Forum Files – Ethical Questions

Alex Weldon : September 14th, 2015

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The World Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP) is underway on PokerStars, so one might have expected the forums to be lighting up with news and controversy on that front. Instead, the world’s biggest online tournament series seems – so far, anyway – to be unfolding without the same kind of surprises we’ve seen recently at live events. There is, of course, an official rail thread for the WCOOP on TwoPlusTwo, but even that has only produced a little over a hundred posts.

Instead, many of the new threads in the past week have been questions about the ethics of various situations which come up. Poker is, of course, an inherently exploitative game when played professionally, but most of us agree that there are limits to what’s acceptable. Where does the line lie? We take a look in this week’s Forum Files.

Twitch – the latest ethical frontier
Thread: Poll: Is is wrong to watch someones hole cards on twitch?

A classic question in live poker ethics, which gets asked all the time on the forums, is what you should do if you’re playing in a card room or casino, and the player next to you is occasionally flashing you his cards. Despite the frequency with which it arises, it’s not a dilemma on which there’s any real consensus. For many people, there isn’t even a single answer; you’ll often hear people saying that it depends on how often it’s happening, whether anyone has warned the person about it in the past, and whether you’re heads-up in the pot or there are other players involved.

Until recently, this wasn’t something anyone had to worry about in online poker. The only way a player’s hole cards could be known to another would have been through some sort of hacking or super-user scheme, or else through the player deliberately sharing his cards with a partner. Either of these is clear and outright cheating, so there’s no ethical question there.

Now, however, Twitch has thrown a twist into things, in that many players are actively streaming their hole cards as they play. Obviously, anyone in their right mind is doing so on a delay, but the interactive nature of Twitch means that Twitch streamers like to keep that delay as short as possible – sometimes as little as two minutes – so that they can field questions and discuss hands while they’re still fresh in memory. That means that if a hand goes on long enough, the beginning of the hand – including the player’s cards – may appear on the stream before the river action is complete.

On the one hand, players streaming their hands via Twitch must understand that they’re giving up some information and taking on some risk in doing so, but does that make it fair game for others to exploit Twitch streams? Or do players have an ethical responsibility not to watch the streams of those they’re playing with, in case something like this happens? Over 300 people have answered the informal poll, and it looks like two-thirds of players feel it’s totally okay to watch the stream of someone you’re playing, and make use of any information leaked that way. The remaining third disagree. You can read everyone’s reasoning in the thread.

Tipping large amounts during a hand: is it ratholing?
Thread: Tipping dealer during hand?

Although not nearly as common as questions about flashed hole cards, this is another issue I’ve seen come up in various forms before. As everyone knows, it’s forbidden in a cash game to take a portion of your chips off the table; you either have to keep playing your entire stack, including winnings, or leave the game entirely and take all your chips with you. Attempts to violate this rule and safeguard a portion of one’s winnings are known as “ratholing” or “going south.”

However, in live poker it is also expected that player will tip the dealer and wait staff, and for reasons of convenience, this is usually done with chips. Although this forms an exception to the rule about chips being taken off the table, it typically isn’t a very big deal, because a standard tip is usually a single chip of the smallest denomination being used, or at most one big blind. Card rooms don’t want to limit players’ generosity, however, nor do wait staff want to have to wait until a hand is complete to receive their tip; players are therefore often allowed to tip any amount they like, even during a hand. This, of course, opens a very large loophole in the rules.

The way the problem usually comes up is that two players – at least one of whom is usually upset with the other – are heads up in a hand, and one puts the other all-in for a fairly large number of chips. The other wants to call, but isn’t sure of winning and, because of the bad blood between them, doesn’t want to see his chips going to the other. Thus, he tips his entire remaining stack, minus one chip, to the dealer or a waitress, then tosses in that last chip for a call.

Naturally, the player is incurring a loss for himself in doing this – losing his remaining stack either way, and foregoing a big portion of the winnings if his hand does turn out to be good. However, it’s also obviously unfair to the opponent, who may very well have taken stack sizes into account when making decisions earlier in the hand, and was not considering the possibility that his opponent could or would simply give away most of those chips in order to avoid having to put them into the pot. There’s also the danger that a player could be colluding with the dealer or waitress in question, who then returns the “tipped” chips later. Taking all that into consideration, it’s a significant question whether large tips mid-hand should even be legal, and opinions on the matter differ.

Taking advantage of impairments
Thread: Morality of playing with someone who has a disability

Most of us have had the experience of playing poker with someone who is clearly drunk, on serious emotional tilt, or both. Many of us have played in such states ourselves. It’s normal to feel uneasy about winning money from someone in such a state, but the general feeling among poker players is that it’s someone’s own fault for putting themselves in that position and that, if they’re truly out of control, it’s the responsibility of the card room or casino staff to cut them off.

What about the case that it’s not a temporary, self-inflicted state which is causing the impairment, but a physical disability? Forums poster “Mike Panic” gives the example of an older gentleman at one of his tables, whose eyesight was evidently causing him difficulty in correctly reading his cards and the board. He’d been mistaking one face card for another, for instance, and needing to ask what cards were on board, and sometimes missing possible straights or flushes because of it.

On the one hand, unlike someone drunk, it’s in no way this man’s fault that his eyesight is no longer sufficient to play the game without assistance. On the other hand, it’s still his choice to be at the table, and an establishment can’t forbid someone from playing based on a disability – that would be discriminatory. But how should the players at the table react when it becomes apparent that someone’s physical impairments are going to make it all but guaranteed that they go broke?

Unlike some of the other questions, there’s general consensus here that the player is making his own decision and one shouldn’t try to avoid playing pots with him, though opinions vary on whether or not it’s right to actively try to isolate him as one would a fish. One popular and pragmatic suggestion is that whoever is in the 5 seat (directly across from the dealer) should offer to change seats with such a player, to give him the best possible view of the board. Unfortunately, this proved unhelpful for the OP, as his particular opponent was already in the 5 seat and still couldn’t see.

Having dealt with the easier question of a physically disabled opponent, the thread moves on to the trickier issue of someone whose impairment is affecting their cognition as well. This is one that clearly depends on a number of factors, but one way or another, the distinction between treating someone equally and treating them fairly is undeniably a tricky one when it comes to a situation like poker, where treating a disabled person the same as anyone else means exploiting whatever edge you can find in order to take their money.

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

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