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Rabbit Redux

by Brian Mulholland |  Published: Nov 05, 2004


Two and a half years ago, I wrote a column called "Rabbit on the Menu," which dealt with a couple of matters, one specific and the other general. As the title suggests, it was about rabbit hunting (the act of a player looking at the undealt cards after a hand has been completed to see what he would have made if he had stayed in the hand), and the way in which the rule prohibiting this practice has come to be ignored in some cardrooms. The specific matter had to do with a seven-card stud hand in which I'd successfully bluffed on sixth street. As I dragged the chips, the player who had laid down a better hand than mine, along with a thin draw, reached over and lifted the top card off the stub, to see what might have been. Although the motive for his curiosity lay in his own hand's "what if" prospects, what he found was information about my hand.

Without rehashing the details, what he discovered was that I couldn't possibly have had the hand I'd represented, which meant that the information he gained by rabbit hunting turned out to be exactly the same information he would have gained by reaching over and turning over my holecards. In effect, he got to see my hand without calling my bet, which is a flagrant violation of both the letter and the spirit of the rules.

The more general issue had to do with the underlying premise that fuels a sense of indifference toward such violations. It's a premise held by many players and dealers alike, and it goes like this: "If I don't happen to know the reason for a particular rule, there must not be one." In the case of players, that premise leads to the conclusion: " … and therefore I don't have to abide by that rule." In the case of dealers: " … and I don't have to enforce it." But since the rules of poker are intended to protect everyone equally and at all times, they are necessarily a package deal; they're not a menu from which to order à la carte. To indulge players in the notion that they can pick and choose which rules they consider "important enough" to obey is to ensure that their respect for rules in general will deteriorate.

At the time, I received quite a positive response, but a couple of acquaintances commented that my views on rabbit hunting were … well, harebrained. Neither of them was too specific, but the gist was that I was making much ado about nothing.

Let's fast-forward to the present. Although both of these players used to play limit games, they are now part of the no-limit explosion; 90 percent of the time, no-limit hold'em is their game of choice. And guess what – suddenly their tune has changed. A few weeks ago, one of them approached me in quite an agitated state and said: "You remember that column you wrote a few years ago about rabbit hunting? Man, you were right. I really didn't get what you were saying, but in no-limit, it is a big deal. These players who rabbit hunt are way out of line, and I think it's terrible that they're allowed to get away with it." In the very same week, his opinion was echoed by my other earlier critic. (Being the highly evolved individual that I am, I limited the number of my "I told you so" responses to an even half-dozen between them.)

Their turnaround is hardly surprising, given the nature of no-limit; it is, after all, much more of a bluffing game than limit poker. Since the card, or cards, that a player is representing during a bluff are not actually in his possession, that means they have to be somewhere else – and it stands to reason that at times they're going to wind up in the hunting grounds on top of the deck. Note, by the way, that I said "card or cards." There are games I've seen in which the rabbit hunters aren't content with seeing just the top card; they'll reach over and expose a whole fistful – and this transgression is met with an apathetic yawn from the dealer.

To get a read on an opponent's play by carefully observing and remembering his tendencies is an achievement; to gain that same insight via a brazen violation of the rules is an invasion. And to indulge such behavior by looking the other way is irresponsible.

I am perfectly aware, of course, that in many cases, the violators are not in fact gaining any such information at all. For one thing, their mischief is often spontaneously motivated by a heedless, unthinking notion of fun, with no calculated intent whatsoever. For another, their disregard for the consequences of their infractions (this is assuming that anyone has even informed them that rabbit hunting is against the rules) is usually revealing of a broader inattentiveness.

People who tend to be oblivious to the effects their actions have on others tend to be oblivious about many other matters, as well, which means that the players who compromise their opponents by exposing information they're not entitled to are often the last ones capable of processing, or even noticing, that information.

By the same token, however, those who tend to be more thoughtful toward their opponents likewise tend to be more thoughtful about poker – and those who are fastidious about observing the rules tend to be likewise fastidious about observing the game. It makes for an unfortunate and messy irony, then, that when it comes to the illicit access to information that sometimes results from rabbit hunting, it is the law-abiding who often end up as the receivers of stolen goods.

All of this brings us, full circle, back to the general point. Poker is entering a Golden Age, with seemingly boundless prospects for even further growth. Habits that new players pick up early, whether good or bad, tend to stick – and it is essential that they be steered toward the good ones. This is not something that happens automatically, as convenient as it might be for cardroom personnel if it were. Awareness of the rules and of proper poker etiquette is not innate; it is acquired knowledge, and imparting that knowledge to new customers – unflinchingly and with perseverance – is part of management's responsibility to all of its customers.

It is easy and tempting to postpone that task, and just as easy to rationalize doing so; one hears endless variations, for example, on the rationalization that rule violations are harmless in the "small games" (played by folks to whom those stakes don't necessarily seem so small). As if reorienting the offenders will be a cinch just because they move up to higher limits. Not only is this a cop-out, it's unrealistic. In reality, such procrastination makes the situation less manageable – as ingrained habits harden, resistance to change erupts, and the ripples of neglect extend in wider and ever-wider circles.

When it comes to attracting new customers, there's no time like the present – and when it comes to cultivating them, there's no time like the beginning. spades