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Showdown Shame - Part I

by Bob Ciaffone |  Published: May 17, 2005

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Of all the poker areas regulated by poker rules, the showdown is the most important. It is the point where the players show their hands and the pot is awarded. In this column, I would like to address the first part of that first sentence, the rules that involve the showing of hands. Showing hands is in my opinion the part of the game where our present rules are shamefully inadequate. They are a cause of much unpleasantness, and sometimes the source of a new pot winner being created.

Before I talk about the rules for showing hands, I would like to discuss poker rules in general. There is no such thing as the official rules of poker. Some rules are universal, some are considered standard even though there are some places that do not use them, and some are so varied that one can only say that a player should be aware of the rules in the area whenever playing in a new cardroom.

I have my own rules set, "Robert's Rules of Poker." But do not think it is a set of rules that states what I believe is optimum in each area of poker. Even a person constructing his own set of rules should not do so in a manner that ignores what is considered standard practice, or introduce a rule that is not used anywhere on the planet. If you want to know what I think are the optimum rules regulating the showing of hands, do not look at my rules; read this series of columns!

There are two basic schools of thought regarding rules for showing hands. The first is what I call the "traditional school." The traditional rule in poker is that all hands at the showdown must be shown to the whole table upon request of anyone in the game. Those who wish to retain this rule recognize that it has drawbacks, but believe any rule controlling the showing of hands will have drawbacks. They also believe the new rules used in some places are inadequate to address the situation, so we should stick with what we have, needing the traditional rules to police the game and make the players feel comfortable that there is no collusion taking place.

The other school, which is steadily growing, is what I will call the "revisionist school," which states that we need to take a fresh look at the situation and realize that it is better to eliminate non-winning hands from being shown. This school believes the showing of non-winning hands is of minimal value in the prevention of cheating (because cheaters can simply muck their hands before the final bet) and adds a great deal of unpleasantness and friction to the atmosphere of playing.

Which school do I belong to and support? Neither! My feeling is, "A plague on both your houses." The traditional rules are socially harmful, the source of much friction. The revisionist rules are at best palliative measures that do not eliminate the problem. We can do better.

Let's take a look at some incidents that show how badly our traditional rules can perform. A big drawback of the traditional rules is that a new winner of a pot can be created. I was playing in a pot-limit Omaha game a long time ago when there were three players in at the showdown. In an $8,000 pot, the board showed two jacks and a smaller card on the flop, with cards on the turn and river that I do not remember. At the showdown, Player A's hand included a pocket pair that had given him the underfull on the flop. Player B and Player C, who each had a jack and were hoping to fill, mucked their hands. At this point, Player C asked to see Player B's hand (which had been discarded facedown but had not touched any part of the muck), asking, "What were your kickers?" Player B reached out and turned his hand up. It turned out that he had misread his hand, and actually held a full house. He was awarded the pot. To say Player A was displeased about this outcome would be a huge understatement, and he had some comments directed to Player C that will not be reprinted in this "family publication."

I am sorry to confess that I was Player C in this pot. Yes, I was a longtime professional poker player with world championship experience at this point in my career, even though this incident occurred back in the 1980s. Yes, I knew that I should not open my mouth and possibly create a different pot winner. But, I knew Player B was an experienced player who had looked his hand over carefully before discarding it, and I did not think it possible that he would overlook a full house in a pot of this size. I was curious whether my outs had been duplicated in my opponent's hand. I have apologized both in print and in person several times, but to do it again will not hurt. I am sorry, and deeply regret causing such a painful incident. I have since changed my behavior in this type of situation. But, unfortunately, what happened here is by no means a freak happening, and it has been repeated many times and in many places.

It is by no means necessary to have a new pot winner created in order to stir up animosity from asking to see a player's hand. Here is an example that I once saw: In a showdown between two players, a player not in the pot asked to see the losing hand. The dealer touched it to the muck in a gesture of killing it, and turned it up. Apparently, this was not the first time he had made this sort of request to see that particular player's hand. The player told the player not in the pot, "I am tired of this crap. Every time you are in a pot, I am going to ask to see your hand." Both players continued in this vein throughout the game, with the predictable adverse effect on the ambience at that table. Frankly, this is not really a single incident, as I have seen many similar ones over the course of time, as I'm sure you have, too. And for every incident that takes this course, there are a hundred other ones that do not involve such a heated exchange, but still create a certain amount of bad feelings.

Sometimes a player asks to see a losing hand in a cardroom that gives him such a right. But what if the player does not want to show it? Having a right and being able to exercise it properly are sometimes two different things. What happens if the player does not want to show the hand and tries to flip it into the muck? If he is successful in not revealing the contents, should we bar him from the cardroom and the game? Should we have security take him and try to extract the information? As a practical matter, there is no penalty for failure to disclose. I have even seen the dealer try to get the requesting player his rights by attempting to protect the muck while the other player is looking for an opening to flip his cards away in a manner in which they will be irretrievable. What ensues is laughable to watch, but it is surely more appropriate for hockey, where the goalie tries to prevent a goal from being scored, than it is for a gentlemanly game of poker.

One can easily understand why the revisionists are sick and tired of the traditional rule that anyone at the table may ask to see a losing hand. I endorse their view that it is a bad rule that needs to be changed. In my next column on this subject of showing hands at the end of a deal, I will take a look at some of the changes that have been employed in some cardrooms to improve the traditional showdown procedure. ♠

Bob Ciaffone has authored four poker books, Middle Limit Holdem Poker, Pot-limit and No-limit Poker, Improve Your Poker, and Omaha Holdem Poker. All can be ordered from Card Player. Ciaffone is available for poker lessons: e-mail thecoach@chartermi.net. His website is www.pokercoach.us, where you can get his rulebook, Robert's Rules of Poker, for free. Ciaffone is the cardroom director for ChecknRaisePoker.com.