Emergency Substitute at Aussie Millions: Much Ado About Nothing?

Alex Weldon : January 20th, 2016

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An interesting situation arose over the weekend in Event 1 of the Asia Pacific Poker Tour (APPT) Aussie Millions at Crown Casino in Melbourne. A woman by the name of Katrina Sheary had entered the third of four starting flights on Friday. Although visibly pregnant, she was still well before her due date and no one, including Sheary herself and the tournament staff foresaw any problems with her playing. Nonetheless, after surviving the first day and bagging 38,500 chips, she went into unexpected early labor and gave birth the following day. Needless to say, she wasn’t going to be coming back for Day 2 on Sunday.

Ordinarily, a player unable to continue in a poker tournament due to medical, legal or personal reasons would simply have their stack blinded off; it’s a risk that everyone implicitly accepts when they enter a tournament. Fortunately for Sheary, the Aussie Millions has an interesting provision in its Terms & Conditions which allow the tournament director the discretion to permit a new player to enter the tournament in another’s stead.

Reading the fine print

The relevant clauses in the Terms and Conditions are from 2.10 through 2.13, but most of these have to do with a player wishing to drop out or transfer their entry before the tournament actually begins. You’ll find similar rules for most tournament series, but where the Aussie Millions is unique is in a single phrase buried in sub-clause 2.13.1 (emphasis mine):

Where a substitute is nominated, entry into the Tournament will be transferred to the substitute and the substitute will act on behalf of the entrant, commencing or continuing play in the entrant’s stead and using any applicable bank of Tournament chips allocated to or accumulated by the entrant.

Thus, the rule is expressly intended to include the possibility of a substitute being introduced mid-tournament and playing with the original entrant’s stack. There’s no mention made of the circumstances under which this would be done, other than to state that it’s at the tournament director’s discretion. However, earlier clauses regarding transfer or refund of entry fees before the tournament starts explicitly mention the death or hospitalization of either the original entrant or a member of his or her immediate family. It seems reasonable, then, that Sheary’s hospitalization due to premature labor and the birth of her baby would be grounds to invoke the clause.

This is in fact what happened: Katrina’s husband Peter Sheary was allowed to play in her stead, and he went on to cash the tournament for $6,495. It’s a feel-good story in that both mother and baby are reportedly healthy and it’s always nice to hear about new parents catching a financial break, since things can often be tough on that front. Nonetheless, much hand-wringing has ensued, both on Twitter and the TwoPlusTwo poker forums, over whether this sort of policy is a good idea in general or whether the Shearys’ story sets a dangerous and exploitable precedent for future events, particularly if such clauses achieved more widespread adoption.

Objections and alternatives

The most obvious but, in my opinion, least meritorious objection to this policy is the potential for abuse. That is, that someone would deliberately feign, induce or exaggerate a medical condition at an important stage of the tournament in order to let a much better player play their stack.

In this case, it seems that the replacement is unlikely to have affected very much: based on their Hendon Mob statistics, it appears that Peter and Katrina have both been playing live events for several years, with their earliest cashes coming in 2009 and 2010 respectively. Although Peter does have more cashes than Katrina, it’s neither the case that she’s a beginner, nor that he’s someone who would be seen as having a huge edge over the field. Furthermore, the replacement was made at a fairly early stage of the tournament, and although Katrina held more chips than she’d started with, she was well below the average at the time Peter replaced her. All told, the effect on the equity of anyone else in the tournament was unlikely to be large.

This is usually going to be the case, and even when it’s not, the fact that the tournament director has full discretion is a good safeguard, provided you have a good tournament director. If a similar situation were to arise going into a big final table, for instance, the TD could require that the replacement have fewer live tournament results or a lower GPI ranking than the player being replaced.

A slightly better argument against the policy comes down to perception. As I’ve said before, a tournament doesn’t just have to be fair, it has to appear fair as well. It doesn’t matter if a ruling doesn’t actually affect anyone’s equity very much if they feel like it might. It’s unlikely that it would ever actually arise that an amateur player would make a final table, only to conveniently discover a medical reason to drop out and be replaced by his spouse, who just happens to be some anonymous online pro with amazing skills but no live results to tip off the unsuspecting tournament director. It’s almost absurd to contemplate. At the same time, whenever a replacement is made, there’s a chance that the substitute player will run hot and make a few good decisions, and thereby create doubts in everyone’s mind as to whether she was really a fair replacement. Those doubts are themselves a problem, since it’s imperative that big-money poker tournaments avoid controversy as much as possible, and if you imagine that kind of scenario happening at a six- or seven-figure final table, then you can see why some people regard this as a problem.

There are several other ways that the situation could be handled, but each have their own problems. I’m not really convinced that any of these is inherently superior or inferior to the replacement idea.

Blind off

In the absence of rules to the contrary, what would ordinarily be done is to leave the player’s stack on the table and simply kill his hands until the blinds and antes have eliminated him. If the bubble has broken at that point, the player receives the appropriate payout, but otherwise she goes home with nothing. This doesn’t seem fair to the player in question, but it does have plenty of precedent in other types of competition: a marathon runner who can’t complete the race doesn’t receive her entry fee back, after all, and certainly doesn’t get awarded a result based on her position at the time she dropped out.

One possible counter-argument is that it creates accessibility issues; we’d like as many people to play poker as possible, so discouraging people with health conditions from playing is a downside. More importantly, though, I think there are serious ethical issues introduced simply because of the amount of money involved, which could force people into positions where they end up taking health risks to avoid forfeiting money. For instance, imagine a middle-aged player who suffers chest pains the night before he’s scheduled to play a big final table. We would like that player to go to the hospital and not to try to tough it out because he doesn’t want to surrender tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in equity, so I think a less draconian policy is preferable.

Refund buy-in

Some have suggested that the appropriate course of action is to let the player simply surrender her stack, have her buy-in refunded, and remove her chips from play and her money from the prize pool. This would have been fair enough in Sheary’s case, but unfortunately it becomes less fair the more critical the situation is; once the bubble has burst, the player would rather blind off and take the payout than simply have her buy-in refunded. Therefore, in those cases where there’s a lot of money on the line, it’s no better a solution than the default. Meanwhile, it introduces a separate problem when the player has less than a starting stack; a player left crippled in the early levels could be tempted to look for a reason to get out and get his money back, while someone suffering a legitimate medical crisis while short-stacked would come under suspicion from the community.

ICM payout

Still others have suggested that the appropriate thing to do would be to remove the player’s chips from play and award them a payout based on their statistical expectation based on the Independent Chip Model (ICM), a mathematical formula which is commonly used as a standard in negotiating deals between players at final tables. The trouble with this is that ICM is far from perfect, and when applied in deal-making it is always done with all players’ consent. Among other issues, it’s easy for an amateur with a loose play style to accumulate lots of chips at some point in a tournament, but much harder to hold on to them. If a weak player with lots of chips suffers a medical emergency and can no longer play, I suspect that most others in the tournament would prefer to have them replaced by another equally weak player than for a large amount of money to be removed from the prize pool.

Looking at the big picture

I think one important thing to consider is just how often such a rule would be invoked. This is the first time I’ve heard of someone getting replaced mid-tournament and, although I’m sure it does happen that players occasionally do have to drop out of tournaments for various reasons, the only other mention of a poker-related medical emergency I’ve seen in the media this past year involved a spectator, rather than a player, at last summer’s World Series of Poker.

So, it would be a fairly rare occurrence to begin with, and then you have to multiply that likelihood by the odds that would happen in a sufficiently critical spot to cause major controversy. After all, the field of a poker tournament dwindles exponentially as the tournament progresses, so if you assume a constant probability per person of a medical emergency occurring, the likelihood that it happens towards the beginning of a tournament is orders of magnitude larger than that it happens at a final table.

In other words, whatever the solution and whatever its downsides, the odds of a perfect storm scenario coming up are vanishingly small, and so it’s probably not worth fussing all that much over a perfect solution. Most times that such a decision will have to be made, it will be similar in context to what happened with the Shearys. If you think about it, neither the Shearys themselves nor the rest of the poker world would likely be kicking up all that much fuss regardless of whether Katrina had been blinded off, given her buy-in back, or awarded the ICM value of her stack, because it’s at worst a matter of a couple of thousand dollars for them (which they can presumably afford if they’re playing in the first place) and far less for anyone else in the tournament. If it happens in reality that the community is making a bit more noise about the decision to allow her husband to replace her, it’s only because of the novelty factor; people are surprised because they’ve never heard of such a thing happening, and are anxious about all sorts of what-if scenarios.

Meanwhile, if we do want to consider the perfect storm scenario and prepare for it, then the thing to look at is the worst that could happen. With ICM or substitution, the worst than could happen is that the tournament director makes an error in judgment which impacts the equities of other players at the table, leading to justifiable anger on their part. With blinding off or refund, the worst that can happen is that a player dies on camera and in front of a large live audience because he couldn’t see a doctor without forfeiting the tournament, and was unwilling to do so.

Lest I be accused of being dramatic, I’ll reiterate that neither of these scenarios is likely to occur in the foreseeable future. However, if we’re talking about worst case scenario, as many others seem to want to do, then my question is which of those two situations is worse for the people involved, the reputation of the tournament organizers, and for poker in general? For me, it’s no contest, and so I know where I stand on the Aussie Millions’ policy.

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

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