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String Theory

Some problems with string-raise rules

by Brian Mulholland |  Published: Jan 17, 2007


Over the years, I've received a lot of e-mail from readers inquiring about rules and procedures. In most of my responses, I refer to wording found in standard rulebooks, and I elaborate on a rule's background and the premise(s) on which it is based. When time permits, I cite some common misconceptions or misapplications, and offer hypothetical scenarios to illustrate a principle. I'm a firm believer in the adage that "the best way to learn is to teach," for the process of crafting an opinion suitable for public consumption forces a person to clarify and refine his own views.

Lately I've received a number of questions about string raises. There is a great deal of murkiness on this subject, much of it stemming from a lack of standardization in the rules governing strings. As I write this, there are four poker rulebooks sitting on my desk, all of which are considered standard. By that I mean that they're all structured and organized in the same way, and their wording is remarkably similar - in many instances, identical. The one glaring exception is the rule on string raises; on this, these four rulebooks vary significantly.

But inconsistency is not the only problem; another problem is that in some cases, the rule is incomplete. For example, in most poker rooms in which players are responsible for calling string raises themselves (as opposed to the dealer calling them), it is widely assumed that only the players who are still in the hand have standing to invoke the rule. Whether or not you think this makes sense, the point is that it is merely assumed; it isn't spelled out, and as a result, disputes sometimes arise over this question. And with nothing to point to in the rulebook, such disputes tend to conclude with something less than a definitive resolution.

Another matter that often goes unaddressed in rulebooks is the necessity of calling a string raise in timely fashion; that is, calling it before any further action ensues. In some cardrooms, the floor staff considers that this goes without saying, but I've gotten the impression in other rooms that the issue of timeliness had never been considered at all. Although I believe that a rulebook should include a brief sentence to cover this, let me hasten to add that even without it, logic and fairness dictate the proper ruling here. It's absurd to allow a person to call "string" after several people have acted - especially if they've folded. For one thing, it clashes with the "action is binding" rule, creating a situation in which a player can continue to play his hand by calling a smaller wager than the one that just forced his opponent(s) off the pot. This is tantamount to rolling out a red carpet for angle-shooters.

Recently I received an e-mail from a reader who raised a question about string raises that had less to do with the actual rule than with a particular social dynamic related to it. He plays in a house where the rule explicitly states that anyone at the table can call a string raise, but he wonders if there's a distinction to be made between "can" and "should." Here is an excerpt:

"What do you think of someone who calls 'string bet' when he's not even in the hand/pot? I raised preflop with A-A (I was under the gun), but I went back to my stack ... there was a discussion. The floorman ruled against me. One player limped in and won the pot with an inferior starting hand. That I can deal with. He had three racks and was winning, so it's possible he would have called the raise anyway. What got me was that 'Mr. Policeman' (who was four seats behind me) then mucked.
- Triple X, the Buffet Buster"

Well, Triple X, I would never call a string on a player if I wasn't involved in the hand. However, in your closing sentence, you point out that he was four seats behind you and that he "then" mucked, which indicates that he was still in the hand at the time he called "string." So, what you're really asking is: What do you think when a person calls a string raise on another player, even though he intends to fold for one bet anyway? And my answer is: I don't much like it. If I'm holding 7-2 offsuit and have no plan to call the original bet, why should I invalidate a raise that has no bearing on my intentions, only to muck the hand when it comes my turn?

That said, how can you know for sure that this was indeed the intention? You see, a mistake people often make - and I suspect you're making it here - is to assume that a player's subsequent fold is evidence that he knew all along what his action would be. This isn't necessarily so. By your own account, Mr. Policeman (as you call him) was in late position. Suppose that he were holding a hand that required volume to have a positive expected value (EV); for example, small or medium suited connectors. Since your string raise came from early position, it had the potential of significantly reducing the field (which is what you were hoping for). Well, as I mentioned earlier, if a player wants to call "string," he must do it immediately - before other players act.

Given his position, he had no way of knowing what kind of action would develop between you and himself. Despite your assumption, he might have been perfectly willing to call several bets if the field were large; holding those suited connectors, his main concern would be volume. As things turned out, a very small field developed, which means that if he was holding a hand like 7-6 suited, he would find himself with a negative EV and no incentive to call even one bet - but the point is that he had no way of knowing this at the time he called the string. More to the point, neither did you. You've simply assumed that his decision to muck is proof that he imposed his will onto a situation that didn't concern him, but for all you know, he was looking forward to playing his hand, only to be disappointed when the ensuing volume didn't justify entering the pot.

Of course, much of the confusion and resentment that often accompany string-raise situations could be avoided altogether if dealers were charged with calling them, instead of leaving it up to the players. Indeed, virtually every string-raise rule I've ever seen opens with the words: "String raises are illegal" or "string raises are not allowed." The strange thing is that some of these same rulebooks conclude with the words: "Dealer is not responsible for calling string raises." A great many players today consider this to be a flat-out contradiction - and they have a point. If dealers aren't responsible for calling strings, then players must be - but given that they often won't (for a variety of reasons), the reality is that string raises are allowed all the time. How can something be considered illegal and optional at the same time? And why should this be the only rule in the book that codifies such a contradiction?

Thanks for the e-mail, Buffet Buster. I hope this has been "food for thought." spade

Brian Mulholland can be e-mailed at