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Contracts and Poker: Ambiguous Bets

by Scott J. Burnham |  Published: Apr 07, 2021

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In a no-limit hold’em tournament, the blinds are 200-400. With 5,000 in the pot on the river, a player says “five” and pushes forward a 5,000 chip.

How much has the player bet – 500 or 5,000?

When this situation came up in a WSOP event a few years ago, the players at the table had no idea what the rule was. Interestingly, both the WSOP and the Tournament Directors Association (TDA) rules on this point have evolved over time, so what may have been the answer a few years ago may not be the answer today.

When an action can be interpreted in more than one way, the worst thing a floorperson can do is turn to the bettor and ask, “What did you intend?” In poker as in contracts, the subjective intent of the party – what he meant inside his head – does not govern. What matters is an objective intent – the intent we impute to him based on what is reasonable under the facts and circumstances. Both the WSOP and the TDA make this clear when the applicable rule states “[terms and gestures] may be interpreted to mean other than what the participant intended.”

The WSOP rule governing this situation states that a resolution kicks in only “whenever the size of a declared bet can reasonably have multiple meanings.” We can assume 5,000 is a reasonable bet, so the first question to ask is, “Could the bettor in this situation have reasonably meant 500?”

Note that it does not matter that the bettor also pushed out a 5,000 chip, because a player betting 500 could also push out a 5,000 chip. If the player had pushed out five 1,000 chips while saying “five,” there would be no doubt that 5,000 was the reasonable interpretation.

Would a reasonable bettor bet 500 into a pot that has 5,000 in it? I think the answer is yes. Sometimes when a player has a lock on the hand, he or she will make a minimal bet to goad other players into making a call or raise. On the other hand, the player might be executing what Mike Sexton used to call a “Post Oak Bluff” – making a small bet to make the other players believe he has a monster. Either way, once we conclude that a player might reasonably bet either 500 or 5,000 in the situation, we then move on to resolve the matter under the next part of the rule.

Curiously, the TDA changed the word “reasonably” to “legally” in 2017, so this part of the rule now reads “if a declared bet can legally have multiple meanings.” By legally, I assume the rule means permissibly.

For example, it would not be legal to bet more than the pot in a pot-limit game. Since both a bet of 500 and a bet of 5,000 would be legal, under the TDA rules we would then move on to the next part of the rule. Unlike the WSOP rule, under the TDA rule the TD would not have the discretion to declare that one of the bets is more reasonable and resolve the dispute without moving on to the next part of the rule.

The next part of the rule used to state “it will be ruled as the lesser value. Example: ‘I bet five’. If it is unclear whether ‘five’ means 500 or 5,000, the bet stands as 500.” This rule seems to punish the bettor for causing the ambiguity, for even though it might be reasonable to bet 500, it is probably more likely that the intended bet was 5,000. So it seemed sensible to adjust the rule to provide for more flexibility.

The updated WSOP Rule 60 now states that “the bet will be valued at the largest amount possible that does not exceed the value of the pot. Example: Blinds are 200-400 and the first player to act on the flop throws out a 5K chip and announces ‘five.’ If the amount of the pot at this time is less than 5,000, the bet will be 500. If the amount of the pot is 5K or more, the bet will be 5,000.” The updated TDA Rule 57 states essentially the same thing.

So now we have more certainty. Under the WSOP rules there is a two-part test. The first gives the TD some discretion, for he must first decide whether both of the alternative meanings are reasonable. Under the TDA rule, the TD only has to decide whether the alternative meanings are legal, which provides for no discretion. However, in most cases the outcome is likely to be the same – it could mean either one.

Once we have reached that point, the resolution is mechanical. Let’s go back to the hypothetical at the beginning of the column to apply the rule. First, set out the two reasonable (in the case of the WSOP) or legal (in the case of the TDA) meanings. Here, they are 500 and 5,000. Compare them to the amount of the pot. The bet will be the larger amount, as long as that amount does not exceed the value of the pot. When the pot is 5,000, the larger amount does not exceed it, so that will be the amount of the bet. If the pot was 4,900, the larger amount would exceed that number, so the bet would be 500. ♠

Scott J. Burnham is Professor Emeritus at Gonzaga University School of Law in Spokane, Washington. He can be reached at profburnham@yahoo.com.