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Contracts and Poker: Show Me Yours

by Scott J. Burnham |  Published: May 19, 2021

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Playing in a tournament, I made a bet on the river and the villain didn’t seem to respond. I couldn’t hear much in the noisy room, and it was hard to see what he was doing at the other end of the table through layers of plexiglass. Finally, the dealer turned to me and said, “Show.”

I was confused because a dealer had never said that to me. I was expecting him to say, “Call” or “Raise,” but not “Show.”

As I was figuring out the situation, one of the other players at the table objected in my defense, telling the dealer that I was not obligated to turn my hand over.

As they argued, I turned to the player next to me to find out if my opponent had called, and he confirmed that he did. I was only hesitating because I wasn’t sure if he had raised, and I didn’t want to turn my hand over early.

But, since the question came up… do I actually have to show my cards?

We are often reminded of when we are not supposed to show our cards – basically any time before the hand is over – but when are we supposed to show them?

The Tournament Directors Association (TDA) Rules make it clear that you have to “table” both cards to win a hand, but the rules don’t expressly say whether you can muck without showing. It is, however, implied that you can.

The exception is when a player goes all-in. If I go all-in and a player calls, I can’t muck my hand but have to show it. This is to prevent chip dumping, where I make a gift of my chips to the other player. Of course, this may be a hard rule to enforce as it can be hard to distinguish between chip dumping and a bluff gone bad. In any event, the all-in rule is found in TDA Rule 16:

Face Up for All-Ins. All hands will be tabled without delay once a player is all-in and all betting action by all other players in the hand is complete. No player who is either all-in or has called all betting action may muck his or her hand without tabling. All hands in both the main and side pot(s) must be tabled and are live.

A little while later in the same tournament, I bet on the river and the villain called. This time I threw my cards face down into the muck. One of the other players looked surprised and asked for an explanation. “It’s called a bluff that didn’t work,” I responded. Could the other player have asked to see my cards?

The applicable rule is a bit complicated. TDA Rule 18 says that if a player bets and you call, then you have “paid to see the hand.” The rules say you then have an “inalienable right” to see the hand. You may recognize that phrase – it is used in the Declaration of Independence to describe rights that you are born with and that can’t be taken away.

Nevertheless, unlike the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the right to see the bettor’s cards can be easily taken away. If the bettor pushes his hand forward, the caller has a right to see it, but if the bettor throws it in the muck, then the caller has been effectively deprived of this right. Just to make sure there is no misunderstanding about how alienable this right is, the TDA added an Illustration:

Example 2: NLHE. 4 players remain in the hand. On the river A bets 1000, B calls, C raises to 5000, and D, A and B all call. No player is all-in. B tables his hand, showing trips. D instantly discards face down and the dealer kills his hand into the muck. C begins to push his cards forward face-down. Both A and B have an inalienable right to see C’s hand on request because 1) they paid to see it as C was the last aggressor on the river and 2) both A and B retain their cards. D (who also called C) relinquished his right to see C’s hand when he discarded without tabling. All other requests in this situation are at TD’s discretion, such as B asking to see A’s cards (the cards of another caller).

Another situation that sometimes comes up is when players all check on the river. They then look around sheepishly because no one wants to be first to turn up his hand. Who has to go first? The rule, found in TDA Rule 17, is pretty simple. The last player who bet or raised must show first. If no one bet on the final round, then the player who would act first must show first.

Finally, if you don’t have to show your cards, but showing them is not prohibited, should you show them? Players sometimes egg you to show them, saying, “Show the bluff – it’s good for the game.” I have no idea what it means that it is good for the game, but it could be good for the other players. When players showed their cards on the World Poker Tour, Mike Sexton would often go crazy, shouting at them for giving away free information.

This is true, but sometimes it may be useful to give away misinformation. If you are a tight player, it might be useful to show your bluff to encourage other players to give you action. Similarly, if you are a loose player, you might show your premium hand to make the other players think you are not just running over them with nothing.

So in the situation at the beginning of this column, it would have been helpful if the dealer had just told me the villain had called, instead of saying, “Show.” Then I could decide whether to show or to muck. Since it was not an all-in situation, I was free to do either. ♠

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