly pushed all-in for over $1,500, which covered Irish Guy and Larry.  Irish Guy thought a long time, then folded.

At this point, Curly starts talking to Larry: "You know I have a big hand, you should fold."  Larry responded, "But I have a big hand, too."  Larry started counting out chips, and Curly went into overdrive: "Why go broke?  Give me the pot and I'll give you your last bet [$300] back."  Larry says, "Make it $400 and I'll fold."

Now, the dealer was very young, but to her credit she did speak up at this point: "I can't have you discuss deals at the table.  If you want to do something away from the table, that's your business."  Larry and Curly ignored her and kept talking about a "rebate" if Larry folded.  Finally, Larry folded, and Curly picked up $300 in green and red chips and walked them over to Larry, who put them in his stack.

Now the interesting part of the situation was that, before paying the "rebate", Curly rolled over a combo draw (gutshot and non-nut flush draw).  Larry showed down JJ for just an overpair.  Irish Guy saw the hands and muttered about laying down top two pair.  Irish Guy was visibly bothered, and left within a few hands.

So what was wrong with the Stooges' conduct?  In essence, they colluded by raising and reraising to get Irish Guy to fold, then cutting a deal to minimize their variance.  It seemed pretty clear that these guys had run this "rebate" deal many times in the past.  I have no problem with this practice if the pot has been heads up the entire way, but where a third player has put in a significant amount of money, and is forced to fold to two other players' raises and reraises, the "rebate" practice carries the stench of collusion. 

I wish the dealer had called the floor about the situation, and it would have been interesting to see how the situation would have been handled.  My gut reaction is that nothing could be done about the hand in question once Irish guy folded, but a stern warning at the minimum would have been in order.  In hindsight, Irish Guy had the right response—there's no reason to play an individual game against a team.


  1. "Curly picked up $300 in green and red chips and walked them over to Larry, who put them in his stack"

    That's the part where you need to be telling 'em there will be no chip passing at the table, and point out this should come as no surprise since the dealer told 'em to knock it off. Curly keeps the $300 in chips. If he wants to walk with Larry to the restroom and take $300 out of his pocket to square things with him, you can't prevent that, but you can absolutely stop chip passing at the table.

  2. The real problem is "my gut reaction is nothing could be done...". What good is a stern warning? If as you say they have pulled this stunt before obviously there is no system in place to prevent them playing team poker. What's next? Phoning a friend for really tough decisions? What is needed is a formal complaint system, Mr Irish should be able to lodge a formal complaint, the accused photos/ID put into a database shared between all reputable card rooms and if you get three or more collusion complaints you get barred for some period of time. Get barred twice and you get black balled from any room patticipating. Either that or bring back true old school cheaters justice, R. Dinero in Casino style!


  3. I have noticed this a few times in the 1/2 games, 2 aggros will play until it gets heads up and then check it down, a few dealers have told them they can't do it, but they still kept doing it, not sure if it's the same guys, but I really thought it was kind of shady

  4. @ Anon#1: You're dead right that chip passing should never occur. Not sure why the dealer didn't say anything. Maybe she wanted someone to object first. But it's very awkward to be the one to object if you weren't in the hand, even though every player at the table has the right to object.

    @ Anon#2: You're also correct that a warning is a rather ineffectual remedy. But once Irish Guy folded, I'm not sure you can do anything else. Certainly you can't give Irish Guy the pot or his money back. If these guys had caused issues before, then maybe you can boot them. Your idea of a "black book" is good, but tough to implement. It might be more workable on an individual room basis. Just a tough spot where no remedy seems adequate.

    @ Minton: Yeah, the whole buddies checking it down thing is sketchy at best, and collusion when it's abusive (i.e., done to get other players to fold). Again, though, it takes a strong dealer with floor backing to crack down on this practice.

  5. You can sometimes get the floor to separate players after such an event. When they are obviously playing buddy poker, put the buddies on separate tables. I've seen it done. Floor just comes with a rack and asks which one of them would like to move. There's an argument, and usually they both leave in a huff, but it works to stop this.

    It's particularly rare, but rooms have been known to create "those two may never play at the same table" rules for repeated cases. Or to simply 86 the players with a flat "neither of you are welcome here again" if it's egregious.

  6. @ Apollo: In a big room like the Venetian, splitting up the players is such an obvious solution it should almost be the first response to a potential collusion situation. There will almost always be another game for one of them to move to, so if they don't, good riddance.

    In a small room, though, I can see a problem if there is no other game, or no open seat. But then, maybe you force one of them to sit out. I don't know, but having floors/managers to make these tough decisions is one reason I pay rake.

    The really awkward part is being at the table but not in the hand. It is rather uncomfortable to be the guy who asks for the floor to make that accusation of collusion, or even to suggest that other players might be "out of line". On the other hand, that's not a fair game to be playing. Next time, I may do something like Irish Guy did and vote with my feet for a different table or room, but I'll speak to management quietly as I leave the room.