April 23, 2012

The Appearance of Poker Impropriety

Last week I had a work conference in Poker Mecca, which meant I had a free ticket to Vegas. In between seminar sessions and fabulous dinners, I managed a few sessions of poker. As a firm believer in dancing with the one that brung ya, I played mostly at Wynn and Mirage, and both poker rooms rewarded me with fun and profit. However, I couldn't resist the siren song of a session of $4/$8 Omaha8 at Venetian, so I headed over for a Friday night marathon session of degeneracy with a half kill.

The session was entertaining, as only a Vegas poker table can be. I met a young guy from Virginia who had graduated from Grinnell College in Iowa "because of the hippies"; he's currently playing poker for a living in Vegas, and talked openly of getting baked later that night (standard for a Grinnell alum). There were a couple of crusty old gents, and a couple of funny younger gals. Generally speaking, it was a pretty fun and profitable table.

Then, the drunk yahoo sat down. His red face indicated he either had golfed too long in the Vegas sun, or imbibed a dozen too many Pan Galactic Gargle Blasters. Yahoo sat down with with three racks of white ($300), but immediately began spewing them to the table as he ordered additional beverages. Yahoo was most certainly not a good loser, channeling his inner whiner as his questionable play never seemed to come up a winner. The inevitable race between broke and belligerent was well underway. Yahoo's night almost certainly would not end well.

Leticia rotated in to deal our game, and proved to be both friendly and competent (consistent with many other sessions she has dealt to me on prior trips). As something of a specialty game, limit Omaha8 tends to draw a lot of regular players—even in a tourist poker room like the Venetian—and our table was no exception. By chance, most of the regulars were on the opposite end of the table from where Yahoo and I were sitting; the two of us were in Seats 2 and 3, respectively, while the regulars were all in Seats 7 through 10. Leticia obviously knew the regular players and engaged in some friendly chatter with a couple of them. It was all innocuous stuff—updates on family, recent poker sessions, weekend plans, etc. Just another friendly dealer keeping a game moving and entertaining.

That's when Yahoo threw a monkey wrench into the game. Leticia and Seat 10 were chatting as she dealt a new game. Seat 10 was the big blind, and the action went as follows:

  • Yahoo was UTG, called $4.
  • I called $4.
  • Folds to the Button, who raises to $8.
  • Small blind folded.
  • Action paused on Seat 10 (the big blind).
  • Yahoo, not paying attention, calls $8.
  • Me, not paying attention and seeing Yahoo's call, calls $8 myself.

At this point, Leticia firmly but politely said, "Time. Action is back here, guys," and gestured to Seat 10. Just another standard amateur hour moment at the poker table.

That's when Yahoo went into total meltdown mode. "What the hell? How can he [Seat 10] have cards? His hand is dead. Kill his hand and let's play!" Leticia patiently tried to explain that the action had paused at Seat 10, and that Yahoo and I had acted out of turn. Yahoo was having none of that explanation: "The rest of us are at $8, so his [Seat 10's] hand is dead. He can't be at $4! That's just wrong." Leticia tried again to explain the action, but Yahoo was crossing from contentious well into belligerent. Leticia discretely pressed the Bravo system button to call a floor, and said, "Let's get a floor ruling." Yahoo angrily muttered, "Yeah, let's get this fixed now!"

The floor arrived in just a few seconds. She listened to Leticia explain the action and listened patiently to Yahoo explain his theory as to why Seat 10's hand should be killed. Yahoo finished his rambling by blurting out, "She [the dealer] is just helping out her friend. She's been talking to him all night, and now she's lying for him." The floor calmly explained that the action was on Seat 10. Yahoo continued to mutter his disagreement with the ruling, repeatedly claiming that Leticia was somehow colluding with Seat 10. Seat 10 finally folded, at which point Yahoo raised to $12. Predictably, Yahoo lost that pot, and busted out and left the table still angrily muttering about Leticia within the next few hands.

The dealer and the floor handled this rather bizarre situation professionally, calmly, and quickly. And, as our esteemed President might say, "Let me be clear, I don't think the dealer acted improperly, nor did she show favoritism toward any of the players she knew. She was just being friendly." However, a situation like this illustrates the slippery slope poker dealers must tread between being friendly toward players they know, and going too far and creating the appearance of favoritism toward those players.

Two years ago, I was playing at Aria when I was involved in a situation where a dealer's apparent friendship made me doubt her objectivity. As I described the situation on All Vegas Poker:

A female dealer was having a very animated and lengthy conversation with a player at the table who was also a dealer and at least a casual friend. I get AK in EP, raise, and get called by the button and also her buddy in the big blind. Flop is Ace high with a couple os small suited cards. Buddy checks, and I take some chips and begin cutting them next to the rail as I debated the amount of the raise. Next thing I know, dealer says, "checks around" and begins to burn and turn. I immediately say, "wait, I haven't acted." Dealer says, " you checked" and makes a gesture with all five fingers in a claw shape tapping the table. Now, my only hand on the table always had chips, was by the rail, and never tapped anything. I said, "I was cutting chips." Dealer's buddy piped up, "that was an obvious check," but other guy in the hand said he didn't know, and nobody else at table saw a check. Buddy pipes up again, "you checked" and dealer backed her buddy. I was as furious as I can remember being at a poker table, but I knew it was pointless to ask for a floor.

Poker dealers are going to get to know regular players; it's inevitable. Poker dealers, particularly the more outgoing ones, are even likely to get to know regular players socially. Heck, back when I played at the Meadows ATM four nights a week, I got to know many of the dealers well, and played in dealer home games, performed some pro bono legal work for a few of them, and even was invited to a couple of graduation parties for dealers' kids. So no player should be surprised that dealers may know and even be friends with players.

Problems obviously can arise when a dealer is called on to make a ruling involving a friend. Even if the dealer acts with utmost professionalism in making a ruling, the appearance of favoritism can taint the entire process from the perspective of other players. In many situations, calling a floor is of limited value in defusing the situation, as the dealer's rendition of events will often be the determining factor in how the floor rules. The problem of the appearance of impropriety can extend to situations where a floor or supervisor gives preferential treatment to a friend with respect to getting seated ahead of the list, or getting a table change to a juicy game. Or, what about situations where a poker tournament director has dinner or a couple of drinks with several elite poker players the night before a major tournament where the director is called on to rule on a situation involving one of those players?

Honestly, I don't know where to draw the line. Despite poker's widespread popularity, live action poker actually operates within a series of rather small, insular communities, even in tourist resorts like Vegas. Requiring dealers or floors to never interact professionally with players they know socially would be nearly impossible to enforce, and frankly would be overly restrictive and detrimental to the game. On the other hand, if dealers or floors regularly socialize with players away from the poker tables, then reasonable questions can be raised as to whether those dealers and floors are able to be objective when dealing with their friends on a professional level. Even if the dealers or floors go out of their way to be objective, players who feel they were on the wrong end of a biased ruling will leave the poker room with a bad taste in their mouth and a story of how they were jobbed by collusion to share with any friend or poker player they might encounter.

I really don't have any insightful solutions to offer. All I can say is that the appearance of impropriety is a recurrent problem that poker rooms need to find a way to address.


  1. As usual, I'm going to ignore the main thrust of your post and focus in on the one niggling, unimportant detail that is stuck in my craw.

    " Seat 10 finally folded, at which point Yahoo raised to $12. "

    Huh? He had called to $8 out of turn, but then when action is backed up and the BB folds, he takes a different action--namely, a raise? And the dealer and floor allowed this?

    The rule everywhere I am aware of is that if you go out of turn, you are committed to stick with that action when it is actually your turn. The exception is if when things are done in correct order the previously out-of-turn player now faces a different bet than he did before.

    Had Seat 10 reraised, then Yahoo would have open to him all of his options: call, raise, or fold. But since he was facing a raise to $8 when he went out of turn, and Seat 10's fold did nothing to change that, he should have been held to the call that he had committed himself to.

    Or am I missing something?

    1. @ Rakewell: Very astute observation, as usual. I thought the same thing at the time, and even asked the floor if Yahoo could raise. She stated that since Yahoo's action was out of turn, he retained all his options (presumably including taking back his last call and folding). I didn't pursue the matter as it was a small issue and Yahoo was already tense. Frankly, I suspect the floor allowed Yahoo to raise in part to keep him from further outbursts.

  2. One thing I have noticed in dealing over the years. When a player accuses me of favortism to a "regular" they are often talking about a regular I don't even like. If I was going to cheat it would be against that guy not for him.

  3. Last week I had a work conference in Poker Mecca

    Tough job.

  4. My 1st post so please be nice but... Your Quote above re the Aria game left off the last line "The turn was an offsuit Jack, I bet it in a very deliberate manner, and took down the pot." Was this a deliberate omission? I just wondered because if your readers knew you had won the pot perhaps the impact of the story may have been lost?
    PLEASE do not take this as critism, it is just an observation from someone who has(and will) enjoy your blog.

  5. Never felt that a dealer was giving any break to a "friend." Tho I am such a regular at a casino or two this could conceivably work in my favor, but again, never seen it in action.

    But reminds me that a couple of nites ago I should have gotten a break and didn't. I misread where the button was and put out what I thought was my big blind at a 1/2 game. But I didn't have any dollar chips so I put out a five buck chip. Suddenly the dealer was telling the play to my left, "live straddle, $4 to call." I was actually under the gun and the dealer read my incorrect BB posting as a straddle.

    The thing is, I have NEVER straddled in my life and this dealer, like 95% of the dealers in this room, should have known that. He's never seen me straddle and I thought he should have at least questioned it or said "live straddle" before the cards were finished being dealt so I could have pulled back the the chip. He did not. So I was counting on some "improprioty" that I didn't get.

    I didn't say anything. It was only four bucks and not worth making a fuss. Besides, I have to acknowledge I should have been paying better attention.

    That said, I bet most dealers in the room would have noticed the odd move from me and asked me about it before it was too late.

  6. @ freeroller: I omitted the conclusion to the hand because I felt it wasn't relevant to the point for retelling the story here, as an illustration of the appearance of dealer favoritism. I linked to the AVP discussion thread so that folks who wanted more of the story and the reaction could read the entire thread.

  7. It's definitely an interesting discussion. The poker club I play at locally has a number of spouses dealing and playing on their games. Our room at most gets 45 people for a tourney and I'd say there are only 70 or so regular rotation players.

    I can't say I've ever seen favortism happen in our room, but it's something I'm aware of and something I think the management has informed its dealers to pay careful attention too.

    In the case of the Aria incident, I think the only thing you could reasonably do their is to stop tipping perhaps it would be too strong an action, but given that you have little recourse as a tourist, I can't think of many other options.