Thursday, March 01, 2007

Focus on Ethics

Trying to perceive 'ethics' and 'etiquette' . . . Something about poker inherently invites discussions of ethics. Probably has to do with how poker forces us to interact with each other in ways most of us wouldn’t willingly choose. Here we are encouraged -- hell, required -- to lie and dissemble, all according to a complicated, not always fully understood set of guidelines ensuring we cheat each other honestly.

Reading through the blogs and forums and listening to the week’s poker podcasts again affirmed this obsession with acting correctly. Week started off with news that Jamie Gold had “apologized” for certain actions during the 2006 WSOP Main Event in a New York Times article by Steve Friess. The article -- with its semi-sensational headline “Tournament Winner Says He Was Wrong” -- quotes Gold expressing “regrets” over two particular incidents. One concerned his having flashed a card during a hand at the final table. The other involved Gold “basically [having] told a friend of [his] what [he] had” during a hand because Gold did not want his friend to bust out the tournament. (The entire interview was included in Steve Friess’s podcast this week, called The Strip.)

Even though Friess calls these “previously undisclosed antics,” anyone who followed the Main Event is already familiar with both incidents. The card flashing occurred during Hand No. 218 of the final table (a hand I discussed here back in September). This was the hand where Gold, holding J3, successfully persuaded Michael Binger to fold his T9 on a board of 9Q4A8. At one point in the hand, Gold flashes the jack, perhaps encouraging Binger to speculate that he had made a straight. The other hand was the infamous “top-top” hand which saw Gold eliminate Lee Kort from the Main Event. In that hand Gold held AsJc, while Kort had QdJh. The board came 4dJd7d and Kort went all in. Gold then tells Kort very clearly that he has “top-top” (meaning top pair, top kicker), and Kort -- perhaps misunderstanding Gold -- replies “Me, too.” Gold calls, then expresses dismay that Kort appeared not to have understood him. The flush didn’t come, and Kort was out in 22nd place.

Can’t say I’m all that bothered by either of these “antics,” frankly. Gold did technically violate Section VI, Rule No. 34 of the WSOP 2006 Rules stating “A player who exposes his or her cards during the play may incur a penalty, but will not have his or her hand killed,” although officials either did not see the infraction or did and chose not to penalize Gold. (That word “may” does seem to imply the rule allows officials some leeway here.) He also violated Section VI, Rule 36: “Verbally disclosing the contents of your hand or advising a player how to play a hand may result in a penalty, in Harrah’s discretion.” Again, though, note how officials need not enforce the rule, if they choose not to.

This week also saw ongoing debates about 2006 WSOP Main Event runner-up Paul Wasicka’s article for Bluff Magazine exalting the value of so-called “joint sessions” while playing online. “A joint session is simple,” Wasicka explains. “You sit at the same computer with a friend and make the decisions together, splitting profits and losses.” The article provoked a number of responses across the blogosphere, including a thoughtful sequence of comments to a post over on Pokerati.

Interestingly, both the new PokerWire podcast and The Circuit touched on the “joint session” issue -- though in different ways -- during their L.A. Poker Classic shows this week. On the 2/27 episode of PokerWire (with Tex Barch and Chris Bell), Scott Huff shared an anecdote about how he once played a lengthy, up-and-down online session using Gavin Smith’s account while Smith intermittently “coached” him. On the 2/26 episode of The Circuit (with Theo Tran), the hosts spent about 12 minutes engaged in a rambling debate inspired by a phone call asking about the Wasicka article. The group managed at least to identify the different sides of the issue, though ultimately the debate played like one of those endless ’70s arena rock show drum solos that goes on just long enough to make you rethink your decision to have bought the concert ticket.

Are “joint sessions” allowed? PokerStars’ “Online Poker Site Terms of Service” states that the “User . . . is solely responsible for all use of the PokerStars Software through his/her Player ID and Password,” but doesn’t explictly forbid players from allowing others to use their accounts. The terms go on to state that “unauthorized use of the Player ID or Password shall be the sole responsibility of the User and be deemed as his/her use.” It is not forbidden, then, for someone else to use your account, but you’re liable. (Of course, these “Site Terms” don’t address the situation represented by Smith calling out instructions to Huff.) Over at Full Tilt “unethical play may result in the suspension or termination of the offender's account,” but their “Site Rules” also don’t appear to discuss sharing an ID or so-called “joint sessions.” Similarly does Absolute Poker forbid collusion without particular reference to the issue raised by Wasicka.

Here, too, I’m ambivalent. If Gavin Smith wants to let Scott Huff play under his name, so be it. And if Smith occasionally instructs Huff when to check-raise, that doesn’t seem to violate any specific rule here either. If ethics are “a system of moral principles” or “rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group [or] culture,” the “joint session” doesn’t appear to violate the rules recognized by the poker sites (and thus, implicitly, by all who play on them).

Nor, really, do any of Gold’s “antics” necessarily represent “ethical” violations if Harrah’s chooses not to penalize him. The “tournament winner says he was wrong,” but that doesn’t mean the “group or culture” to which he belongs -- the WSOP participants and officials -- agrees that he was wrong.

I think both stories have more to do with etiquette than ethics -- that more loosely-defined set of conventions that tend to govern our behavior, more or less. Flashing cards, advising opponents, “joint sessions” . . . they’re all probably examples of bad form, but unless the group decides to regulate against such behaviors, it doesn’t make sense (to me) to describe these issues as “ethical.”



Blogger Gadzooks64 said...

I, personally, have no problem with the team play - online or live. It's been my experience that it doesn't necessarily improve the play significantly, particularly online.

It's hard for two players to discuss a hand live without giving away valuable information.

Online poker is time restricted doesn't leave much room for discussion.

Either way, I have no problem with it.

What I find amusing is the issue of showing cards and/or discussing the hand during play. I, for one, don't table talk. I see no benefit in it and believe I would probably give more information that I would get by doing it.

Poker is all about deception. That must be considered when evaluating the validity of any statements made at the table. Why should there be a penalty for telling the truth during a hand but not for lying? It seems to me that this rule is impossible to enforce and can only be after the fact and only then if the cards are revealed.

I was shocked when Ted Forrest seemed to be genuinely hurt and surprised that Tony G lied to him during an episode of Poker After Dark. He even mentioned it during the director's cut episode. Ted told the truth about his hand and was rewarded with lies from his opponent. Shocking!

3/02/2007 9:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find it quite silly to be penalized for telling the truth in a game of poker.
i recently played a tournament in the uk and told another player [who obviously had a straight, that i had the flush] after i had placed a bet after the river.
i was still called and won , but told by the tournament director that it was a breach of rules and up to the losing player whether to let me have my chips?
crazy !! thats all i can say

10/29/2007 8:47 PM  

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