November 26, 2011

Harry Poker & The Magical Muck

Harry:  I swear I don't know. One minute the glass was there and then it was gone. It was like magic.

Uncle Vernon:  There's no such thing as magic!

Harry Potter & The Sorcerer's Stone (2001)

Poker player and blogger Robert Taylor posted today about a controversial ruling that arose during a low-stakes NLHE cash game at the Rivers Casino poker room in Pittsburgh. I started to write a comment, then decided the "magical muck" issue—the idea that a hand becomes automatically and irretrievably dead merely because one or both cards have touched any part of the muck—is a common misconception among poker players that deserves a lengthier discussion.

The scene as set by Robert is a pretty typical backdrop for "magical muck" situations. To sum up, an aggressive young player ("Moneybags") bet on the river. An opponent verbally declared himself all-in, and another player in the hand folded. With action back on him, Moneybags threw his cards forward. It is unclear whether the cards touched the muck. When the dealer began to push the pot to his opponent, Moneybags objected that he hadn't been aware there was another live hand, and declared he would call the all-in. The floor and later a manager were called, and based upon the dealer's representation that Moneybags' hand had not touched the muck, declared the hand live. Moneybags had a full house which beat his opponent's straight. Moneybags was awarded the pot, his opponent stormed out of the room, and controversy ensued.

Robert's discussion of the situation tracked with the obsession by the floor and manager with the question of whether the player’s cards hit the muck. Setting aside any idiosyncratic house rules for the poker room, all of the focus on the muck is misplaced under the general rules of poker. Despite widespread player assumptions to the contrary, the muck is actually not magical; nothing special occurs to a hand once it hits the muck. Let’s look at Robert’s Rules of Poker, beginning in Chapter 3, "GENERAL RULES OF POKER", where we learn:

1.  Your hand is declared dead if:

(a) You fold or announce that you are folding when facing a bet or a raise.

(b) You throw your hand away in a forward motion causing another player to act behind you (even if not facing a bet).

In this case, Moneybags did not announce a fold. Moneybags did not cause another player to act behind. Based on the subsequent action, it is arguable whether he folded or was merely surrendering his hand in the (mistaken) belief he held the only live hand and had won the pot.  Let’s look at another rule under “DEAD HANDS”:

2.  Cards thrown into the muck may be ruled dead. However, a hand that is clearly identifiable may be retrieved and ruled live at management’s discretion if doing so is in the best interest of the game. An extra effort should be made to rule a hand retrievable if it was folded as a result of incorrect information given to the player.

Here’s where we find the source of the routinely misunderstood “magical muck” rule. Note that whether the cards touch the muck is not the determining factor in whether a hand is dead; the hand merely may be ruled dead. The muck is not magical; it's touch does not turn a hand to stone, transform it into a rabbit, or even kill it. In this case, there is no question that the hand was “clearly identifiable”, so the real issue to debate is not whether the cards hit the muck, but whether the player intended to fold, folded in error, or had not actually folded at all but was merely surrendering what he thought was the uncontested winning hand.

We do, however, need some way to help us resolve the ambiguity of the situation.  This brings us to another couple of rules from Chapter 2, "HOUSE POLICIES":

1.  Management reserves the right to make decisions in the spirit of fairness, even if a strict interpretation of the rules may indicate a different ruling.

8.  The same action may have a different meaning, depending on who does it, so the possible intent of an offender will be taken into consideration. Some factors here are the person’s amount of poker experience and past record.

Here, Moneybags clearly did not realize he was the last person standing, so his throwing his cards forward is not a clear “fold” as it is also consistent with surrendering cards as the winner of the hand. Thus, the player's action was ambiguous, and not a definitive fold.

Now some players may argue that Moneybags had a duty to protect his own hand by not surrendering it before the dealer awarded the pot to him. This is unquestionably true, but it is not decisive in this type of situation. Of course, Moneybags should have known the other player had a live hand, and should have protected his hand until the pot was pushed to him. But players do in fact make mistakes, and the rules do permit some of those mistakes to be corrected under some circumstances. Let's look at the relevant rule, again in Chapter 3, "GENERAL RULES OF POKER":

IRREGULARITIES2.  You must protect your own hand at all times. Your cards may be protected with your hands, a chip, or other object placed on top of them. If you fail to protect your hand, you will have no redress if it becomes fouled or the dealer accidentally kills it.

Notice that the rule states that a player has no redress (i.e., makes a mistake for which there is no remedy) for an unprotected hand only if the hand "becomes fouled or the dealer accidentally kills it". In this situation, the hand was not fouled because it remained identifiable; there was no need to dig through the muck to retrieve the hand. Neither had the dealer killed the hand, because as we have already discussed above, the muck rule merely provides that the hand may be ruled dead, but may be retrieved as a live hand depending on the circumstances (keep in mind that other rules or actions may irretrievably kill a hand which might affect the operation of this rule under circumstances not present in the scenario under discusssion).

So, under the general rules of poker, Moneybags' hand was not necessarily dead merely because he threw them forward, or because the dealer might have touched them to the muck. Moneybags' hand was clearly identifiable. So what ruling is in the best interest of the game?

Ultimately, we should want the best hand to win, while also discouraging angle shooting. These goals will often be in tension. In my view, the correct ruling in this situation was to allow Moneybags' hand to remain live, in large part because Moneybags held a very strong hand consistent with his claim that his action was not a fold. This is not a situation where Moneybags folded a hand like Ace-high or even one or two pair on a scary board, then tried to belatedly retrieve his hand when shown a bluff by his opponent. In this case, knowing Moneybags’ hand is strong evidence resolving the ambiguity in his action—a floor could rule with a high degree of confidence that Moneybags was not shooting an angle, but rather had erroneously assumed he held the only live hand and was merely surrendering his cards thinking he had won the pot.

Although it is always satisfying to see arrogant jerks get their comeuppance, even jerks deserve to be treated fairly. Here, Moneybags made a silly mistake, but it was an error that could be corrected within the letter and the spirit of the rules. Demanding strict adherence to bright line rules (e.g., “cards touching the muck are always irretrievably dead”) can make rulings absolutely consistent, but at the price of player dissatisfaction with results that may be excessively harsh in some circumstances. Slavish devotion to bright line rules is rarely in the best interests of any game, particularly at low stakes games with a wider range of player ability and in settings that generally cater to recreational players. Rules work best and games play best when there is room for common sense and judgment calls. I think the floor and manager made the right call here, even if for the wrong reason.


  1. Well, Grange, you've got me reconsidering this hand yet again. I'm still not sure declaring Moneybags' hand as live is in the best interest of the game, but you have convinced me that it's ridiculous to let the touch of the "magical muck" decide these things.

    As a side note, before I wrote this post I Googled the topic a bit to try to find blog/forum posts concerning similar hands. Apparently, Rivers isn't close to unique in giving the muck insta-kill powers. I found several 2+2 posts citing events from multiple casinos where similar rulings were made.

    BTW, I updated my post, putting a link to your analysis at the bottom.

  2. One thing to consider here is that the dealer completely failed to follow the most basic of procedures. That is .... the dealer failed to muck the losing hand first. From the dealers perspective the player was folding, and the dealer should mixed those cards into the muck when he saw that happen. Once that occurs the cards are no longer identifiable (unless you are playing a heads up game) and then we fall back to the player should have protected his hand.

    While I agree with your analysis of the ruling .... it is important to remember that this is a ruling that applies in the situation where something has already been done wrong. Had the dealer mucked the hand as soon as it was tossed forward...... he would have been doing the correct thing even though it would have lead to a different result....

  3. Whatever else betide I'm glad that the casino has a policy that gives the brush the power to rule in favor of common sense and fair play. It's as it ought to be. Besides, what aggro douche has EVER folded a full house to anyone under any circumstances?