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Rules of the Game: Part VIII

Called hands

by Michael Wiesenberg |  Published: Jun 11, 2008

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Many new players are coming into brick-and-mortar (B&M) cardrooms for the first time. They have played online and in home games, but may not know the rules and conventions of live cardroom play, and might get tripped up.

As a public service, this series explains many of the rules, some unwritten, that newcomers probably have not encountered.

Called Hands
The rules about called hands cause as many problems as perhaps all of the other rules put together.

What is a called hand? According to The Official Dictionary of Poker: A hand that someone bet and someone else called, as opposed to a hand that was bet and no one called. The term often comes up when a bet is made, called, and lost, and the bettor who lost the hand now wants to throw his cards away unshown (perhaps from embarrassment at being caught bluffing). Someone, often someone not involved in the hand, wants to see the losing cards, and cites the rule (often unwritten, but nonetheless usually enforced), "A called hand must be shown." (Some players, particularly those most used to private games, are under the mistaken impression that only the winner of a pot has the right to ask for a called hand to be shown.) The situation also can arise when someone bets, someone calls, and the bettor mucks his cards as acknowledgment that he was bluffing, and the caller undoubtedly had him beat. The winner of the hand often shows his cards, but not always, particularly in a fast-moving game. The hand that won the pot is still, however, a called hand, and must be shown if anyone asks.

The situation often arises when at least one player is all in. In tournaments, it's simple. Both hands must immediately be turned up, and this must be done at the point that one player goes all in. That is, if the all-in bet and call (or bet and all-in call) occur before the flop, both hands are turned up then; there is no waiting until all community cards have been dealt, which is often the "normal" juncture for a showdown.

The problem comes up in a live cash game when someone makes a bet and someone calls. The caller turns his hand up. The bettor sees that he is beat and throws his cards facedown among the discards. (This is called "mucking the hand.") Or, someone bets, and as soon as he is called, the bettor, who presumably was bluffing, doesn't wait to see the caller's cards. Instead, he mucks his cards immediately. In this situation, the caller often shows his hand prior to receiving the pot. Sometimes, though, the caller also mucks his hand unshown, and scoops up the pot. If no one asks to see either hand, this is all perfectly fine, and everyone is content for the next hand to be dealt. Both hands, however, fall into the category of a called hand, and must be shown if someone requests. In practice, generally no one does.

If someone asks to see the hand, and often it is someone who folded on the first round of betting, the winner of the pot usually quite agreeably turns it up. The loser of the pot, however, sometimes retorts, "You weren't in the pot." This is an irrelevant objection, but some players make a big fuss about it. Usually, the player who objects to showing his cards is embarrassed or annoyed about getting caught bluffing or playing inferior cards.

Players abuse the called-hand rule because they want to know what cards a player had. The original reason for the rule was to prevent collusion. If two players raised back and forth and drove another player out of the pot, other players at the end had the right to see the losing hand to make sure that that hand was actually a legitimate holding, and not an unfair ploy by players who presumably would split their winnings later. Even though the rules permit requesting any called hand to be shown, you'll find that in public cardrooms, players rarely ask. Doing so is often considered a breach of poker etiquette. It's easy online. At the end of any hand in which you had cards, you can just click on the button that presents the hand history. No one knows that you looked. In live play, though, you'll soon make a nuisance of yourself and annoy the others at your table if you keep asking. Reserve doing so for a hand in which you had demonstrable interest, such as one in which you were driven out by a large bet on the river and the winning hand is worse than yours and you want to see if you had the bettor beat. And even then, exercise your right sparingly.

By the way, requesting to see a hand can backfire. In a no-limit hold'em game at a Bay Area club, Alfie made a $1,500 bet into the $2,000 pot. Beta called. Alfie turned up his flopped set and Beta threw his cards facedown toward the muck, but the cards did not touch the discards. As the house dealer started to gather the chips to push them to the holder of the only tabled hand, Alfie said, "Let's see those cards," referring to Beta's still retrievable hand. The dealer turned up the cards, and several players immediately said, "He's got a straight." Beta had evidently overlooked his hand, perhaps concentrating instead on his top pair. The dealer pushed the pot to Beta. It was a difference of $5,000 to Alfie. Had he not asked to see the (supposed) losing hand, no one would have known what Beta had. In many cardrooms, it would not have happened as described. When a player surrenders his cards by tossing them facedown toward the discards and someone asks to see the hand, the dealer "kills" the cards. This he does by touching the cards, while they're still facedown, to the discards before turning them up. This officially makes the hand ineligible to any claim on the pot. Since this is not the situation in all cardrooms, ask at your peril to see a losing hand when the pot is nominally yours.

Michael Wiesenberg has been a columnist for Card Player since the first issue in 1988. His latest book, The Ultimate Casino Guide, published by Sourcebooks, is available at fine bookstores and at Amazon.com and other online book purveyors. The Official Dictionary of Poker should see a new incarnation within a year. Send problems, praise, and put-downs to queue@CardPlayer.com.