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Contracts And Poker: A Chip And A Chair

by Scott J. Burnham |  Published: Jan 12, 2022


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A tournament player shoves his chips forward. The dealer tosses out a disc that says “All In.” Another player, who has him covered, says “I call” and shoves out his stack.
The all-in player loses the hand, but as he gets up to leave, he reveals a chip that was hidden by the player’s arm that rested on the felt.

Does the winner of the hand get that chip, or can the player continue in the tournament with the single chip?

This situation occurred in a tournament at Aria that I recently played in. It recalls the famous “chip and a chair” incident at the 1982 World Series of Poker main event. Jack “Treetop” Straus was the player with the remaining chip, and after he lost the hand, he was allowed to continue in the tournament. Miraculously, he emerged as the winner, giving hope to all of us who find ourselves on the short stack.

But should he have been allowed to continue in the tournament? The Tournament Director ruled that Straus had merely pushed his chips forward, but had not declared himself to be all-in. When the other player called, he called the bet that was pushed out. Therefore, the remaining chip was not in play.

The WSOP subsequently enacted a rule to deal with the situation, though it is not particularly helpful. The Tournament Directors Association has similar rules (see TDA Rules 49 and 62). WSOP Rule 105 states:

105. All-In with Chips Found Behind Later: If A bets all-in and a hidden chip is found behind after a Participant has called, the Event Tournament Director will determine if the chip behind is part of accepted action or not. If not part of the action, A will not be paid off for the chip(s) if he wins. If A loses he is not saved by the chip(s) and the Event Tournament Director may award the chip(s) to the winning caller.

There are a number of problems with this rule. First off, it only addresses the situation where the player declares himself to be “all-in,” so apparently it does not address the situation where the player pushes forward his chips without saying “all-in.” We will address that situation shortly. Secondly, the TD must determine whether the chip is part of “accepted action.” This is a concept discussed in WSOP Rule 104:

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.

Let’s look more closely at that rule. Assume a player announces “all-in” and another player requests a count. The dealer states that the bet is 200,000, overlooking the fact that there is a hidden 5,000 chip, which would make the actual amount of the bet 205,000.

The other player says, “call” and wins the hand. Does he win the hidden chip? I think he does, because Rule 104 says that the caller is subject to the correct all-in amount regardless of the incorrect information he was given.

But apparently the TD is free to decide otherwise, since the TD may determine that the 5,000 chip was not part of accepted action. If the all-in player loses the hand, then the rule says “he is not saved by the chip” but then goes on to say that “the Event Director may award the chip to the winning caller,” with the word may indicating the TD can exercise discretion in this case.

It seems to me if the caller wins and has an all-in player covered, then he should win the chip. Therefore, the TD should have no discretion, and the rule should say “the Event Director must award the chip to the winning caller.”

Now let’s look at the situation where the player shoves all his visible chips forward, but does not announce “all-in.” First of all, does it matter that the dealer announces “all-in” or throws in the “All In” disk?

That should not matter. As stated in Rule 104: “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 it was not an all-in bet, the fact that the dealer announced it erroneously would not change the amount of the bet. In that situation, the caller should not win the hidden chip, so the ruling in the Straus case was correct. Perhaps a cautious player, when faced with this situation, should himself say “all-in” rather than call so that he would have any hidden chips covered.

Incidentally, the “chip and a chair” hand provides the coda to one of the best books written about poker, The Biggest Game in Town, by A. Alvarez. If you would like a well-written account of the early days of the World Series of Poker and the world of professional poker back in the day, it doesn’t get any better than this. ♠

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