Monday, September 10, 2007

Tournament "Insurance"

I'm worried about the integrity of poker. A couple weeks ago I turned on ESPN2 and saw Phil Hellmuth get put all-in pre-flop at the final table of some WSOP event. Once the two hands were revealed, Hellmuth went over to the sidelines and, on camera, made a deal with a spectator (Phil Ivey) for "insurance": if Hellmuth won, he'd pay his "insurer" some amount, and if he lost, his "insurer" would pay Hellmuth some amount to cushion the loss. For reasons that I can only assume involve TV ratings, the dealer and other players waited for Hellmuth while he negotiated the deal. When finally he came back and the cards were dealt out, he won the hand. The next time he was all in, the dealer, players, and viewers were all subjected to this display again. I stopped watching, but I think it may have happened a few more times.

One of the most compelling aspects of poker is that players can occasionally force their opponents to make decisions for more money than they are really comfortable losing. I think this aspect of poker is especially important when you consider poker's value as a spectator sport: these high-risk situations create pretty intense drama. Why, then were ESPN and the WSOP willing to allow Phil Hellmuth to sap the drama out of these situations by stopping the game while he negotiated "insurance" for himself? I'm not really sure, but I assume it's because Hellmuth is one of their most recognizable star players, and this was an opportunity to show him doing something other than whining or deriding other players. Unfortunately, in addition to losing entertainment value, allowing players to insure themselves in the midst of individual hands also interferes with the integrity and fairness of the game.

A standard strategy used by players with big stacks in tournaments is to try to push around their more vulnerable short-stacked opponents by forcing them all-in and making them risk elimination if they decide to call. Allowing players to insure themselves against being knocked out greatly diminishes the effectiveness of this strategy. I'm assuming that the WSOP doesn't allow ALL players to stop play and negotiate insurance packages whenever they are put all-in, since this is clearly infeasible due to time constraints. (Not to mention the fact that this would encourage an odd black-market insurance industry where financiers would jockey for position on the sidelines of major tournaments!). By allowing some players to insure themselves and not others, the WSOP is making their tournaments blatantly unfair.

Poker tournaments like the WSOP and the WPT have had plenty of scandals already. For example it has been exposed recently that there have been instances of collusion in tournaments (a problem that is especially rampant online). Another example is the better known situation where the WSOP invited Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, and Phil Hellmuth to join the WSOP Tournament of Champions, thus diluting the pool for all the players who had earned their spots in the tournament. The difference in this situation with the insurance is that it was entirely condoned by the WSOP, ESPN and the commentators. The one hit I could find on google discussing the event also seems to condone it. Previous infractions were either fixed or at least swept under the rug in shame. The fact that nobody else seems upset about Hellmuth being able to pause the game to get an insurance deal and that the WSOP and ESPN producers don't seem to consider it necessary to hide such behavior is what really worries me. I hate to see poker losing it's distinction as being a truly equal-opportunity endeavor.


Warren said...

Although it may be contrary to the spirit of "pure" poker, where you're betting actual money, it seems to me that this ploy would not affect to outcome of a tournament. So, although I don't see why they should tolerate the delay involved in making the side bet, it doesn't seem so bad to me. The strangest part of this is that anyone will voluntarily talk to Hellmuth.

Keith said...

The outcome can change because a player who would otherwise have folded due to the high risk factor would now be able to call without worry.

adspar said...

very good point. i agree that this is blatantly unfair as well as contrary to the spirit of the game.