Monday, February 23, 2009

Soft Play and A Gift Pot

I've come to view my no-chopping policy as part of a larger campaign against "soft play." I would define soft play as any behavior that is intended to benefit another player or players at the table. Since this behavior is usually intended only to be nice, it can be awkward to protest it. However, when players are being selectively "nice" only to certain other players at the table, it becomes unfair. As a professional gambler who is wary of gambling in general, I am not comfortable when I'm in a game that I consider "unfair," even when it is relatively benign.

A few common examples of soft-play: two players may agree to always check on the river if it's heads-up, or they may agree to chop the pot in half, or a player may say "take two chips back" after raising. Sometimes, a player with just give $10 or $20 back to a losing player after the hand is finished. In my mind, the main problem with soft play is that it is akin to collusion and undermines the basic integrity of the game. In order to make good decisions in a poker game, I need to try to figure out my opponents' most likely actions, which depends upon having an understanding of their motivations. 

In a poker game devoid of emotions and personal interactions, each player would be concerned only with maximizing his own EV, and the best players would simply be those who were best able to figure out how to accomplish that. In real life, of course, players have all sorts of motivating factors beyond. For example most players are at least a little concerned about their reputations as decent poker players, so they may be less likely to call with a long-shot draw (which other players will identify as a "lucky" play if the draw is hit) or might be inclined to show their hands at the end if they feel they made a great play. Or maybe two players don't like each other, so they try to give each other bad-beats. These and all sorts of other deviations from "pure" poker play are commonplace at poker tables, and, in fact, this is one of the reasons I can make money playing poker. 

This is all fine and good. I'm not arguing that players cannot or should not consider factors beyond EV. (In fact, if they did that, over 90% of players would be correct not to show up at the casino at all!) In my mind, all motivating factors are fair game unless it can be construed as collusion. 

I have more to say about this, but I feel I'm starting to ramble, so I'll leave it for a later time.

In addition to chopping, there are certain situations where "soft play" are so commonplace that I think people view me as cold-hearted. Here's an example that I felt a little bad about.

Last week I lucked into over $280 when my opponent mucked his winning hand after calling my bluff on the river. I've seen this happen before, and the winning player will sometimes give the other player his last bet back, or even give half the pot back, so I couldn't look him in the eye when he got up and left afterwards. Here's how it went down, as best I can remember: 

In a 20-40 limit holdem game, I had 44 in the big blind. Everyone folded to the button (a supposedly talented omaha hi-low player) raised. The small blind folded, and I re-raised. The button called. $6 is taken out for the house and the jackpot, so the pot was $124.

Flop($124)   998. I bet $20, button raised, I called.
Turn($204) 7. I checked. Button checked.
River($204) 8. Now I play the board. My hand was so weak that I decided to bluff. My opponent called the $40. I quickly turned over my 44. My opponent started to muck his hand, then stopped to think, and then turned his cards over (but he did not lay them on the table). I saw AK, which beat me. Then he mucked his cards. The surprised dealer pushed me the pot.

While I was stacking my chips, other players at the table pointed out my opponent's mistake. He took it pretty well, said something like "well, I'd better go home if I can't even read the board anymore," and left.


Craig Berger said...

I'm confused. Are you saying it would have been unethical for you to give him some money back? I'm not saying you should have of course, but I found myself in a similar situation a few weeks ago. I was sitting in a $1/$2 blind 7 stud game while waiting for a tournament to start. One one hand, I bet every street and turned up two pair to my heads up opponent at the end. He showed one pair, but when he turned over his last hole card, it was clear he had also made a straight. He then mucked his hand. Before the dealer could pick it up, another player said... you mucked that hand? Can I see that a second? He then turned the cards over and revealed the straight before throwing the cards in the muck. I then tossed the mucking player $3.50, about half of what he had contributed to the pot.

Now clearly the guy who turned over the cards was breaching etiquette, but was I doing something wrong by giving him money back? How about by not giving it back until the error was pointed out by someone else? Does the fact that it was such low stakes play in at all?

Craig Berger said...

To clarify.. it was a 1/2 game, not 1/2 blinds, obviously, and I gave the money back to the player who had made the straight, not the player who called out his hand.

Keith said...

I think some forms of soft play are benign, in that they do not negatively affect the other players or the game in general. However, there is sometimes a fine line between these situations and other situations that do hurt the game. It would be nice to just selectively prohibit only the more harmful forms of soft play, but I think this would cause confusion and arguments at the table, because the differences can be subtle. A general ban on soft-play seems better to me.

Another issue is that when there is a particularly egregious example of soft play, I will often protest, and I feel like I might be seen as hypocritical if I sometimes soft-played.

I certainly would not have protested in the example you gave, where you gave some money back to the other player who mucked a chopped-pot hand. I think this was almost entirely benign: it doesn't hurt the other players because you were clearly not colluding against anyone. Using my imagination a bit, I can think of ways that this incident would affect your opponent's decision-making in future hands (perhaps he'll be less likely to raise you, or maybe he'll start showing his cards to the third player rather than just showing everyone at the table), but these are pretty minor concerns and perhaps a little far-fetched.

Still, I think you shouldn't have given the money back, just because I don't want to condone soft-play in general, and, after all, there is a rule against pushing chips. I don't think it matters much what the stakes are.

If you gave the money back before someone else pointed out the error, I think your opponent would have just been confused, and it would have been kind of awkward. Ethically though, if you feel you should have given back the money after it was pointed out, you should probably give it back regardless, right?

Dildo Man said...

You are right to abhor softplaying and especially as a prop you should avoid it. Actually, as a live player, you should be friendly and affable with the other players and they will constantly give you breaks even if you give them none. As long as you never softplay anybody, which is something no decent, ethical poker player would ever do, you are doing great, and are a true champion compared to other casino regulars.

However, your policy on chopping is extremely foolish. Most of the games you play are too low to justify this policy. The nature of the drop in Los Angeles, the finality of the entire amount being gone just for seeing a flop, necessitates that you simply must chop in a game like 20-40 hold 'em. As a math person, figuring this out should be right up your alley. Try to get an online limit player's database and examine their results either in the blinds or in heads up play against poor opponents. If you do the math, you will see that, considering the absurd drop in Los Angeles, you simply cannot win by not chopping.

It is true that some of your opponents are legendarily terrible, but if you are winning anything, it's peanuts, and your variance skyrockets when you insist on playing hands heads up. With prop pay coming in, variance may not be a consideration, but even though it may seem profitable because you play heads up better than anyone else, you are basically never winning money from the small blind in this spot unless they muck their big blind preflop, which is unlikely. But you can gather this information yourself and crunch the numbers.

The situation is laughably worse in no limit, where the pots heads up are usually so small that the effect of the drop is magnified and pretty obvious. The flip side is that you might actually be able to steal these blinds near every time, but it only takes a few stubborn players to kill this strategy.

Not even considering the math, not chopping is terrible for the tenor and attitude of the game at such low stakes. The Bike moreso than the behemoth Commerce functions as a social club as well as a gambling facility, and a significant chunk of your profitablity in these games is keeping things friendly and light. It is true that in the short term you could make more by acting like a raging prick, but this is a terrible longterm strategy, especially considering you work for the house.

Even if you define chopping as softplaying, try to recognize that softplaying before the flop may be unethical, but is forced upon the players by the egregious drop. Softplaying after the flop, when the drop has already been taken, is totally unwarranted. If you don't chop and your opponent is decent, you both just lost money to the house, and I can't imagine why you would want that. You're going to have to be a huge favorite over many of your opponents in heads up contests just to scrabble out a few dollars in earn.