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Going Soft or Soft-Playing

by Brian Mulholland |  Published: Jan 24, 2006


This is a follow-up to my last column, which in turn was prompted by Alan Schoonmaker's column, "Would You Bust Your Own Grandmother?" (Aug. 3, 2005). To recap, Dr. Schoonmaker suggested that the practice of soft-playing one's buddies or relatives is perfectly acceptable in poker, since it stems from personal values and "feelings" that are just as legitimate as those guiding the folks who don't soft-play anybody. He further asserted that those who contend otherwise – those who believe there is an ethical imperative to engage all of one's opponents straightforwardly – are taking a position that is "bad for poker's image." I believe the good doctor has things backward, and that his attempt not only to excuse but to validate soft-playing is not in the best interests of the integrity of the game. Last time, I challenged specific points he had made, but now I'd like to focus on the more fundamental ethical issue.

To understand the ethical problem of soft-playing, we must look to that feature of poker that distinguishes it from other wagering games. I'm not talking about the fact that poker is a game played against freelance opponents rather than against the house, with the house having no vested interest in the outcome. That is a related issue, to be sure, but of primary relevance here is the fact that poker is a game of multiple betting rounds. With blackjack, dice, roulette, and so on, you put up your money once per event (hand, roll, spin, and so on) – and then either win or lose. While it's true that some of those games allow for an additional wager to be placed after play has commenced, the additional wager is optional, and you never at any point face forfeiture of your original investment by declining to invest more. But in poker, risk accrues. Except for the final bet of the final round, every single wager that's risked during a poker hand is attached to the possibility of future risk, as well, and if at any point you decide not to call a bet, you are surrendering all monies previously invested.

But what happens when there are players who are soft-playing in the game? What happens when some players have an ongoing understanding not to bet into each other once the action becomes heads up? Whatever the personal feelings, cultural inhibitions, or peer pressures that form such a compact, this arrangement amounts to a private deal that is struck in the middle of a hand – a deal to eliminate any future risk. As compromising as that might sound from an ethics standpoint, it's only the tip of the iceberg, for in actuality, the deal is only consummated in the middle of the hand; the fact that the arrangement is ongoing means the deal is actually struck before the hand ever starts.

But things get even dicier. Since the field can be reduced to two players only through betting that eliminates the rest of the field, this arrangement comes with a built-in incentive that impacts the action in favor of those who are soft-playing. To illustrate the point, imagine that you're in a seven-card stud game, and you're the low-card bring-in on third street. Two soft-playing buddies, Mutt and Jeff, enter the pot, sandwiched around a fourth player who completes the bet. You call, Mutt raises, and you and Jeff and the fourth player all call. Fourth street brings overcards for everyone, and gives you a split pair to go with your three-card flush. Mutt bets and the fourth player folds, leaving just you and the buddies. Jeff raises. Your pair is smaller than their fourth-street cards, and since you don't like the price you're getting for your draw, you fold. The moment you do, Mutt and Jeff nod to each other – not even attempting to hide the "understanding" between them – and then proceed to check, in rote fashion, on fifth, sixth, and seventh streets. It should be pretty obvious just how cozy this arrangement is for Mutt and Jeff. By fourth street, they had locked up eight bets, half of it strange money, plus the antes. But the problem isn't merely the pact to eliminate risk on betting rounds No. 5, 6, and 7; it is the looming prospect of it that appears on round No. 4 – a prospect that offers incentive for two players who are soft-playing to bet a third player off his hand. By doing so, they are effectively acting as a team, converting the previously invested chips of the "outsider" into dead money. Clearly, this puts the folks who don't have soft-playing partners at the table at a distinct disadvantage against those who do. This is not the way it's supposed to be in a public cardroom.

In essence, those who were soft-playing are claiming for themselves the option of declaring themselves all in – when they still have chips in front of them. (Indeed, in many instances, they'll brazenly turn their cards faceup.) But no such option is supposed to exist. It certainly didn't for their straight-shooting opponents, whose only recognized means of eliminating risk was to fold.

When I first began playing in casinos, this sort of thing was not tolerated. In fact, it was not uncommon for management to be actively on the lookout for such patterns, and those who were soft-playing were taken aside, apprised of the problem, and informed that if they genuinely felt uncomfortable betting against each other, they needed to be seated at different tables. And it was considered unthinkable to allow players to go unprotected just because the stakes they were playing were deemed "small." But these days, it's disturbing how easily some apologists for soft-playing brush aside such concerns. For example, despite these very real ethical problems, Dr. Schoonmaker maintained in his recent column that (a) soft-playing is merely a matter of personal preference ("don't be afraid to march to the beat of your own drummer"), and (b) to think otherwise is a matter of "arrogant nonsense." Unfortunately, there's nothing the least bit subjective about the corrupting effect of soft-playing.

Consider this: The classic rationalization for appeasing those who soft-play is that they're innocently unaware of the compromising effect their behavior has on the integrity of the game. To them, what happens before the pot becomes heads up and afterward are two utterly disconnected, self-contained events, with no causal link between them. In their minds, they're simply "being nice" or "giving someone a break." This characterization is undoubtedly accurate for some, convenient as hell for others, but ultimately irrelevant. To understand why it's irrelevant, one simply needs to take a moment and ponder what would happen if Alan Schoonmaker were to accept invitations to two different home games – one on Friday night and one on Saturday night.

Both games will be threehanded affairs, and on both nights, Dr. Schoonmaker's opponents will be free to bet him off his hand at any time, and then soft-play each other once he's folded. On Friday night, his two opponents will be fully conscious of the mathematical leverage this affords them. But in Saturday's game, his opponents will be simple, unanalytical types who won't think of it "that way"; in fact, they'll be two of the most naive, unscheming innocents on the face of the earth. When they soft-play each other after betting the good doctor off his hands, they'll simply be thinking in terms of giving each other a break. After all, they're friends – and it's a friendly game. Who would want to "bust" his own buddy?

Does Dr. Schoonmaker think for one moment that the contrasting mindsets of these two pairs of opponents will in any way alter the outcome? Does it need to be pointed out that the results of these two games will be as identical as they are inevitable, and that perceptions and motivations aside, he will go just as broke on Saturday as on Friday? No matter how congenial the atmosphere, I seriously doubt he'll leave Saturday's game thinking the experience was any more friendly than the one he endured the previous night.

In closing, here's one final thought: For all his sympathy with the notion that soft-playing is a harmless manifestation of goodwill, Dr. Schoonmaker never mentions the hard feelings that often result when people notice the way certain players will play them hard, but others soft. This discrepancy can engender bitter, long-lasting resentments. He also leaves unmentioned the quite unfriendly peer pressure often deployed, at times aggressively, by those who soft-play in an attempt to make others conform to their ways. Sometimes, this pressure is downright ugly, and has driven away many a player who came to the cardroom wanting nothing more than just to play poker.

Brian Mulholland can be e-mailed at