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It’s Entertainment – To Talk of Not to Talk Part 3

by Steve Zolotow |  Published: Dec 19, 2018


The main reason that is given for not allowing talking is that players will collude. Collusion is certainly reprehensible and is really a form of cheating. It benefits the colluders. Poker is a zero-sum game, so what helps some players must hurt the others.

Those who aren’t colluding are hurt. But does talking really lead to or aid in collusion? Talking should only be allowed when a pot is head-up. In cash games, heads-up collusion doesn’t happen. When only two players are left in the pot, there is no one for them to collude against. Occasionally one sees a three-way pot, in which one player is all-in, and the other two agree to deal it out with no further betting. In this case, they are colluding against the all-in player. If they have just made this agreement verbally, they should be penalized or perhaps warned first that this is improper, then penalized. The penalty should be severe-perhaps the all-in player should be automatically awarded a portion of the pot even if he has a losing hand. When does this happen? Usually when two friends or a couple, like a husband and wife, are in a pot with an all-in stranger.

The literature of game theory contains a lot of discussion not only of competition, but also of collusion and cooperation. When two parties are colluding without making a verbal commitment or a formal agreement, it is called tacit cooperation. Note that in the case discussed in the first paragraph, no talking is needed to agree to collusion. Before starting to play, it is easy for a couple or two friends to decide that they won’t bet against each other when heads-up or when a third player is all-in. In fact, if this looks too suspicious or they are worried about being penalized, they might even bet with the agreement that those bets will be returned. The key point is that talking wasn’t necessary to collude.

In tournaments, the claim is made that head-up talking may help more astute players and therefore harm not only the less astute player, but also the rest of the field. This is a completely specious argument. Great players are better than good players, who in turn are better than bad players. Gaining information is something better players do better. They gain information by evaluating their opponent’s ranges and patterns. They deduce correct plays from their opponent’s bet size, chip denomination used, physical way of betting or checking. What players say and how they respond to questions is part of the information gathering process. For the entire history of US poker, talking has been an important part of the game, and most high stakes games and private games have a lot of table talk. Why should an expert player be deprived of this one specific weapon in his arsenal?

A common, crucial, final table situation arises when there are one or more very short stacks. Big stacks don’t want to go broke when short stacks are likely to be knocked out soon. Independent Chip Model (ICM) emphasizes the importance of not getting knocked out in these spots. Suppose the button is the biggest stack and raises. The small blind folds, and the big blind who is the second biggest stack is thinking of calling. The big stack says, “You’d be out of your mind to risk going broke here with two short stacks at the table.”

This is a tough case. Even though I favor players being allowed to talk when heads-up, this kind of statement appears blatantly collusive, and probably should be punished. However, I’d also say that since the Big Stack may have raised with 3-2, talking his opponent out of calling is a legitimate ploy. Unless this opponent is completely clueless, he already knows that making a marginal call in this spot would be a very bad play. This would be a situation where with no discussion, the big stacks would automatically tacitly cooperate. If they really wanted to collude, they have opportunities when no one is listening. (Normally there is a cut for new seats and a break when the final table is reached. In multi-day tournaments, the play often ends for that day and resumes the next day.) This gives the big stacks who want to collude, ample opportunity to discuss their methods or trade pieces of their action without anyone hearing.

In high roller tournaments with short fields, players frequently trade small percentages. Usually these trades (5 percent or less) are so small that a player is really only interested in making plays that are best for himself. If, however, a rich player found himself playing against a player who he has backed, and has 50 percent or more of their results, there are potential situations in which he raises his own equity by taking it easy on this player. This type of collusion hurts other players, but again there is nothing for him gain by talking at the table.

Summary: A reasonable amount of talking whenever a hand is heads-up should be allowed. This doesn’t lead to collusion and makes the games friendlier and more entertaining for everyone. Questions and statements are valuable tools for poker players, and tournament directors and cardroom managers have no right to take these weapons away. ♠

Steve ZolotowSteve ‘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.