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Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

by Steve Zolotow |  Published: Sep 16, 2015

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Steve ZolotowI know all my loyal readers are sitting on the edge of their seats awaiting my next column in the Discipline series, but I am forced to take this column off to comment on an idiotic procedure that I see used consistently in cardrooms and tournaments around the world.

The situation: The dealer is dealing and a card wobbles as it is being dealt. (The card may be a downcard in hold’em or a downcard in any of the stud variations or a draw card in any of the draw variations.) It may have wobbled enough for someone to have seen the card. Perhaps one of the players even comments, “That card may have flashed,” or even “That card flashed.” The dealer follows a set procedure. He then asks the player most likely to have seen it, “Did you see it?” Or sometimes, he asks the table, “Did anyone see that card?” If no one says that they saw the card, he continues dealing. If someone answers affirmatively, he’ll ask what the card was. They then state what the think the card was. Sometimes the dealer flips it up, and deals a replacement. At other times, the recipient of the card peeks at it. If they were correct about what the card is, he turns it up and it is treated an exposed card. If they were wrong, then the situation becomes unclear. Sometimes, the recipient flips it up anyway, and receives a replacement. Sometimes, he says that they’re wrong and keeps it.

What is wrong with this procedure? First, it assumes that all players are ethical enough to always answer honestly, and that the rules of poker insist that they do so. There are certainly some players who place self-interest above ethics in many situations. Perhaps in hold’em, they will call out an exposed ace, but not an exposed three. Perhaps in one of the varieties of lowball draw, they will call out an exposed three, but not an exposed king. Perhaps they’ll never state what they think it is, and silently benefit from knowing one of their opponent’s cards. Even if a player is extremely ethical, is he required to speak up? Poker is not the type of game where you can force people to act against their own interests. If so, doesn’t asking create a situation that hurts the ethical player, who answers truthfully, and benefits the unethical one, who answers based on what is best for him.

This also supposes that someone who catches a glimpse of a card can accurately identify it. It is not uncommon for someone to know if a card was a picture card (lots of paint, colors) or a spot card (lots of white.) Or to know it was a black card or a red card. Or perhaps even to know it was a red, three across. The term three across comes from a method of squeezing your cards, which entails covering the index, which states what the card is, and slowly looking at its side, to see how many spots there are. For example, a six or seven has three spots on the side and is known by card squeezers as a ‘three across.’ This partial knowledge creates a weird situation. Someone can’t state exactly what the card is, but also can eliminate some of the possibilities.

The Solution: When a card may have been exposed, partially or completely, immediately replace it. If there is any doubt, don’t ask if anyone saw it. That only wastes everyone’s time and won’t reveal any useful information. Just flip it up and replace it. Yes, this will occasionally result in someone getting a good card they shouldn’t have gotten or losing a good card they should have gotten, but it is all random. No one has any way of knowing if the replacement will be better, equal, or worse than an unseen card. If, however, the card was seen, then instead of a player being able to take advantage of that fact, everyone will see that card, and it will be replaced by a random one. If you think the old method of asking is better, decide what you think your opponent would do in a stud hand where he catches a glimpse of your river card as it is dealt. Think he would demand you get a new card to replace one that doesn’t help you? If you caught a good card, would he holler about the exposed card and insist it be replaced? Likewise, what would he do if he saw his card being dealt? I’d bet a lot he keep quiet if he liked it, and demand a replacement if he didn’t. ♠

Steve ‘Zee’ Zolotow, aka The Bald Eagle, is a successful gamesplayer. He has been a full-time gambler for over 35 years. With two WSOP bracelets and few million in tournament cashes, he is easing into retirement. He currently devotes most of his time to poker. He can be found at some major tournaments and playing in cash games in Vegas. When escaping from poker, he hangs out in his bars on Avenue A in New York City -The Library near Houston and Doc Holliday’s on 9th St. are his favorites.