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Soft-Playing: Part I

It’s frequently found online

by Michael Wiesenberg |  Published: Feb 18, 2011

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According to The Official Dictionary of Poker, soft-playing is a form of collusion in which players have an agreement not to bet or raise each other with anything less than big hands (for the particular situation); that is, they specifically do not bet weak hands or bluffs when they are in a pot with each other. This is done to prevent participants from jointly losing chips to other players. For example, in hold’em, if one player bets middle set and his “friend” raises, the friend is guaranteed to have top set or better. Thus, the first player can safely fold if he doesn’t have money odds to continue. If a player not in on the agreement happens to make a better hand, he wins money only from the better of the two colluders. Soft-playing also involves not pushing a hand when one of the friends has bet and another player is in the pot, to try to trap the non-colluder.
This odious practice is found too frequently online.
Soft-playing is not the same as slow-playing, which is not playing a powerful hand aggressively, for the purpose of deception. For example, in hold’em, limping in preflop with pocket aces or just calling an open-raise, both with the hope of trapping other players, is slow-playing. Consistently not raising or reraising when holding the nuts (or an excellent hand for the situation) against a friend is soft-playing. Since some players regularly slow-play big hands, you can distinguish a player who soft-plays, because he plays one way against some players (those with whom he has an agreement), but plays the same hand in the same situation strongly against any other player.
You find groups of players who soft-play each other on all of the major online poker sites. Curiously, many of them live in former Soviet Bloc countries; or, perhaps not so curiously, because much of Eastern European online access is accomplished in Internet cafes. They all seem to know each other, as evidenced by their chattering away among themselves in foreign languages in the chatbox until warned by a site moderator that “in fairness to the other players, all chat must be in English.”
Soft-playing is found in all types of games, although it’s easiest to demonstrate in pot-limit draw poker. For example, I saw, before the draw, one player in a game with $1-$2 blinds open-raise for $6 with three queens, and his buddy called behind him with three aces. The blinds did not come in. On the draw, both players took two cards. (Players who soft-play have an unspoken set of rules, and in draw poker, among them are never disguising one’s hand, never betting without a complete hand, and never bluffing.) Both players had stacks of close to $200. After the draw, both players checked, which is how I know what their hands were. (Often in these heads-up situations, one player bets and the other folds, and you can only surmise their holdings.) Both normally were aggressive players, and had either three of a kind been held by someone else in the game, the pot would have seen one of them all in most likely before the draw, but certainly after it. Also, unless all in, an Eastern European would have taken one card to disguise his holding.
In no-limit hold’em, a simple example is this: Player A holds pocket aces and player B holds pocket kings. Player A raises to three times the big blind. Player B reraises to perhaps eight times the big blind. Player A now four-bets. It doesn’t really matter how much the size of that raise is, as player B would fold. Of course, the only ones who know that player B folded a monster are the two involved — and site security, if they ever got around to investigating the action. And they wouldn’t, because they can’t look at every one of the billions of hands played on some sites. Another scenario would be that player A just flat-calls, which he might do if he held the kings. Then, since only the two of them are involved in the hand, they check it down, particularly if the flop, turn, and river are all rags.
In the first scenario, a player does not get “coolered” and lose his stack. This hurts the other players because the losing player does not have to buy back into the game and does not possibly go on tilt. In the second scenario, the perception of the rest of the table is that the two are working together even though they have shown cards and have not done anything specifically against the rules.
Why do players soft-play each other? To reduce variance and because they have this philosophy: “Why beat each other up when we both can have an easier time of getting money off the live ones?” This may seem to be a defendable strategy, but, in fact, it goes against the spirit of poker, in which it is every player’s duty to play as hard as possible against every other player. Soft-playing is bad for poker, and it should not be tolerated online. Online sites have the facilities to ferret out such behavior, and they should. ♠

Michael Wiesenberg has been a columnist for Card Player since 1988. He has written or edited many books about poker, and also has written extensively about computers. His crossword puzzles are syndicated in newspapers and appear online. Send angles, animadversions, and appeals to queue@CardPlayer.com.