Sign Up For Card Player's Newsletter And Free Bi-Monthly Online Magazine


Poker Training

Newsletter and Magazine

Sign Up

Find Your Local

Card Room


A Fundamental Misunderstanding

by Brian Mulholland |  Published: Dec 05, 2003


In the movies, when poker players run out of money in the middle of a hand, all sorts of collateral suddenly appears. They throw their watches into the pot, or the pink slips to their cars, or even dibs on their girlfriend's, um, affections. In a scene in 1992's Benny & Joon, one player didn't have enough to cover a wager, so without missing a beat he decided to put up his visiting cousin (Johnny Depp) as an indentured housekeeper/companion to the mentally ill sister of his poker buddy. Hey, no credibility problem there, right? I'm sure that would've been my first instinct …

In many Westerns, of course, the concept of table stakes was utterly foreign – at least to the screenwriters. When the action got heavy, players in those Old West saloons immediately began ponying up their outside assets – cattle, wagons, even the deeds to their ranches. And woe to those who couldn't match the deepest pocket at the table, for no matter how much action they'd already covered, the failure to match every last asset of that final wager meant automatic forfeiture of the pot. Modern gamblers have always been amused by the unthinking acceptance by general audiences of what was a pretty silly premise; namely, that anyone but the village idiot would ever choose to play in such a game, since it was structured to ensure that the richest man at the table would always be the automatic winner. After all, he could win every single hand simply by pushing everything he owned into the pot. Was no one supposed to notice this?

In home games, it is quite common for players to "go light" in a pot, for the social fabric of these games allows for players who know and trust each other to incur some temporary debt. For obvious reasons, public cardrooms can't go that route. Since they are in the business of providing a setting for strangers to play against each other, they would have to assume liability for their customers' markers and credit, and that wouldn't be feasible. So, today, in the contemporary public cardroom, we have the all-in feature, whereby players who have run out of chips remain eligible for all the action they've covered, while further action among other players proceeds "on the side."

In a perfect world, there would be no such thing as going all in, for it is a concept that clashes with one very fundamental dynamic of the game. One of the most basic aspects of limit poker has to do with the fact that the decision to fold when facing a current bet necessarily means forfeiting one's claim to all monies previously invested in the hand, as well. But by going all in, one is granted instant immunity from that risk- simply by virtue of having run out of chips. The all-in player remains eligible for the main pot no matter what; unlike the rest of the field, he simply cannot be bet off his hand, which skews the pot odds and means less protection for his opponents.

But this is not a perfect world, so the all-in feature was devised as an imperfect but necessary solution for a situation that is inevitable in the real world. In order to minimize any imbalance created by that situation, casinos have adopted additional rules designed to minimize the frequency of its occurrence. That is why we have minimum buy-ins, as well as rules restricting how many short buys a player is allowed. In most casinos, every short buy must be followed by at least one full buy. If it weren't for these rules, there are some players who would be going all in every other hand.

I mention this because it relates to a dismaying conversation I had with a dealer recently. I was playing hold'em, and although the player in seat No. 9 was playing off a short buy, he had just produced from his pocket an amount of money that made it clear he intended to buy in short again. It seemed apparent that the dealer had forgotten all about the last one, for without saying anything, he began reaching for chips in his rack. I quickly cued him that it was time for a full buy; fortunately, I was seated in seat No. 1, which allowed me to whisper this reminder discreetly, so as not to embarrass the dealer for his lapse of memory. But mostly I wanted to avoid embarrassing the player, who should properly be informed of this obligation by the dealer, rather than having to hear it from another player.

What dismayed me was that, as it turned out, the dealer hadn't forgotten at all. He explained to me under his breath that he always allowed players consecutive short buys, invoking the rule only if another player objected. He further "assured" me (mistakenly assuming that I would find this comforting) that he would have done the same for me. Now, this was definitely not the policy of the cardroom where he worked, and I know for a fact that he had been trained and instructed otherwise.

But he referred to this as his "personal policy." What I found especially troubling, as he elaborated further along these lines, was the tone of his voice when employing phrases like, "I would do the same for you" – as if his job were to dispense favors, rather than uphold the overall integrity and fairness of the game. It was a tone suggesting that he had evolved beyond the crude ways of official procedures, and that his deviations from those procedures represented the "finer points" of being a casino employee. He wrapped up his brief lecture on Advanced Transcendental Dealing with an interesting characterization of his decision not to enforce the full-buy rule, referring to it as "looking out for my players."

What this young man has failed to grasp is that the rule governing short buys exists not for the interest of the short buyer, but for the good of the game at large. It is meant to protect the many from the few, but in his zeal to provide "individual service," he has inverted that intent, choosing to indulge one player at the expense of eight.

Actually, this incident illustrates a more fundamental misunderstanding, not merely of the nature of a dealer's job, but of the nature of poker rules in general. When he speaks of looking out for his players, what he means is the immediate, short-range interests (as opposed to rights) of those who happen to be losing at the moment. Obviously, he feels sorry for them and believes they should be given a break. But by failing to apply the rules evenly and at all times, he's not the one giving the break; he's merely the one arranging it. That break will actually come at the expense of the other folks at his table, which begs the question: Whatever happened to looking out for your players?

At any given moment, someone is winning at poker and someone else is losing. Players win and lose at different times, but the game must be played fairly all the time – or everyone loses. It bears repeating: Poker dealers – and those who train them – must always remember that "friendliness" to some players must never come at the expense of fairness to