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The Rule to the Exception

by Brian Mulholland |  Published: Jul 16, 2004


Let's take a look at a simple example of how a rule can come to be misunderstood. Everyone reading this column is familiar with the "show one, show all" rule: If someone who wins a pot with an uncalled bet shows his hand to another player, all players have a right to see it, too. But we've all come across the rookie who, upon hearing the phrase "show one, show all," proceeds to misconstrue its meaning. Encountering an uncontested winner who flashes one holecard to the field, the confused newcomer asserts his "right" to see all of the holecards. His error is actually quite understandable, given that the phrase "show one, show all" is incomplete. And while the veterans at the table know that it means, "If you show one player, you must show all players," the tenderfoot has taken it to mean, "If you show one card, you must show all cards."

That mistake is harmless enough; unfortunately, some comparable misinterpretations can trigger serious consequences. One that I've seen has to do with the exception to the three-raise rule (or four-raise rule, depending on locale). That exception, which is actually a rule within a rule, states that when the pot gets down to two players, the restriction on the number of raises is waived. The reason for the exception is simple: In heads-up action, the protection provided by the rule (against possible collusion) is no longer needed, since each player has control of the brakes and can apply them at any time simply by calling.

Since no one can be trapped between multiple opponents' unlimited raising, each is left free to assume the risk of as many raises as he can stomach.

But this exception is sometimes misinterpreted in one key respect – as illustrated by a scene I witnessed not long ago that sickened me.

Having finished playing hold'em for the day, I wandered over to the stud section to visit a friend who was playing $3-$6. A youngster at his table was playing his first session in a public cardroom. He'd arrived about an hour earlier with a kitchen-table knowledge of the ranking of hands and confusion about everything else – which is not uncommon for a first visit. He was foreign-born, and there was a bit of a language barrier, but the player to his left turned out to be a countryman who took him under his wing. Between hands, this older gentleman gave the novice a few pointers about the game and about poker etiquette. Naturally, the younger man felt quite lucky to have found himself next to such a helpful stranger.

He also experienced another kind of luck – the proverbial beginner's variety. As a result, he had about $350 in chips in front of him by the time I arrived, after having bought in for a mere $40.

As my friend later told it, the kid had won some nice pots without making any big hands, but on the first hand after I showed up, his board contained four spades – and the fifth one was written all over his excited, happy face. Apparently, this was also the first hand in which he and his mentor had been the main contenders for a pot. The older gentleman was first to act on seventh street, and he led right into the possible flush. The youngster raised, and the older man reraised. Unfazed, and having just completed the greatest hand in the entire history of his young poker career, he raised again. It was at this point that our kindly older gentleman revealed himself to be a wolf in sheep's clothing. Pushing all of his chips into the pot, he "informed" his inexperienced opponent that there was "no limit to the raising now," and in the next breath, he goaded the naive youngster into calling with everything in front of him. This fellow knows the rules inside and out, and was willfully distorting the fact that "no limit when it's heads up" refers to the number of raises permitted – not the amount one can raise.

A couple of players tried to tell the dealer this wasn't allowed, and several folks voiced opinions all at once. The dealer offered this lame, self-contradictory pronouncement: "Well, you're not supposed to, but technically there's no rule against it." Unfortunately, the nearest floorman was engaged with a problem at another table, so the dealer allowed the action to continue: The kid called, and the angle shooter showed down his hidden full house and hurriedly began racking the chips. He then bolted to the cage and was out the door in a flash, which meant the vast majority of the money had just disappeared, and everyone was so ticked off about it that the game broke.

The dealer's statement that "there's no rule against it" was, and is, absurd. It is simply preposterous to contend that it is within the rules to place a $300-plus bet – in a $3-$6 game. A $3-$6 stud game by definition is a structured game with $3 bets on the first two rounds and $6 bets on the last three – period. While it's true that some poker contexts do feature switches in betting format (such as limit tournaments that convert to no-limit once you reach the final table), it's also true that such variations are advertised in the literature accompanying those events. That's not the case here. Indeed, one irate customer marched over and grabbed one of the casino's instructional brochures, and pointed out to the manager that it said nothing whatsoever about a limit game suddenly transforming into a no-limit format at the end of a hand.

This poor kid was fleeced on his first outing to a public casino – and he hasn't been seen since. But the angle shooter wasn't the only culprit. An accessory to the crime was poor training, along with an insufficient grounding in the principles that have formed poker's rules. In this case, the dealer was ignorant of the fact that the three-raise rule was instituted for more than one reason. Besides serving as an obstacle to team play, it also reflects the club's awareness that the typical customer choosing a seat at a limit table has not come to play a game in which his entire stake can be consumed in one hand. (This is truer than ever today, given that those customers who are seeking that brand of action can find it in one of the modified no-limit games that are so popular now.)

It is possible, of course, that the young man could have lost everything on that hand anyway, but it's extremely unlikely. For one thing, it would have taken more than 50 raises, and as excited as he was, he wouldn't have needed more than six or seven, tops, to jolt him into the realization that his flush wasn't unbeatable. Instead, he was put on the spot – and in strange and unfamiliar surroundings, feeling the pressure of all eyes on him, he accepted a dare. He picked up a gauntlet that never should have been thrown. It goes without saying that everyone, even the rawest beginner, is responsible for his own mistakes, but in a limit game, those mistakes are supposed to be made incrementally; no single lapse of judgment should bear the consolidated weight of dozens of poor decisions. In the end, the newcomer was victimized by a circumstance that the club's rulebook anticipated and already had covered. The rule protecting him was perfectly adequate; what was lacking was an understanding of that