Ethics in poker, is there such a thing?

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By Christopher Cosenza

Everybody has a Code of Ethics, but that doesn’t mean everyone subscribes to the same ethical threshold. Outside influences — call it upbringing, religion, education, societal circumstances, et al — set the level of ethical behavior a person is comfortable with as he or she struggles internally with good and evil.

This Code of Ethics follows you through all walks of life, at work, at school, at home, and yes, at the poker table. Funny thing about ethics, one person may interpret something as ethical at a poker table while others may frown upon that very same thing.

Considering poker is only a card game, it’s quite astounding how deep ethics can run in this great American pastime. But is it foolish to look for ethics in a game that’s rooted in deceit and wagering? After all, a bluff is essentially a lie. How can we expect a table full of “liars” to be ethical? The answer lies within our personal Code of Ethics.

We expect to be treated the same way we treat others, and only until we learn otherwise will we change our opinion and actions. The same holds true in poker. Let’s say you’re the type of rounder who expects the opponent on your left to inform you if your hole cards are being exposed inadvertently. Why? Because you’d extend that same courtesy to anyone else at the table if you could see their cards, right? Well, someone may respond to that by saying it’s your responsibility to protect your cards and if you’re flashing them then all is fair in love and poker.

Poker is a game of incomplete information. As a player you’re charged with deciphering what actions such as bets or facial tics mean. Then if someone isn’t wise enough to conceal their cards don’t they deserve to lose that information? This is where ethics plays a role. Most would agree the ethical thing to do is to alert the player the first time it happens. After that, well, they’ve been warned.

That was an easy example. Poker, however, is riddled with many more difficult ethical situations. Let’s be clear: This column isn’t designed to provide end-all be-all answers to ethical situations. That would stray into setting legal precedence, which may go hand in hand with ethics, but can’t be confused with being its equivalent. Instead, this column will strive to test your Code of Ethics to see how you would react to everyday occurrences on the felt.

Tells: We’ll pretend for a minute you’re Mike McDermott in Rounders and you’re sitting across from Teddy KGB. He’s been running over you for hours as the deck continues to hit him in the head. Now he bets out and you see him reach for his Oreos. At that moment you have your epiphany. Every time he has a monster he eats a cookie, metaphorically devouring his opponent. Do you let him know you’ve picked up on this tell? Mike did, because he wanted KGB’s best game. He needed to know if he was ready for the World Series. He didn’t want to win on a technicality.

Was he being ethical or egomaniacal? You decide. Even McDermott said when you spot a person’s tell you never let him know. That sounds unethical doesn’t it? Rivers of ink have been spilled describing poker tells and how to use that information to your advantage. But how is that different from seeing someone’s hole cards? Each scenario involves an unsuspecting player and an astute player. Should you feel obligated to tell your buddy he sniffs every time he has a big hand? If you don’t, is it fair you know that information and he doesn’t? Is it fair other players aren’t privy to this knowledge? It’s a physical tell that divulges information, just like looking at your cards haphazardly is a physical attribute that exposes information.

OK, let’s move on, and this next example was a topic that came up on the Ante Up PokerCast (Nov. 28 episode at anteupmagazine.com). It served as inspiration for this column.

Hit and run: Some people want to put time limits on ethics. Here’s an example: You’re driving to your favorite Florida poker room and on the way you come up with a game plan, such as what limits and games to play, strategy, bluffing criteria, etc. You also tell yourself you’ll quit playing if you double your buy-in or lose it. Nothing wrong with setting goals, right?

So, after picking up your copy of Ante Up you get called for a seat in the $5-$10 no-limit hold’em game. It’s late in the afternoon, the guys at this table have been there all day and their stacks are all deep. You post your $10 in the big blind after buying in for $100. The under-the-gun player makes it $30 to go. He gets reraised to $100 and two more players call before it gets to you. Staring up at you are two black aces. You make the call, as does the initial raiser. You flop a set and your hand holds up for a $400 win on hand No. 1.

Hmmm … OK, now what? When you were in the car you said if you doubled up you’d head home to the spouse and help with the housework (though we know you’ll secretly hide in the garage and read your copy of Ante Up first). If you stick to your word, and a poker player is nothing if not disciplined, then you should leave. But is that ethical? It’s what the Internet players call a hit-and-run. Are you obligated to stay at the table to give your opponents a chance to win their money back?

Here’s where the time-limit question comes in: If you feel it’s unethical to get up and leave, then at what point does it become ethically acceptable to leave? One orbit? Two orbits? After you lose back some of the money? And how much is enough? Do you inform the table that you came with a goal in mind and you’ve hit it, so you’ll be leaving after X amount of hands?

You just can’t put a time limit on ethics. Whatever you’re comfortable with needs to be enough, and can’t be influenced by others. Only you have to look at your mug in the mirror every day.

Implied collusion: Another example where time and ethics came into question came up on the Dec. 5 Ante Up episode, and it involved tournament play.

This tournament paid 10 spots and there were 30 players left. A short-stacked player moved all-in and got called in two spots by bigger stacks. The flop came queen-high with two diamonds, and the first player demonstratively checked, as if signaling the start of the universal “implied collusion” process. Much to his dismay the other player bet out. The first player shot him a glare and mucked his cards in disgust. The bettor turned over ace-queen for top pair, top kicker. The all-in player sheepishly turned over pocket sixes, with the 6D. The turn and river were diamonds, giving the short-stack a flush and he survived. The player who folded was irate, berating the guy with a pair of queens because he held the AD and would have won the pot, thus eliminating the short stack.

It’s an ethical quagmire!

First off, the check-down-to-eliminate-a-play er action is questionable and certainly can fall under the unethical category. Since poker players are all about the odds, however, they know four cards are better than two, so this behavior will never end. For argument’s sake, let’s assume this practice is accepted. Was it unethical for the guy with AQ to bet out after the flop? He had top pair and the best kicker possible. Did the guy with the AD have a leg to stand on? Was it ethical for him to berate the player and make his “collusion” intentions known?

Again, here’s where time can’t dictate ethics. At what point does the “implied check-down” come into play, provided we subscribe to the check-down as an acceptable facet of the game? Five players before the bubble? Ten players? In this situation the tournament needed to lose 20 players before reaching the money. When you play poker you have one objective: win all of the chips. The guy with AQ had every right to bet into a dry sidepot. There was plenty of play left in this tournament, and why should he surrender that pot to the other player? But if you ask the {a-Diamonds} player he would surely say it was unethical to try to steal that pot, regardless of his holding.

Here’s a look at different scenarios, and again, no pontificating, just thought-provoking questions.

Split pots: You’re playing Omaha/8 and you’re heads-up. You win the high hand, but your opponent doesn’t realize he’s made a low and mucks his cards after showing them. The dealer, too, doesn’t realize this and pushes you the entire pot. The rule is once the cards hit the muck they’re dead. But, remember, ethics and laws aren’t interchangeable. Do you tell the dealer about the low and ask to have the pot split?
Damaged card: You’re dealt ace-rag in early position, but as you dutifully discard that terrible starting hand you notice a crimp on the back of the ace. What’s the ethically sound protocol here? Do you keep this information to yourself, like you might with a player’s tell, or do you alert the dealer and request the card or setup be replaced?

Table talk: Tony Guoga, known as Tony G., is a pro known for his abusive table talk. He would think nothing of telling opponents they’re terrible, that he’ll grind them up and send them home crying. (He once made Howard Lederer so angry during the Grand Prix de Paris in 2003 that he refused to shake Tony G.’s hand after being eliminated.)

This may be a question of etiquette rather than ethics, but is it ethical to instill fear at the table? Poker is, after all, a game of psychological warfare. Tony G. isn’t a bad person; it’s just his way of making opponents uncomfortable or stressed. It’s common knowledge that most people crumble under stressful situations, and that’s when they’ll make mistakes. Thankfully most card rooms won’t allow abusive behavior and will levy a penalty if the action persists. But, if these crafty players stay within the parameters of table talk, is it ethical to try to get someone on tilt with your words? If you equate ethics with respect then you can’t think this tactic is ethical. Yet it happens all of the time, especially when a TV camera is in the room.

Table behavior: You’re playing your normal $1-$2 no-limit hold’em game and a player who’s clearly inebriated sits down and turns into the human ATM. Do you tell the guy he needs to go sober up and stop losing money? Or are a fool and his money soon parted? He’s an adult. He knows where he is. Is it your responsibility to avoid pots with this guy and play babysitter? Or do you do what you came for and take every dime he has? And is that ethical?

Dealer mistake: OK, last one. You buy-in for the minimum of $40 at a cash table and the dealer, who is so used to doling out $100 in chips, does just that by mistake and gives you $100 in chips. No one picks up on it and the cards are in the air. Do you give back $60 or do you say “Freeroll!” and keep playing? Is it ethical to keep the money? Now, before you answer, think about how you answered the split-pot question. Human error led to you getting more money that wasn’t rightfully yours in both instances.
Maybe if you equate ethics with sportsmanship you’ll have your answer for any situation that may arise. What’s the sportsmanlike thing to do? Ethics is about being fair. If you feel it’s fair in your heart then how can you go wrong?

If you’d like to learn more on this subject or would like to have a guide through the murky ethical waters, the World Poker Association has a Code of Ethics that all members are expected to uphold. You can check them out on its Web site at wpapoker.org.