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Soft Play: Does The High-Stakes Poker Tournament World Have A Problem?

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Aug 15, 2018


Alex Foxen and Kristen Bicknell After Chopping $5,000 Venetian EventJust a couple weeks ago, poker power couple Alex Foxen and Kristen Bicknell turned the poker world upside down by finishing first and second in a $5,000 event at the Venetian, divvying up the lion’s share of the prize pool and taking home a combined $438,000. The accomplishment made for a great story and capped off quite a run for the two players, but it also raised some concerns after fellow poker players accused Foxen and Bicknell of soft-playing each other during three-handed play.

Some in the high-stakes community believe that Australian poker pro Kahle Burns, who finished third in the event, was put in an unfair situation having to battle against a poker couple who clearly had no interest in eliminating one another before reaching heads-up play. Others believe that neither Bicknell nor Foxen can be blamed for doing what was obviously in their financial best interests, especially after they offered Burns a chop and he declined.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that a poker couple has gone deep in a tournament together. Husband and wife team Jason and Natasha Mercier each finished within one spot of each other in a Seminole Hard Rock event in 2016. David Sands and his girlfriend Erika Moutinho each finished 30th and 29th in the 2011 WSOP main event, and at one point were even seated next to each other. Just last April, Tim Reilly was forced to bust his wife Ness deep in a WSOP Circuit event.

Mike WatsonHowever, it is a rare event, and not a regular concern in tournaments where field sizes reach the hundreds or even thousands. But what about in the world of high roller tournaments, where the fields rarely exceed a handful of tables? Because of the big buy-ins, players are often forced to sell or swap big percentages of themselves to reduce variance, creating a fear that conflicts of interest may arise in these small-field events.

Mike Watson, who won the 2012 World Series of Poker Europe High Roller for $1.3 million, wrote about the issue in a recent blog entry.

“I regularly play high roller events, where a large percentage of the player pool consists of some subset of the same group of pros,” wrote Watson. “They often have pieces of each other, and there are many groups of close friends among these pros. Collusion is a very serious concern in this environment where the stakes are so high, the player pool so tightly knit, and financial incentives for an individual are potentially not completely aligned with their own performance in the tournament.”

Justin BonomoWatson’s post prompted a response from Justin Bonomo, who is currently in the middle of an epic run in the high-stakes world with wins in both the Super High Roller Bowl and Super High Roller Bowl China. Like Watson, Bonomo was concerned about soft play, explaining how it hurts other players at the table.

“The most basic game theory in poker is bluffing frequency,” Bonomo wrote. “If someone rarely bluffs, you call them less. If they bluff a ton, you call them more. Simple. If two players cut out a large percent of their bluffs against each other, that means a lot less money should go in on every street. The pots will be smaller and less confrontational, and they will bust each other a lot less. If they do this at a [final table], all the other players become less likely to hit pay jumps and suffer as a result. It is not ok to avoid bluffing someone at a [final table] because you like them.”

Scott Seiver, who has won the vast majority of his $23 million in events with buy-ins of $25,000 or more, believes that while the potential for soft-play is there, he doesn’t currently see a problem.

Scott Seiver“I think I would say for the high roller circuit that there’s definitely the potential for a problem,” Seiver told Card Player. “I’ve always been a huge advocate for open information, the percentages for everyone. I think some people have way too large a piece of other people in ratio to what they have of themselves. My friends and I [in these high rollers] have extremely conservative and strict guidelines about the ratio of ourselves to anyone else in the tournament. I’ve openly offered that information, but it seems like that’s not the norm. Right now things in the high rollers are essentially fine. There was a stretch of time when a lot of people were looking down on a group of German players, because they all had similar pieces of each other at various times, but in my opinion, I don’t think there is currently an issue in the high roller events.”

While the lack of transparency when it comes to staking arrangements and swaps is frustrating for some, Bryn Kenney, who has eight high roller wins on his tournament resume with $25 million in earnings, accepts is as a natural part of the high-stakes scene.

Bryn Kenney“You don’t really need to disclose anything at final tables because everyone pretty much knows who is friends with each other, and where there might be an issue. It’s normal,” Kenney told Card Player. “You can’t make people tell you their financial situation, as ideal as that may be. You don’t even know if people would even tell the truth. Then it will cause even more problems because all of the backers will be outed and people will harass them for tournament buy-ins.”

Daniel Negreanu, who is poker’s all-time tournament earnings leader with more than $38 million, said that the players usually take care of any issues that may come up at the table themselves.

“It’s very difficult to police,” said Negreanu. “I was in the Super High Roller Bowl at the final table, and when I was three-handed I asked Jason [Koon] and Justin [Bonomo], ‘How big is your piece of each other?’ Because if it’s very significant, whether they want to acknowledge it or not, it’s going to have an effect, somewhat, on their mind. So, I felt it was worthwhile to know that. But it’s difficult to make it a policy, because the only people who would share [that information] are the honest people. It’s self-policed for the most part.”

In fact, Kenney even went so far as to offer up an explanation as to why soft play might occur naturally between players in these events.

Daniel Negreanu“If you are swapping with someone, then you think they are as good or better than you as a player,” Kenney said. “Otherwise, why would you swap? So naturally, you will be less likely to play hands against those players. Not because of the swap, but because they are good players. Especially when the tournament gets short-handed, you’re going to want to play your big [pots] against the players you think are weaker versus the players you think are stronger.”

The solution to the problem, or even if there is a problem to begin with, remains unclear. Negreanu responded to Bonomo’s blog with a Tweet suggesting that players who swap with each other prior to a tournament should cancel the swap if they ever get seated at the same table, an idea echoed by others, including Allen Cunningham and Brandon Cantu.

In the high roller world, that idea would be especially appealing to the amateur businessmen, who often have a much higher percentage of their own action and prefer a more straight-forward experience against the pros. Of course, the odds of being seated at the same table as someone you’ve swapped with is much higher in a high roller event, and without those swaps, the high variance of five-figure-and-above buy-ins may become unappealing for those who can’t handle the swings.