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.

November 24, 2011

Poker! Yay!

With WPBT almost upon us (yikes how time flies!), I have become painfully aware of the poker dearth in my life. It's rather amusing that, as a guy who hadn't played online in over five years, I've played poker barely a handful of times since Black Friday (not counting my Vegas trip in June). [FN1]  Out in the real world, I've run into quite a few of the regular players from the Meadows, and apparently my absence has drawn some comments at the tables, likely the same kind of coffee talk as heard between barracuda when they notice a drop off in the local clown fish population.

My last visit to the poker tables was the first weekend in October, when I had scheduled a guys' weekend trip to Kansas City for drinking, gambling, and football. From my house, it's an easy 2.5 hour drive down I-35 to the Harrah's North Kansas City casino, which is pretty convenient. My crew for the weekend consisted of Santa, Jugweed, and Big E (our designated degenerate). Two Iowa State Cyclown fans, a Husker fan, and a Jayhawk fan, riding in a car with Iowa plates in rural Missouri—what could go wrong??

On our journey, I was driving so the other guys had broken out some libations, requiring a pit stop in Deliveranceville. We found a highly sketchy gas station / closed diner combo that would make a great Criminal Minds set after dark. Thankfully, it was mid-day, so we took a chance. On the front door we saw this important notice:

Yes, apparently in Missouri it's common to have as pets chickens, cats, dogs, and donkeys ... who are circus-trained. Also, it's important to advise folks to keep their pets outside, lest they be microwaved and served to passing tourists. (Perhaps I'm misreading the sign; I'm not fluent in redneck pictogaphy.)

We arrived at the casino mid-afternoon and immediately hit the poker room, except for Big E who headed off for some Pai Gow. As is often the case, I had a good start, making nearly $300 before dinner. As is usually the case, I should have stopped there. As is always the case, I forged ahead.

Dinner was an entertaining affair, in the Irish wake fashion. The Cyclowns kicked off against Texas as we sat down for dinner in the Harrah's sports bar (interestingly, 'Clown superfan Big E was wearing a Texas burnt orange sweatshirt). The 'Clowns promptly imploded. We enjoyed beer and bleu balls until the Huskers kicked off against Wisconsin in their Big Ten debut. The Huskers waited until nearly halftime before gagging up all hopes for a BCS bowl. Santa and Big E gave up on the 'Clowns and headed back to the poker and pai gow tables. I moved to the bar for a rum and diet or five while cursing the Huskers during their spectcular second half collapse.

Santa in typical Cyclown form.

Santa & Big E in full Cyclown denial.

Following the Huskers debacle, I debated between seppukku and poker as the proper method of purging my shame. Poker being the more painful option, I headed back to the tables. After mucking around some $2/$5 NLHE, I heard the siren song of the $2/$5 PLG (Pot Limit Gamboool) game. It was a lot of fun as always, but variance was not kind to me or my bankroll (down three $300 buy-ins net by night end). I worked up a stack over $1,000 after each buy-in, but four big hands all went against me—twice my sets were run down by combo draws, twice my combo draws failed to run down sets. Eh. PLG giveth, PLG taketh away. Praise be PLG!

The Harrah's North Kansas City poker room does have a couple of annoying quirks I had not noticed on prior visits. The most annoying is the chip buying system. No chips can be sold by the dealer, and they do not allow chip runners. So players who want to rebuy or even top off their stack must go up to the poker room front desk. This isn't a big problem, except the front desk is never staffed to sell chips except during the room's busiest periods. So, much of the time (particularly after midnight which is generally a lucrative time to play against bad or stuck players), players have to go across the casino floor to the nearest cashier cage to get chips, often standing in line for five minutes or so to buy chips. The problem with this arrangement is that many bad players who would've rebought if they had stayed at the table or been able to rebuy at the poker room counter end up cooling off on the walk to the cage and keep on walking on to a table game in the pits or out to their car or hotel room. Not a great way to keep players at the poker tables.

After catching a short nap, we met up at the Harrah's buffet to fuel up for the Chiefs-Vikings game. The food was decent, nothing special, but good omelets made to order, bacon, and coffee are really all I need. Our beverage server was a nice lady with a heavy, possibly Caribbean  accent. She kept us refilled with juice and coffee, speaking little, mostly one-word questions or statements. Toward the end of the meal, our server came over with a fresh cup of coffee for me. Setting it down next to me, she gave a small fist pump and declared in a soft voice: "Coffee! Yay!" So, for the remainder of the trip, and for the next couple of weeks, our crew would point something out in the same manner: "Field goals! Yay!" "Popcorn! Yay!" "Cheerleaders! Yay!" I'm certain our spouses enjoyed our phrase-of-the-month as much as we did.

The Chiefs-Vikes game promised to be spectacularly bad, considering neither team had won a game at that point, and both teams appeared actively engaged in the "Suck for Luck" festivities. Somehow, an exciting game broke out, made even more entertaining because it was probably my last chance to see Donovan McNabb suck in person. McNabb lived down to his reputation and led the Vikes to a rather pitiful defeat.

Santa, Big E, and Jugweed enjoy a tailgate beverage.

Great view from our seats of McNabb's utter suckitude.
OK, this play was a TD, but McNabb still sucked.

This was my first game at Arrowhead Stadium, and I have to wonder about some of their management decisions. At the gates, there was security screening, but it was cartoon security theatre. Men had to lift up hats, raise their arms, and be patted down on the chest and back, but I could've easily had a knife or gun in my cargo shorts pockets and it would never have been noticed. Why bother with this kind of security charade?

I'm not certain how this lady made it
past the fashion police at the gate.

Similarly, the game entertainment presentation was overtly sexualized, making me wonder about how comfortable parents would be bringing younger children to the game (not to mention the way such shenanigans are received by female fans). It's not just that there are official dance teams and cheerleaders in skimpy outfits on the field, but those women are shown on TVs throughout the stadium in a variety of regularly repeated announcements, providing close-ups of cleavage and booty. The worst moment, however, was at halftime, when the cheerleaders introduced fifty or so "Junior Chiefs Cheerleaders"—young girls from 6-12 years old, all in cheerleader outfits. They put on a dance routine, complete with suggestive moves, set to a medley of songs which included:

Look, anyone who knows me knows I'm far from a prude. I have no problem with adult women dancing around to whatever music they want, wherever they want, and for money if they want. I also don't mind the concept of a junior cheerleaders program; plenty of girls enjoy being cheerleaders. What struck me about this program was the utter obliviousness to whether the music and dance moves were appropriate for girls that age. I know we live in a hypersexualized society, but seeing a bunch of elementary school girls tarted up and dancing around to that soundtrack in front of an crowd of mostly middle-aged, half-drunk men just seemed a little inappropriate. Certainly not my idea of family entertainment.

Happy Thanksgiving to all! Hope to see some of you soon at WPBT, and for those who can't attend, I'll be certain to post the highlights of the hijinks.

WPBT! Yay!

[FN1]  Since my last post, work has gotten even busier, rather than more settled, after one of my staff attorneys left to take a new position. Sh*t flows uphill in some universes. Hopefully we'll have someone hired and in place by end of the year.

On top of the work situation, I coached a middle school mock trial team again this year. It was a great group of smart, funny kids who I had also coached last year as 7th graders when they qualified for state, but fell just short of the top 10 (who get trophies). This year, we practiced starting in early September, twice a week for three hours. In October, we added another day of practice as well as three dress rehearsal trials. Prior to regionals and state, we practiced six out of seven days in the week before competition, plus two days of regionals and three days at state. Quite a time commitment, not just for me, but also for the kids and their parents. But, it paid off as the kids won their first three trials at state and qualified for the final four. They got to try their semi-final case in the Iowa Court of Appeals courtroom, which they won. The kids then got to try the final round case in the Iowa Supreme Court courtroom with the Chief Justice presiding and the entire spectacle filmed for broadcast later this month on the local cable network. The team ended up finishing second, which is quite the accomplishment considering our regional alone had 48 teams (with eight going on to state), and the state competition had 32 teams. These kids (as well as the team that won state) frankly are better at evidentiary objections and cross-exams than many attorneys with years of experience. Mock trial! Yay!