Despite its relatively simple rules, poker can be a surprisingly tough game to adjudicate at times, especially in a live setting. There are a few reasons for this. Physical actions can be ambiguous at times, prone to misinterpretation by the dealer. Dealers aren’t supposed to affect the game, but are only human and can make mistakes of their own. Sometimes, penalizing a player for his own mistake also has negative repercussions on another, guiltless party.

The biggest problem of all, though, is the importance of hidden information. If a chessboard is disturbed and the pieces end up on the wrong squares, then as long as everyone can agree on the position, it’s easy to put everything back where it belongs. No so, in poker, where every action reveals information about a player’s possible holdings; you can reset the chips and the cards, but not the players’ knowledge, so “rewinding” a hand to correct errors is rarely, if ever possible.

As a result, situations are bound to occur where it’s impossible to be fair to all parties involved. It’s no wonder, then, that griping about and second-guessing such rulings is commonplace on poker forums, and this week, a couple of particularly ugly spots have come up.

What does a thumbs-up mean?
Thread: LAPT – Dealer mucks player’s winning hand after a thumbs up call

It’s bad enough when unclear situations come up in a nightly tournament at the local card room, but the last thing anyone wants is for a mess to happen in a main event. And yet, that was the case early on Day 2 in the Latin American Poker Tour (LAPT) Grand Final in São Paulo.

The pot was heads up on the river with two Aces and a possible flush on board, and André Eskinazi held Ace-Deuce, giving him trips but the worst possible kicker. His opponent fired off a bet and Eskinazi gave a thumbs-up signal, then flipped over his cards. Because Eskinazi had not actually moved any chips into the pot for a call, his opponent interpreted his actions as a fold, and turned over his own cards to show a bluff. Eskinazi insisted that his thumbs-up gesture had been intended to signal a call, but the dealer disagreed. The floor was called, and sided with the dealer.

Most people who’ve weighed in on this one agree that because Eskinazi is an experienced player, he should know that only a verbal declaration or the placing of one or more chips into the pot indicates a call, and should not be granted much leeway here. On the other hand, while showing one’s cards incurs a penalty in tournament poker, it doesn’t usually kill the hand, and a thumbs-up gesture doesn’t mean “fold” any more than it means “call.” If the opponent hadn’t shown immediately, the dealer would presumably have asked for clarification, and then perhaps assigned a Eskinazi a penalty after the hand.

Since the action was ambiguous, the opponent was also in the wrong for showing his cards and thereby preventing the action from being clarified. Thus, there are actually two questions here: should the action be ruled a fold, or should Eskinazi be given the chance to disambiguate (at which point he’d clearly choose call, having seen that his hand was good)? Furthermore, should both players receive a penalty for showing their hands, or only Eskinazi, or neither? And was Eskinazi deliberately attempting an angle shot, or just making a stupid mistake even though he really should have known better?

The old stack switcheroo
Thread: Error in a $1100 2 day event

Honest mistakes by players can be problematic enough, but when the casino or card room staff makes a blunder, it can be a real nightmare. Forums user “LilyDragon” brings up a situation which occurred in an $1100 tournament at an unspecified venue.

Twelve players made the second day, but two regulars showed up a little bit late. Their chips were therefore unbagged and placed at the table in front of their vacant seats so that their blinds and antes can be posted. The first of the players showed up in time for the first hand of the day and began to play and quickly busts out one of his opponents. The second player arrives during the second orbit and is shown his seat, but immediately protests that half of his chips are missing. It turns out that although the players had been seated correctly, their bags of chips had somehow been mixed up.

Deliberately playing with another person’s stack is grounds for disqualification, and it’s hard to imagine an experienced player not noticing that they were starting the day with twice as many chips as they’d thought they had. On the other hand, that can’t be proven, and it’s possible that even if the player had noticed, he’d assumed he’d miscounted at the end of the night. Disqualification deep in a tournament is an extremely stiff penalty, and not one that should be handed out in unclear situations.

The question of whether the first player deserves punishment aside, there are also some tricky issues when it comes to remedying the situation. Chip counts are generally self-reported and unofficial, so even if the bags were still available, there’s no guarantee that the numbers written on them would be accurate. Assuming that both players agreed to accept the counts as valid, then obviously the appropriate number of chips should be moved from the first player’s stack to the second’s to correct the error, but then there’s still the matter of the player who busted out. On that front, the policy is clear – accepted action is final, so the busted-out player has no recourse – but it’s still brutal, as there’s no way of knowing how things would have gone had the stacks been correct.

LilyDragon hasn’t yet revealed what the actual decision was, but it’s hard to imagine that everyone walked away happy. Many posters in the thread feel that the just decision would be for the first player to be disqualified and his chips removed from play, the second to be given his correct stack less the blinds and antes for the hands he missed, and for the busted-out player to receive a refund, but I’d be willing to wager that this is not what actually happened.

PokerStars players on strike
Thread: Joint strike on the 1st-3rd of December …. (REGISTRATION), other Amaya/Stars protests

Although not in keeping with this week’s overall theme, we can’t fail to mention the PokerStars player strike being organized through TwoPlusTwo and the Russian poker site Gipsyteam. Most online pros are extremely unhappy with the changes that PokerStars has announced to its VIP Rewards program, slated to go into effect as of January 1st. As a result, a number of them have gotten together and decided to hold a three-day “strike” (a boycott, really), starting Tuesday.

The participant list doesn’t seem to be being updated on TwoPlusTwo, but judging by the Gipsyteam thread, it looks like nearly 2000 players will be participating. That’s certainly enough to put a dent in PokerStars’s traffic for those days – assuming everyone involved is in fact a regular player, and sticks to the plan – but whether the boycott has the desired effect is another question. After all, the whole point of the changes is explicitly to discourage high-volume pros, because their impact on the poker economy is seen as a negative. If PokerStars has decided that it wants them gone for good, then leaving for a few days may prove ineffective as a negotiation tactic.

As Kim Lund put it on Twitter: