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Rules for Rare Occasions

The rules are there to protect everyone

by Brian Mulholland |  Published: Nov 28, 2006

A couple of years ago, I found myself in an extremely unusual situation: Playing Omaha eight-or-better, I was in the big blind with A-K-9-9, double-suited in red. Four players saw the flop for two bets, which came Jdiamond 10diamond 5heart. I led at the pot with my multiple draws, and two players called. Intending to check if I didn't improve, I reconsidered when the turn brought the 2heart. With a total of 20 outs to my straight and dual flush draws, I decided to bet for value, albeit on the come.

When the player to my left paused, I took the opportunity to double-check my hand. I was pretty sure that my ace was the diamond and the king was the heart, but I wanted to confirm which red suit on the river would give me the nut flush and which the second-nut flush. As I stared at my cards, however, I felt oddly disoriented, unable to focus. Something was off. In fact, something was way off, yet I couldn't put my finger on it. And then it hit me. Even though I held the Adiamond, Kheart, and two red nines, I didn't have two flush draws after all - for both of my nines were diamonds!

At the moment I realized this, the player to my left called my bet. Before anything else could transpire, I said, "Dealer, call the floorman." Everyone looked confused, so I turned over my (identical) twin nines to show them what the situation was.

"Gee, what happens in a case like this?" someone asked. "Well, when you've got a bad deck," I explained, "the action is voided and everyone gets his money back."

The player to my left then said, "Excuse me, but you don't get your money back, do you?"

Suddenly, I realized he was right - and I conceded the point instantly, chiding myself for my momentary amnesia regarding the operative rule. As I then explained to the inexperienced dealer, that rule states that two cards of the same rank and suit constitutes a fouled hand, which does indeed void the action - but if a player bets a fouled hand, his hand is dead and he relinquishes his claim to a share of the pot.

I suggested to the dealer that she begin reconstructing the action while we waited for a floorman to arrive. A moment later, the lead floorman appeared and I explained to him exactly what had happened. He made a comment that indicated he was fully aware of the applicable poker statute, so I was shocked at the ruling he proceeded to make. According to him, the act of calling attention to my own fouled hand signified that I was an honest fellow, and that my initial oversight was an innocent mistake. When I heard this, I felt obliged to reiterate that I'd failed to call attention to the problem until after betting the hand - not just on the flop, but on the turn, too - but he said that with an occurrence as rare as this, I should be granted the benefit of the doubt and not be penalized.

I tried to protest, but he cut me off - and then he was gone. And frankly, I was mortified.

This was the wrong verdict. Although I appreciated the assessment of my character, this decision was based on several seriously flawed premises, pertaining both to this specific rule and to rule enforcement in general. And they're worth examining.

Flawed Premise No. 1: There is always a relevant distinction to be made between an honest person and an angle-shooter.

Alas, this particular situation is one that renders the distinction irrelevant. To understand why, we must look at what this rule was designed to prevent, and why the penalty was put in place. Without it, an unscrupulous player who becomes aware of an irregular card and chooses to bet rather than disclose what everyone has a right to know would gain a tremendous advantage over his unsuspecting opponents. He would be free to attempt to bluff them off the pot, so as to win their money without ever revealing his fouled hand, and if they didn't cooperate by folding, he could then just say, "Oh, look, two nines of diamonds - I didn't notice that before. Give me my money back." Since poker is supposed to entail risk in the pursuit of benefit, this would be a grossly unfair form of freerolling, for unlike his opponents, his bets would retain the prospect of benefit while eliminating the element of risk. He might not win, but he couldn't lose.

Now, it's true that my delay in exposing the irregular card was an innocent mistake, but the floorman was dead wrong when he asserted that my actions as such were evidence of that. What he failed to grasp is that there are some situations in poker in which the action resulting from an innocent transgression will mirror the action of one that's premeditated - and this is a perfect example. After all, didn't I bet my hand? In fact, didn't I bet it twice? Oversight or not, didn't that give me two chances to win the pot without my opponents ever being the wiser? And wasn't it only after they refused to fold that I disclosed the problem, claiming that I hadn't noticed it earlier? Well, aren't those exactly the actions an angle-shooter would have taken, and exactly in that order?

Flawed Premise No. 2: The purpose of enforcing rules is to protect the integrity of the game.

This is only half true, and only half the job. The other half is ensuring that the game's integrity be made apparent, and that means apparent to all. Despite his explanation, this floorman let me off the hook because he knew me, and felt confident from past experience that I was an honest person. But did everyone at the table know me, and have reason to share his confidence? And to those who didn't know him - wasn't it natural for them to wonder if they would've received the same break? Why open the door to questions of favoritism and double standards, when such suspicions can so easily be avoided by enforcing the rules objectively and consistently?

Flawed Premise No. 3: Rare occurrence equals mitigating circumstance.

Fouled decks are indeed rare, but poker is a volume business, and circumstances that occur infrequently still occur regularly - which is why we have rules to cover them. Although it's true that the "best interest of the game" rule provides the floor with the discretionary power to override the letter of the law, it's also true that a mitigating circumstance is required to do so. To define a circumstance as mitigating solely by virtue of its infrequency is to engage in a logical contradiction. It is to contend that the very circumstance that necessitates the creation of a rule can be the same circumstance that justifies not enforcing it. Where's the sense in devising a penalty to apply to a specific situation, and then claiming that the penalty should be considered inapplicable because the situation actually came up? That's not merely a contradiction - it's a logical absurdity.

Flawed Premise No. 4: Enforcing a rule/penalty implies a value judgment.

I'm afraid some floorfolk these days are paralyzed by this notion, and it's silly. The rules are there to protect everyone, and there's nothing personal about applying them to everyone.

In closing, here's one final question: If it seems too "harsh" to make me pay for my mistake because it was inadvertent, is it less harsh to allow my opponents to pay for it? Well, that's exactly what would have happened if they all had folded when I bet. spade

Brian Mulholland can be e-mailed at