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Would You Checkmate Your Own Grandmother?

by Brian Mulholland |  Published: Dec 27, 2005


You're playing a chess match with your grandma, with whom you share a love of the game. You spend a stimulating 90 minutes threatening each other's pieces; you each maneuver, block, chase, and jockey – and now you have her outflanked. Her queen's been captured, her king is exposed, and in six more moves you will get to say, "Checkmate." So, naturally, you decline to execute those moves. Why? Because the high ground of gracious winning isn't high enough for you; no, you have evolved to an even loftier, more transcendent level of being, where the air is so rarefied that winning itself is an inherently ungracious, antisocial act. After all, it would be so very rude to "bust" your own grandmother.

A rather peculiar mindset, you say? Perhaps not to Alan Schoonmaker, a fellow Card Player columnist who recently wrote a two-part apologia on the practice of soft-playing in poker ("Would You Bust Your Own Grandmother?" Card Player, June 14 and Aug. 9, 2005). Ostensibly an examination of the contrasting motivations of those who soft-play friends and relatives versus those who object to this practice, Dr. Schoonmaker's piece devoted itself almost entirely to the sensibilities of the former group, and with decidedly sympathetic approval. In fact, he went so far as to suggest that those who fall into the latter group are "unbalanced." I think it is only appropriate, then – in the interest of balance – to offer a counterview. I especially wish to challenge one particularly provocative point he made. While conceding that the position of those who criticize soft-playing on ethical grounds is indeed "legitimate," Schoonmaker simultaneously asserted that "openly supporting [that position] is bad for poker's image." [!] The notion that our game, or its image, can best be served by keeping the legitimate ethical positions hidden in the closet is a seriously flawed premise. Alas, it is not the only one to be found in his arguments.

First, the Problem

The integrity of a poker game is fundamentally breached when friends or family members have an arrangement to engage some of their opponents straightforwardly while soft-playing each other. After all, this soft-playing can only occur, generally speaking, once those other folks have been eliminated from the pot, and although soft-playing apologists would have you believe that a heads-up pot and the betting that made it a heads-up pot are two completely self-contained events, there is an undeniable connection between them. That being the case, there are too many possible scenarios in which the soft-playing participants are – in effect, even when not by premeditated design – acting jointly to isolate and then collect dead money. This should be perfectly obvious to anyone with extensive poker experience; it is difficult to imagine that Dr. Schoonmaker is unaware of it.

A False Dichotomy
Defending soft-playing, then, requires ignoring this fact and going on the offensive against "hard" play, and hard players. But how do you do so, when they're doing nothing wrong? Here's how: You give lip service to the legitimacy of their approach, while depicting them as "ruthless," "predatory," and "macho" folks who play like poker is "war" and who "take no prisoners." Schoonmaker enlists all of these terms; in fact, he adds "ultra-macho," "insatiable," and "not normal" (while euphemistically describing soft-playing between relatives as "family loyalty"). The problem with these characterizations is that they're manufactured out of thin air, and applied selectively toward some poker players for doing nothing more than playing poker. (The last time I looked, winning chips from your opponents was nothing more nor less than the object of the game.) The good doctor suggests that such hard-liners are oblivious to the more genteel disposition of those concerned with the social and recreational elements of the game. But to assume that sociability and competitiveness are natural antagonists that cannot coexist is to create a false dichotomy. After all, don't people also play golf and tennis for recreation? Don't they bowl and shoot pool with their friends, and often with friendly wagers attached? When faced with a 10-foot putt on the 18th green to decide a $50 Nassau, does anyone try to miss it – because he doesn't want to win his wager? Does a buddy pass up a forehand winner for the match, or a brother try not to pick up that spare in the middle of the 10th frame? Oh please let me miss this 9-ball; otherwise, I'll actually have to collect a bet – from a friend! If you think this sounds silly, but that poker is different, you're right. But it is precisely because of the difference that it's even more absurd in poker. Why? Because the only action in poker is wagering. Whether it's a speculative wager, a value bet, a bluff, or whatever, the fact remains that wagering is the only action one can perform in a poker game. It's not like golf or tennis, where your recreation can derive from the game itself apart from the wager on the game; in poker, the wagering is the game. To characterize a player's refusal to bet against a buddy or family partner as "being nice" means, by inescapable implication, that the act of wagering itself must be, at its core, the opposite of nice (that is, cruel, malevolent, and so on). In other words, playing poker is essentially not nice. Pardon me for asking, but why would anyone who feels this way about wagering choose a wagering game for his social recreation?

Square Peg in a Round Hole
Dr. Schoonmaker defines his terms after raising the initial question, "Would you bust your own grandmother?" "Bust," he explains, "does not mean knocking her out of a $5 tournament; it means taking every penny she has." This distinction would appear to be an attempt at contextual fairness, but he doesn't stick to it. For example, he writes: "Many people play poker to socialize, especially in small games. Poker is just a pleasant way to spend a few hours and have a few laughs … Trying to bust others could destroy this social atmosphere." Please note that even when describing the game as "small," he continues to use the word "bust." Are we not to notice that in this context ( a context of his own choosing), the term has become a non sequitur, inapplicable to the very circumstances in which it was placed? With his own brush, Schoonmaker paints the picture of a low-stakes, table-stakes game of no financial consequence, played purely for social enjoyment, yet he deliberately employs a term that, by his own definition, means "taking every penny she has." Is this an honest argument made in good faith? This isn't the Old West, and it's not as if Granny is going to put $30 into a pot, only to learn on the final round that she must dig into her purse and produce the deed for the family farm, lest she forfeit her interest in the hand. Of course, if what he really means is "take every chip in front of her," it should be reiterated that it is indeed a table-stakes game. Can Alan Schoonmaker actually be contending that Granny's chips should enjoy the benefit of gaining full value from her opponents (the nonrelatives, of course), while being exempt from full risk? To do so would be to maintain a double standard, and a brazenly unfair one at that. Is that good for poker's image? Of course, it is a fact of life that human beings are, to varying degrees, governed by emotions and taboos that cannot always be explained or defended in rational terms. And none of the above should be construed as an indictment of those who have these impulses – merely for having them. The question is: Should practices born of such impulses be given free rein when they conflict with the ethical obligations of a given activity? Next time, we'll take a more detailed look at how the integrity of the game is corrupted by the practice of soft-playing.