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Contracts and Poker: What The Rules Really Say About Mistaken Chip Counts

by Scott J. Burnham |  Published: Aug 28, 2019


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A player bets 1.7 million. Another player goes all-in. The original bettor asks for a count and the dealer says it is 17.2 million. The player calls, but as the chips are counted out, it becomes clear that the all-in is for 22.2 million, not 17.2. The player objects to having to call the entire 22.2 million, and the Tournament Director (TD) is called for a ruling. What should the TD decide?

Let’s begin with a review of the rule on “Count of Opponent’s Chip Stack.” During the World Series of Poker telecast, color commentator Norman Chad whined about players asking their opponents how many chips they had behind, presumably because it slowed down the action.

There is a simple solution to the problem. As Nancy Reagan used to advise: Just Say No. There is no requirement that you answer that question. WSOP Rule 62 provides only that “participants are entitled to a reasonable estimation of opponent’s chip stacks.” That is why players are often admonished to keep their bigger denomination chips in front and not to “barber pole” their chips by mixing denominations, preventing the visual estimate that the rule requires.

But a player is entitled to a precise count when facing an all-in bet. Rule 62 goes on to state: “Participants may only request a more precise count if facing an all-in bet. The all-in participant is not required to count; if he opts not to, the dealer or floor will count it.” And then the rule ominously concludes: “Accepted action applies.”

So in our hypothetical – which is of course, not hypothetical but actually happened deep in this summer’s main event, Nick Marchington went all-in for 22.2 million. The dealer then counted it out and incorrectly announced 17.2 million before Dario Sammartino called. After the mistake was pointed out, Sammartino protested, and the floor personnel ruled that his call would stand as a call of 22.2 million, citing the accepted action rule. That rule provides:

  • 104. Accepted Action: Poker is a game of alert, continuous observation. It is the caller’s responsibility to determine the correct amount of an opponent’s bet before calling, regardless of what is stated by the dealer or participants. If a caller requests a count but receives incorrect information from the dealer or participants, then places that amount in the pot, the caller is assumed to accept the full correct action & is subject to the correct wager or all-in amount.

Dario SammartinoUnfortunately for Sammartino, as he continued to argue, the dealer put out the flop. At that point, Tournament Director Jack Effel arrived at the scene. Effel could have simply ruled that it was now too late to appeal the ruling to him, for a player should be stopped from claiming a rules violation after play has continued. Nevertheless, Effel affirmed the decision, stating that the accepted action rule was clear. He then gratuitously added, “If you’re calling 17, you’re calling 22,” as though that was the reason for his ruling.

Of course, Effel did not have to follow the rule. WSOP Rule 56 states:

  • 56. Floor People: The event Tournament Director, Managers, and Supervisors are to consider the best interest of the game and fairness as the top priority in the decision-making process. Unusual circumstances can on occasion dictate that decisions in the interest of fairness take priority over the technical rules. The WSOP Tournament Director reserves the right to overrule any floor decision.

Had Effel arrived before the flop, would it have been “in the best interest of the game and fairness” for Effel to rule for Sammartino (either by limiting both the bet and Sammartino’s call to the announced amount of 17.2 million or by allowing Sammartino to withdraw his call) in spite of the technical rule? Perhaps Effel did not cut any slack in Sammartino’s case because he thought that enforcing the rule was not a great a hardship to Sammartino.

As a counter-example, in the 2012 main event, Andras Koroknai went all-in and then, after one player folded, mucked his hand, wrongly thinking there were no more callers. Although the rules would have called the hand dead, Effel determined that he was not going to end a player’s tournament on such a mistake.

While it was unfortunate that he said, “If you’re calling 17, you’re calling 22,” since he does not know that for sure, it could charitably be said that what he meant was that the amount of the mistake was not so significant as to require a deviation from the rule in the interest of fairness. If it had been a difference of a million or two, Sammartino would have suffered little harm; if it had been a difference of 10 million or more, it would have been more significant. As it was, the difference was right in the middle, which makes the fair outcome problematic.

In applying a rule, it can be helpful to look at the principle behind the rule. This problem can be likened to those situations in law where there are two innocent parties, and we must determine which of them should bear the loss. One factor to consider in allocating that loss is to determine which person was in the better position to prevent the loss, which in this case would be the person better able to prevent the mistake.

The accepted action rule seems to be premised on the view that the caller is better able to avoid the loss, for the rule states that “[i]t is the caller’s responsibility to determine the correct amount of an opponent’s bet before calling.” But how can the caller make that determination? Only by asking the dealer, and it does not seem unreasonable to rely on what the dealer says. On the other hand, the bettor should have a good sense of how much the bet is for, even if it is an all-in bet, so the bettor may well be in the better position to prevent the loss.

When the dealer announced 17.2 million, Marchington was in a good position to know of the mistake and to correct it, so the rule could have put the burden on him. Under the rule as currently written, however, he had no obligation to correct the mistake. Perhaps ultimately it is a rule of administrative convenience – if there are good arguments for putting the risk on either party, it may be arbitrary to choose one, but a choice has to be made.

Effel was right that under Rule 104, which puts the burden on the caller, the decision is the correct one. As to whether he should have exercised discretion under Rule 56 to rule otherwise in the interest of fairness, there can be reasonable disagreement, at least if he had arrived before the flop. But since the initial ruling was appealed to him after the flop was dealt out, it was too late at that point to change the ruling.

Ironically, those of us watching at home knew that Marchington was all-in for 22.2 million and were immediately aware of the mistake because the chip counts are displayed at the top of the screen. Why shouldn’t this information be available to players as well? It could be argued that estimating other players’ chip count is an important skill and the display would eliminate that advantage. But when there are two tables remaining, as there were when this situation arose, it would be helpful for players to know what the chip counts are at the other table in order to help them make ICM (Independent Chip Model) decisions, and no amount of skill would help them obtain that information.

Perhaps most importantly, if the information was readily available, it would make Norman Chad happy because players would not have to ask others for their chip counts. I predict this display will come to the WSOP eventually.

Scott J. Burnham is Professor Emeritus at Gonzaga University School of Law. He can be reached at