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Strategic Soft Play: Can I Fold My Hand?

by Scott J. Burnham |  Published: Aug 25, 2021

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Sam SoverelIn the recent PokerGO Cup $100,000 high roller event, Sean Winter almost went all in with three players remaining, reserving a single 5,000 chip behind, and lost the hand.

On the next deal, he was the big blind, so the 5,000 chip went toward the big blind ante. Cary Katz folded on the button, leaving Sam Soverel in the small blind to compete for Winter’s final 5,000 chip.

Soverel then immediately asked for a ruling on whether he could fold. Not getting the attention of the Tournament Director (TD), he concluded, “I guess not,” and tabled his hand.

PokerGO commentator Ali Nejad asked why Soverel would want to fold, given that he had a free chance at knocking out an opponent. He did not get an answer from his co-commentator, Maria Ho, but later speculated that keeping Winter in the game would allow him to continue to put pressure on Katz, whom he out-chipped by almost 3:1.

In reality, Soverel ended up winning the all-in, eliminating Winter in third place. But if Soverel had not won, or if he could have folded with impunity, Winter would have continued to play and Katz would have been handcuffed.

Not wanting to go out third (and commit an ICM error) when Winter was all but eliminated, Katz would have faced a relentless pounding from Soverel with no ability to play back. Even if Winter only lasted one more hand, Katz would have been in the big blind on the next deal. Soverel could shove any two cards, and get virtually the same all-in showdown with Winter, along with a guaranteed profit once Katz was forced to fold.

So the hypothetical question remains… could Soverel have folded and conceded the hand to Winter? Let’s first consider the ethical play rule:

69: Ethical Play: Poker is an individual game. Soft play will result in penalties, which may include chip forfeiture and/or disqualification. Chip dumping and other forms of collusion will result in disqualification.

It is often hard to determine whether there has been soft play, and the evidence is usually circumstantial. One instance where it appears to be clear is when the player who is last to act on the river checks the nuts. Since this action is obvious once the hands are tabled, many dealers are quick to enforce the rule.

But is this action necessarily soft play? I have seen novice players check not realizing they had the nuts, so they are hardly engaging in soft play. And I have seen sophisticated players think it was more important to have a showdown so that they could see what the other player was holding than to possibly gain chips from another bet. Curiously, the rules seem to allow for this, carving out an exception to the mandatory penalty in this situation. The rule concludes by stating:

Checking the exclusive nuts when last to act on the river is not an automatic soft play violation; TD’s discretion applies based on the situation.

Would it have been “soft play” if Soverel had mucked, throwing the hand to Winter? At first blush, it would appear to be, for it is conceding a hand that Soverel might well have won without further risk. But it seems that by definition, “soft” play means that you are taking it easy on the other player.

The prefatory language in the rule, “poker is an individual game,” suggests that you should always be out for yourself and not assist others. But in this case, if Nejad is right, Soverel’s motive was not to go easy on Winter, but to be tough on Katz. In other words, he was looking out for his own long-term interests by being soft in the short run.

If the TD had been asked for a ruling, he or she would likely also have consulted Rule 71.B, which indicates when penalties are mandatory and when they are discretionary:

71.B: A penalty may be invoked for etiquette violations (Rule 70), card exposure with action pending, throwing cards, violating one-player-to-a-hand, or similar incidents. Penalties will be given for soft play, abuse, disruptive behavior, or cheating.

Under this rule, if there is an etiquette violation, then the TD has discretion to invoke a penalty or not; but if there is soft play, then the TD apparently has no choice but to invoke a penalty.

However, even if Soverel’s fold was not considered soft play, he would have folded when folding was not an option since there was no bet to him. According to TDA Rule 58, such a fold is binding and subject to a penalty:

_58: Non-Standard Folds

Any time before the end of the final betting round, folding in turn if there’s no bet to you (ex: facing a check or first to act post-flop) or folding out of turn are binding folds subject to penalty._

Let’s now assume that the TD concluded that there was either soft play or that there was a violation of the non-standard fold rule. In either event, a penalty would be mandatory. He would have answered Soverel’s question, “Can I fold my hand?” by responding, “No, you can’t,” which means that if Soverel had then mucked his hand, he would incur a penalty.

But what would the penalty be? It is important to remember that under TDA Rule 71, “[e]nforcement options include verbal warnings.” So when all is said and done, the penalty could have been merely a warning.

Next time, hopefully Soverel will be more patient and wait to get a ruling before proceeding with the hand. The request could backfire, however. Sometimes TDs will issue a warning if you violate a rule without knowing any better. But once you ask and are told you can’t do it, and you do it anyway, they might impose a harsher penalty for your premediated act. ♠

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