It’s normal that the World Series of Poker (WSOP) produces a few big stories over the course of the summer which set Twitter and poker media sites ablaze for a week or two. I don’t, however, recall any story so utterly dominating the airwaves as Jason Mercier’s magnificent, historical run at this summer’s series, and the prop bets which sparked it. In case you’re just tuning in, the nutshell version is that Mercier made several big bets on himself at long odds to win multiple bracelets, including one with Vanessa Selbst, who staked her $1.8 million against Mercier’s $10,000 against the possibility of him winning three. He’s already taken two, and now he just keeps making final tables.

Most recently, he busted out in 8th place in Event #32 – $10,000 Omaha Hi-Lo Split-8 or Better Championship, so the bet continues. But if those who’ve bet against him were hoping for a reprieve, they won’t get it, as Event #36 – $2,500 Mixed Omaha/Seven Card Stud Hi-Lo 8 or Better is entering its final day with 13 players remaining, and guess who’s there? Mercier only has 96,000 chips and is sitting in 11th in the chip counts, but given how well he’s running, it’s unlikely that Selbst and those who’ve indulged her efforts to hedge her bet are going to take a breath until he’s eliminated entirely.

Selbst hedges

Speaking of which, if you haven’t heard much about or from Selbst herself since the days following Mercier’s first bracelet of the summer, that’s the reason. Once it was clear that Mercier was not going to accept her buyout offers, she turned elsewhere to swallow her losses and mitigate her risk. It’s rare that the full details of such dealings are made public, but we do know that a substantial amount of her action went to Mike “Timex” McDonald, and it’s with him that the next wrinkle in this story begins.

If I understand McDonald’s Twitter timeline properly, he had his own unspecified bracelet bet with Mercier before the series began, which Mercier bought out of for $4500 before winning his first bracelet. Having dodged that bullet, McDonald then decided to turn around and accept Selbst’s hedging bet. Selbst was initially asking for 25-1 partway through Event #20: $10,000 Seven-Card Razz Championship, which Mercier ultimately won, but we don’t know whether those were the odds McDonald accepted or at what point in that event they actually struck a deal. We do know that Selbst says she spent nearly $100,000 on hedging, however, much of which went to McDonald, and that she still has “a significant sweat.” All told, it’s probably reasonable to guess that McDonald faces a downside on the order of $500,000 to $1 million and possibly a little bit more.

Controversy ensues

Where the latest controversy began is when McDonald, having seen Mercier win his second in the Razz Championship and showing no signs of stopping, decided that he would start offering to stake people in likely bracelet-target events for Mercier, in an attempt to boost field sizes and thus decrease Mercier’s odds of a win. That tweet has since been deleted, but if I recall correctly, the specific event he was offering was Event #43: $10,000 Seven Card Stud Hi-Lo Split-8 or Better Championship.

Mercier found this objectionable and asked McDonald how he would feel if Mercier began offering to pay people to sit that event out and play something else instead. After a few of McDonald’s friends told him privately that they too found the strategy unethical, he retracted the offer voluntarily. The poker community being what it is, however, that didn’t lay the controversy to rest; rather, everyone with two working fingers and a Twitter account has leapt in to explain either why Mercier is right, or why the situation is more complicated than the first camp thinks, and why maybe McDonald should have been allowed to go forward with his plan.

Vague prop bets end in messes

What astounds me is how this kind of thing happens all the time, for huge sums of money. I understand that alcohol is often involved when such bets are made – as Selbst claims it was in this case – but nevertheless, anyone who’s paid attention to the poker world for even a few months at any point has seen what happens when large bets are made using vague terminology that fails to account for edge cases.

Off the top of my head, things that should have been discussed before this bet was made include: Can Selbst stake players into events Mercier is playing? Can Mercier stake players into events he isn’t playing to get them out of the events he is? Can either party straight-up pay people to play or not play? Can either Selbst or Mercier make crossbook style bets with other players at his final tables to change their incentives structure? If Mercier signs up as a member of a Tag Team event and his team wins, but he only played one orbit in the first level, does that count? Can Mercier pay the $10,000 to enter the $1,000 Ladies’ event if he feels he has an edge there? (A strictly women-only event is illegal in Nevada, so the WSOP skirts the rules by making it a $10,000 event for which women get a $9,000 discount.)

Things are even more complicated and in need of pre-emptive clarification when it comes to secondary or hedging bets, such as Selbst and McDonald made. All the stipulations in the world aren’t enough if one party can simply sell off most or all of their side of the bet to a third party who has not agreed to the same terms. If McDonald had gone forward with his plan, and it was subsequently arbitrated as being an unfair tactic, would that be a personal matter between Selbst and McDonald, or would Selbst be responsible for the losses incurred by Mercier, as the person who brought the ultimate perpetrator in on the action?

So, what should the terms be?

I’m glad that McDonald retracted his offer voluntarily to avoid any further ugliness, as I’m in the camp that thinks it’s not clear cut what should have been done if he’d insisted. Staking others is something that happens regularly, whereas Mercier’s example of paying someone not to play is not common practice. At the same time, it does seem ethically problematic if McDonald starts staking people who wouldn’t ordinarily play and who he doesn’t think he’s making a profit on, just to reduce Mercier’s odds of winning.

Presumably, if the parties involved had agreed on terms beforehand, those terms would either have been that neither player is allowed to make additional bets or staking arrangements with the intent of affecting field sizes, or that both are. It’s hard to imagine either party agreeing to terms less symmetric than that, unless they were being given a huge edge to begin with. Between those two options, I feel strongly that the correct choice is “neither,” because I think that people making prop bets have an ethical obligation to avoid allowing their activities to have a significant impact on others who aren’t and shouldn’t be involved in the bet.

These bracelet bets only seem to get bigger year on year, while WSOP turnouts get smaller, and I have grave concerns about what would happen in the long run if it became accepted practice to engage in bidding wars over staking, in order to influence players to sign up for one event or another. Imagine you’re a recreational player showing up for some minor event, only to discover that it has one of the sharkiest fields on the schedule due to this kind of manipulation. Or imagine you’re a WSOP executive, and find that the $50,000 Poker Player’s Championship only drew 12 players this year because Stephen Chidwick (or whoever) is going to win $10 million if he takes it down, and threw several million at other people to stay out of it.

In other words, I think agreeing on detailed, sensible terms for prop bets, especially when the sums involved are large, is not just common sense self-protection for the players involved, but also an ethical obligation, to avoid a bet between two people spiralling into a conflict that inflicts collateral damage on others in the poker community.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.