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Smart Play, or Collusion?

It is always a challenge for a poker floor person to recognize that collusion is taking place. However, once the determination is made comes the really tough part – how to properly handle it, while taking into consideration the spirit of the rule, as well as the rule itself.

The quoted rules used for this article are taken from the published “Tournament Directors Association Rules,” revised in 2004, which, according to one of the original members of the Tournament Directors Association (TDA), is the latest revision and the one currently in use.

Does “The TDA” think there are no more revisions needed? Well that’s a subject for another discussion.

Rule # 7 “ Penalties: A penalty MAY be invoked if a player exposes any card with action pending, if a card(s) goes off the table, if soft-play occurs, or similar incidents take place. Penalties WILL be invoked in cases of abuse, disruptive behavior, or similar incidents.”*
This topic has been, in part, the subject of an article recently written by a friend and colleague of mine, Neil Johnson, as well as an issue at just about every late-stage satellite or tournament table in which I have been involved. Whether as a player, dealer, Satellite Director, or Tournament Supervisor/Acting Director, the subject of collusion almost always comes up.

As previously stated, this situation comes up in single table satellites or when approaching the money in a multi- table tournament. A typical situation might look like this: there are three or even four players in a hand, and one goes all in. The rest of the players check it down to increase the odds of knocking the all in player out of the event. This could result in either advancing the other players in the hand closer to or in the money, or actually ending the satellite in many cases. Some satellites have two winners, and even if not, many times once they knock out the short stack, there is a deal made, which achieves the same result, ending the satellite.

The question is this: is this just tournament strategy or is it collusion/cheating? Prior to being the dayshift Satellite Director of three WSOP Circuit Events in 2005, and then running satellites, tournaments, and sit-n-goes at one of the newer premier poker rooms in Las Vegas, as a player or a dealer, I would often be involved in these types of situations. Of course, human nature takes over and says, “If you are on the positive end of this strategy, it is just that, good strategy. If you are on the negative side of the same situation, it seems more like collusion, and unfair.” So which is it? Let’s go back to the rules to find out. Well unfortunately, there are flaws in to the rule, leaving it open to interpretation of the floor person, which makes it a very subjective rule.

Rule # 7 “ Penalties: A penalty MAY be invoked if a player exposes any card with action pending, if a card(s) goes off the table, if soft-play occurs, or similar incidents take place. Penalties WILL be invoked in cases of abuse, disruptive behavior, or similar incidents.”*
In examining the rule, immediately, the word, ‘MAY’ jumps out, which already makes it subjective. Next, who is to determine what ‘soft play’ is? That’s easy; just refer to rules number 1 and 31, which are identical.

Rule #1 “Floor people are to consider the best interest of the game and fairness as the top priority in the decision-making process. Unusual circumstances can, on occasion, dictate that the technical interpretation of the rules be ignored in the interest of fairness. The floorperson's [sic] decision is final. (Note, this rule used to be rule #31, but TDA members voted to move it to rule #1.)” *
So once again, we are left with a very subjective rule, and until the, “TDA” rules are revised, in most cases, the house rules will take precedence.

I have been called to make a ruling on this type of situation more than once. Admittedly, depending on the house and --when I was green -- the Tournament Director’s decision, the outcomes were not always the same. Of course, the situations were not always the same, either.

Currently, I work at one of the newer premier poker rooms in Las Vegas, and during my duties running satellites, tournaments, and sit-n-goes, of course the issue has come up. I will give you the situation, my ruling, and my feelings on the ruling.

During a satellite, when we used to run them, the dealer called me over for a decision. He told me that two players were soft-playing, and he had explained to the players that soft-play was not allowed. I asked the dealer to describe the situation, and by now I’m sure you can guess what it was -- one player was all in and the other two players in the hand checked it down quickly, obviously trying to eliminate the all in player. I asked the dealer if anything was said during the course of the hand. His reply was, "no, but they looked at each other, and knew what was going on.”

My decision was to warn the players that they would be penalized for “soft-playing” if it happened again, since in our poker room we adhere to TDA rules for satellites, tournaments, and sit-n-goes.

I was not 100% comfortable with my decision even though I was confident it was the correct one for the circumstances. I checked with our Tournament Director, who is very experienced, well–known, and respected in the business, and he agreed with my decision. 
In conclusion, I put it to you, was it “Smart Play, or Collusion?”

Footnote: * The following footnotes were taken from TDA rules published at: www.onlinepokerlog.com/pages/tda.html.

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