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Poker Strategy With Steve Zolotow: To Talk Or Not To Talk

Zolotow On The Origin Of The 'No Talking During A Hand' Rule


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Everyone wants to win money playing poker, but most people don’t win. They play because it is entertaining. They enjoy the social aspects of the game. They enjoy the intellectual challenges of the game. The enjoy the excitement of the game.

In order to keep people playing and attracting new players, we have to keep the game entertaining. The intellectual challenge and the excitement take care of themselves. But it is extremely important to nurture the game’s social aspects. Professional players should make the game fun for the amateurs. Casinos and cardrooms should do everything possible to make the games enjoyable.

Now, a quick story of what should never happen.

A player walked into a crowded cardroom at a major casino and wanted to play some poker. The only seats available were at a $25-$50 no-limit hold’em cash game table. He had what appeared to be around $20,000 in casino chips, and he bought in for $5,000. He finished off the last of his drink and, after some discussion with the waitress about single malt scotch, ordered another drink.

He played every hand during his first orbit. The game had been slow, but now both the action and the conversations picked up. In a heads-up pot on the turn, our new hero had a long discussion with his opponent about who had what. He then raised all-in with a flush draw. There was some discussion of dealing it twice, but he didn’t understand what that meant, so it was dealt only once.

On the river he hit the flush and doubled up. This produced merriment from everyone except the loser. The hero tipped the dealer, an efficient Asian woman, a green $25 chip. The waitress arrived with his drink, and he also gave her $25.

The dealers then changed. The new dealer arrived and appeared to be more interested in a televised soccer game than our game. At one point, a five-handed pot was checked around on the flop. There was a long pause while he watched TV and, finally, the aggravated loser said with a snarl, “Dealer, it’s your turn.”

A few hands later, our hero and the previous loser were involved in another heads-up pot. The villain bet and again they started to discuss their hands. Now the dealer had a chance for revenge saying, “No talking while the hand is in progress!” Our hero continued talking. The dealer snapped, “Another word, and I’m calling the floor.” Looking like he’d been slapped, our hero folded, picked up his chips, and left. Ten minutes later the game broke up.

The dealer’s attitude and conduct were certainly to blame. But I also blame the idiotic no-talking rule. Anyone who watches televised poker knows that players talk during heads-up pots. Check out some of the YouTube clips of Daniel Negreanu or Phil Hellmuth. Watch Jamie Gold talk Prahlad Friedman out of calling his bluff. It doesn’t hurt anyone, and it entertains the players at the table and the viewers at home. Anyone who plays in the nosebleed games in Bobby’s Room or the Ivey Room knows that talking is okay.

For the entire history of poker, players have talked, and no one has cared. This alone is enough to make it a bad rule. But the fact that it is seldom enforced, and then only randomly, makes it even worse. Penalties for violations aren’t specified. All this rule does it annoy players with no upside. The rule should simply be that in a heads-up pot, non-abusive talking about the hand is allowed by the players in the hand. Players not in the head should refrain making comments about it. The “No Talking While A Hand Is In Progress” rule makes the game less interesting, less social, and less fun.

So how did such a stupid rule come into existence? That is another long story.

Most poker players have a very limited idea of Game Theory. They think of it in terms of finding GTO (game theory optimal) strategies for certain situations. Bluffing and defensive calling frequencies are the most common poker use of game theory. But the ever-expanding literature of Game Theory includes strategies for auctions, voting, compensation packages, traffic flow, and a variety of other things.

I promised you the origin of rules forbidding talking and showing cards. First the story and then an analysis from the point of view of game theory.

Many years ago, a casino running a series of poker tournaments decided to offer a very nice prize to the best overall player. I think it was a car of some variety. Poker legend and TwoPlusTwo author Ray Zee was in contention for that prize. He was deep in the final event and would win the prize by outlasting most of the others remaining in the tournament.

The car was worth as much or more than winning the tournament, but Ray was getting low on chips. After the blinds and a few limps, Ray looked down at two lovely aces. Doubling up would be great, but just winning the antes, blinds and limps would give him enough chips to fold his way to winning the car. Ray knew that he should only raise with aces, and he expected the whole table knew that as well. He shoved, and got quick folds up until the last limper, who started thinking.

Ray obviously wanted him to fold, and so he told him that he had aces. (At this time there was no rule about showing cards or talking about your hand.) Despite the clai, the man was skeptical and kept thinking it over. Ray then just showed him the aces, and said that if he called everyone would laugh at him. The man folded. Ray had guaranteed his car and was still alive in the tournament.

Clearly this was a bad situation. The fact that Ray got this guy to fold hurt both the other contenders for the car and the players in the tournament whose finishing positions might be worsened by it. Notice he did not violate any rules. From a game theoretic point of view, he was perfect – he maximized his equity.

After that, rule changes were implemented. No showing cards. No talking about hands, even when heads up. This was, and is, an overreaction to a very rare situation. The people who should be blamed were the tournament organizers. They should never have created a situation in which Ray was given an incentive to talk the guy out of making a bad call.

Organizers of many events often fall into the same trap. In bridge and soccer there have been frequent situations where they create an incentive for a team to lose. Usually this happens when there is a round robin with a lot of teams, then the final four or eight advance to a knockout phase.

To illustrate this, imagine that four teams will advance to the knockout phase. You are in first place, way ahead of all the other teams and sure to advance. The second-place team is also far ahead. Now imagine there are three teams in contention for the other two spots. These three teams are tied. Two of these teams are both very good and will play each other in what rates to be a hard-fought match. The third contender is very weak and has been extremely lucky to get this far.

You are scheduled to play them. If you beat them badly, they’re out. If you barely beat them, they may make the final four. But if you lose to them, they’re definitely in. By losing, you ensure that the bad team survives and one of the good teams is eliminated. Losing is equity up. Clearly you should rest your best players, and tell the others not to try so hard. This exactly what game theory would tell you to do.

Just as clearly, the organizers have screwed up creating this incentive to lose. Occasionally, organizers manage to screw up the conditions even worse than that. There was a famous soccer match in which both teams tried to score for their opponent in the late stages of the game. Here is a link for those who are interested.

It is not uncommon in the NFL that a team to be playing its last game of regular season play will prefer to lose to a weak team thereby keeping a better one out of post-season play. The reason there is now a draft lottery in the NBA is that non-contending teams used to have an incentive to lose. Before the draft, the worse your record was, the higher the draft pick you got.

Game theory also talks a lot about competition, cooperation, and collusion. Collusion prevention is one of the other reasons given for not allowing talking or showing cards. In an upcoming part of this series, we’ll examine some of those aspects.

Steve ZolotowSteve ‘Zee’ Zolotow, aka The Bald Eagle, is a successful gamesplayer. He has been a full-time gambler for over 35 years. With two WSOP bracelets and few million in tournament cashes, he is easing into retirement. He currently devotes most of his time to poker. He can be found at some major tournaments and playing in cash games in Vegas. When escaping from poker, he hangs out in his bars on Avenue A in New York City -The Library near Houston and Doc Holliday’s on 9th St. are his favorites.