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A Hybrid Premise

by Brian Mulholland |  Published: Jan 30, 2004


Today I'd like to discuss a confused notion that I've encountered more and more in the last few years. It is the result of crossbreeding the premises behind three different rules – and the circumstances under which they apply. These rules are found in many standard rulebooks, and the following wording is likewise common:

Rule No. 1: "Money in the pot denotes a player's action."

Rule No. 2: "Action is binding. A player who indicates action toward betting or calling will be forced to complete that action."

Rule No. 3: "If unaware of a raise, a player may withdraw his money and reconsider his action, as long as no remaining players have acted behind him. If a player has acted behind him, he must either (a) complete the bet and retain full rights of play, or (b) forfeit the incomplete bet and surrender his hand."

Note that while Rule No. 3 is explicitly contingent upon whether there has been action behind a player's bet, rules No. 1 and No. 2 are contingent upon no such thing. (That's because the whole purpose of Rule No. 3 is to spell out the one specific exception to rules No. 1 and No. 2.) And yet, time and time again, I see situations in which a player, with no raise in front of him, tries to renege on a bet or a raise that he himself has initiated, and when a floorman is summoned, he tries to cut through the details of the dispute by asking: "Was there any action behind him?" And if the answer is no, the player is allowed to take money out of the pot.

In fact, all too often, floormen inquire: "Was there any action behind?" in situations in which the question is totally irrelevant and has no business even being asked.

Grasping the "why" behind such an assertion requires an understanding of two issues, one theoretical and one practical. The theoretical issue has to do with the difference between rules that are designed to deal with a problem and those that are designed to preclude the possibility of the problem occurring in the first place; the practical issue has to do with the dynamics of position in the game of poker as it is actually played. Fortunately, these two birds can be knocked off with one illustrative stone. Consider the following (quite common) scenario:

The game is eight-or-better stud. Player A, who's a notorious angle shooter, has a split pair of kings (one up, one down) on fifth street. Player B, immediately behind him, is a tight-aggressive opponent who has an ace showing, along with one low card and one facecard. A third player has a dead pair of queens showing, and two other players appear to be going low, but Player A can't tell which way Player B is going, and that's his main concern – he's worried that he has a pair of aces (and in case he doesn't, he wants to prevent him from pairing that ace on a later street). The player with the queens leads with a bet, at which point Player A, the angle shooter, immediately places a double bet in front of him, hoping for an instant muck by Player B. But he doesn't get it. What follows instead is a pregnant pause as Player B first studies the board and then reaches back for his chips – and his body language suggests that not only might he be cold-calling two bets, he might be about to reraise.

Player A, who's no dummy, now figures that Player B wouldn't be trying to shut out the field with nothing but a low draw, which means he's probably got a pair of aces, if indeed he doesn't already have aces up. The last thing Player A wanted was to see Player B putting three bets into this pot, so before Player B can actually perform his action (remember, as of this moment, he has merely reached back toward his chips), Player A goes into his act, feigning confusion and suddenly contending that he hadn't meant to raise. "By the way, who raised? Me? Huh? No, no, I only meant to call, I thought … " – yada, yada, yada. There are endless variations of this routine: "Oh, I thought it was a kill pot." (Really? Then why didn't you think it was a kill pot on third and fourth streets?) Or: "I thought the other guy raised." (Really? Well, how could you have thought that if he was the first to act? Is leading with a raise a new option we haven't heard about?)

But it doesn't matter how transparently implausible Player A's contentions; it doesn't matter how often he can't "see" the bet correctly – even though there's nothing wrong with his vision and he watches the action like a hawk; it doesn't matter how repeatedly he manages, at strategic moments, to "forget" the proper betting amount – even though he's been playing the same limit every day for the last three years; it doesn't even matter how often this ploy is repeated to his advantage. What matters is that there seems to be no shortage of floor folk these days ready to ride up and base their final decision on: "Was there any action behind him?" And Player A knows it.

Ask a poorly trained floorperson why that should be the basis for his decision, and you will be told that since no one has yet acted behind him, Player A has gained no information, and therefore no advantage. This is the hybrid premise – a principle derived from the circumstance described in Rule No. 3 and imposed upon a situation where that circumstance does not exist. A seasoned, savvy floorman knows better, for he understands the same thing the seasoned player understands; namely, that action isn't required to gain positionally privileged information; sometimes it is precisely the lack of action – the pause – that the angle shooter is looking for. In other words, it is not a player's action, but his reaction, that speaks volumes to the angle shooter. That is why there's a rule against string raises. It is also why rules No. 1 and No. 2 are designed categorically, not as a mechanism for coping with the problem created by the angle shooter, but as the means of categorically denying him any such opportunity in the first place.

To fully understand what's at stake here, let's look at our angle shooter from one more angle. If his bets or raises are not binding – if, instead, he has the option for his action to be binding (!), and forfeits that option only after there is formal action behind him – he's freerolling on his opponents big-time. Think back to the scenario above, but with this variation: Let's say that when Player A puts in his raise (which he intends from the get-go to snatch back if he doesn't get the desired reaction behind him), Player B folds; in fact, so does everyone else, and Player A picks up the pot right there. What do you suppose the chances are now that he'll suddenly announce he didn't mean to raise – and quickly advise his opponents of that fact, so that they might pull back their cards, reconsider their action, and resume contending for his pot? (My computer simulator is down, but off the top of my head, I'm estimating the odds against this to be approximately infinity-to-1.) Did I say he's freerolling? A policy that allows a player this kind of leverage gives new meaning to the word. In fact, it invites folks to become angle shooters.

Of course, even if lightning struck and he did offer his opponents that option, their cards have touched the muck, so regardless of what happens behind them, their action is automatically, uh, binding. Question: So why isn't his?diamonds