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Contracts and Poker: What Were You Thinking?

by Scott J. Burnham |  Published: Feb 09, 2022

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The blinds are 100-200, and a player makes a bet of 400 on the flop. On the turn, the player says, “same bet,” and reaches into his stack for a 500 chip, which he pushes forward.

What is the amount of the player’s bet?

One of the first things law students learn about contracts is that whether a contract is formed by the parties’ words or actions is determined objectively rather than subjectively; that is, it doesn’t matter what was in the parties’ heads. What matters is what they say or do. The same thing applies to poker, though players sometimes forget this important concept.

Let’s look at some of the rules that rely on this point.

Tournament Director’s Association (TDA) Rule 2, which summarizes player responsibilities, states that “Players should … make their intentions clear.” This same statement is found in a number of other rules, including Rule 42, Methods of Raising, which again states (and underlines for emphasis) “It is the responsibility of players to make their intentions clear.”

Players nevertheless violate this principle in a number of ways, both verbally and non-verbally. Perhaps the most common nonverbal violation is the “oversized chip rule:”

44: Oversized Chip Betting (Overchips)

If facing a bet or blind, pushing out a single oversized chip (including your last chip) is a call if raise isn’t first declared. To raise with an overchip, you must declare raise before the chip hits the table surface. If raise is declared but no amount is stated, the raise is the maximum allowable for the chip. If not facing a bet, pushing out an overchip silently (no declaration) is a bet of the maximum for the chip.

If the big blind is 200 and a player pushes out a 500 chip, the player may be thinking “I am betting 500,” but the dealer or floor will correct the player and tell him, “No, you are betting 200 unless you say otherwise.”

Another example is when the blinds are 300-600, and a player pushes out a 1,000 chip and a 100 chip. The player may be thinking, “I am calling 600 and making it easier for the dealer to make change by giving me one 500 chip rather than four 100 chips,” but the dealer or floor will say, “You put more than 50% of the bet in the pot, so that is a raise. Please complete it by putting out another 100.” This is required by Rule 61:

61: Over-Betting Expecting Change

Betting should not be used to obtain change. Pushing out more than the intended bet can confuse everyone at the table. All chips pushed out silently are at risk of being counted in the bet. Ex: the opening bet is 325 to A who silently puts out 525 (one 500 and one 25), expecting 200 change. This is a raise to 650 under the multiple chip rule (Rule 45).

I find it amusing that Rule 3 is captioned “Official Terminology and Gestures,” because there is nothing “official” about the terms. But the principle is clearly stated in its last sentence: “using non-standard terms or gestures is at player’s risk and may result in a ruling other than what the player intended.”

The rule in full states:

3: Official Terminology and Gestures

Official betting terms are simple, unmistakable, time-honored declarations like bet, raise, call, fold, check, all-in, complete, and pot (pot-limit only). Regional terms may also meet this test. Also, players must use gestures with caution when facing action; tapping the table is a check. It is the responsibility of players to make their intentions clear: using non-standard terms or gestures is at player’s risk and may result in a ruling other than what the player intended. See also Rules 2 & 42.

Scotty Nguyen’s famous “All you can eat, baby,” is an example of non-standard language. In his head, he is thinking “All in,” but it didn’t come out that way. This one is apparently acceptable, maybe because its meaning is clear, or maybe because it is a world champion who said it. I have seen TDs reprimand a player for using the non-standard “I’ll put you all-in” when the bettor has more chips than the other player so the bettor is technically not all in, but again this one probably works because its meaning is clear. However, I have seen TDs rule against a player who said, “Same bet,” because that non-standard language is not necessarily clear to those with short memories. So when thinking, “I’m going to make the same 400 bet I made on the last betting round,” it is better to say, “400.”

Note that this concept also applies to “gestures,” for players often use gestures in the place of declarations. For example, there seems to be no end to the variety of gestures that indicate a check, and it is easy to confuse a check with a nervous gesture. You can’t go wrong by stating, “I check” or vigorously rapping the table. Similarly, Rule 57 reminds us that “Players use unofficial betting terms and gestures at their own risk. These may be interpreted to mean other than what the player intended.” In this rule, the concept is applied to abbreviated amounts, as when a player thinking, “I’ll bet 5,000,” says, “Five.”

Finally, I get a kick out of Rule 13.B. After all these rules hammering home that it doesn’t matter what you are thinking, this rule applies to “players who don’t fully table all cards, then muck thinking they’ve won.” The players are warned that they “do so at their own risk.” If a player mucks, does it matter whether the player was thinking he has won or whether he was thinking about grabbing a latte during the break?

The point is, and I’ll say it once more: No one knows what you are thinking. It is your actions that count, not your thoughts, so make your actions clear. ♠

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