Jason Mercier’s 4th Bracelet Win Sparks Side Bet Debate

Alex Weldon : June 14th, 2016


Jason Mercier won his fourth World Series of Poker (WSOP) gold bracelet last night, in Event #16: $10,00 2-7 Single Draw Lowball Championship, but not everyone is celebrating along with him. As big name pros often do, he placed multiple bets on himself to win one or more bracelets before the series began; although he won’t say exactly how much was wagered or with whom, he has revealed that the bracelet alone was worth more in terms of side action than the $273,335 in prize money he took for first place. He also had some sort of substantial crossbooking arrangement in place with 6th place finisher Stephen Chidwick, having stated that if Chidwick had won, he would have needed at least 3rd to break even. Instead, it will be Chidwick forking over the entire $46,277 he cashed for in the event, and then some.

2-7 NL Single Draw is often described as the purest form of poker, as with very little public information about players’ hands, only two streets of play, and uncapped betting, the game’s technical aspects are relatively straightforward to master, leaving the emphasis on reading one’s opponents, studying their tendencies, and making sure one’s own play is not too predictable. Mixed game events like this one – especially the $10,000 championship events – are particularly important for players with bracelet bets, as although the fields are tough, they are small, and therefore present the best odds for any given player to win outright, even if the best players’ edges run thinner. Sometimes, as in the case of this year’s Seven-Card Stud championship, the fields can even dip into the double-digits, although the 2-7 NL Single Draw narrowly avoided that, drawing out 100 players on the nose.

Despite the huge sums awarded in some tournaments, and the public perception that generates, tournament poker is an extremely difficult way to make a living at poker. In general, good cash game players win more money, more reliably than tournament players. Tournament players compensate for this by employing several strategies to generate additional revenue and/or hedge against variance, including swapping action with other players or selling it at a markup, seeking out sponsorships, and making various kinds of side bets on their performance. Such side bets are usually made behind the scenes, although for the 2014 WSOP, Daniel Negreanu and Phil Ivey famously made an open-to-all-comers, even-money bet that one or the other of them would win a bracelet. Although their prospects looked dicey for a while, Ivey finally did manage a win towards the tail end of the series, in Event $50: $1,500 Eight-Game Mix.

The bet which most captured the public’s attention this year was Vanessa Selbst’s 200-1 bet with Dzmitry Urbanovich, against the latter winning three bracelets in this, the young prodigy’s first-ever WSOP. That bet may have been a good one, due to the relative shortness of Urbanovich’s track record. Selbst may have gotten herself into a spot of trouble, however, by letting Mercier talk her into a similar bet with him, at 180-1 odds. Although Mercier has remained tight-lipped about most of his bets, the sums involved in this one are on public record: Mercier put $10,000 of his money up, and if he does manage to win three bracelets this summer, Selbst will be on the hook for a whopping $1.8 million.

Selbst apparently regretted having made the bet almost immediately, having said she was drunk at the time and immediately tried to buy out of it the following morning, only to have Mercier refuse her offer. With Mercier now a third of the way to winning the bet only a quarter of the way into the series, her unease is sure to have grown enormously, and indeed, she’s begun trying to hedge, looking for people to lay her 25-1 against Mercier winning another two. Selbst may have the most to lose, but she’s not the only one in the hot seat, as Mercier says he has additional bets in the 18-1 to 20-1 range for him to win two bracelets. With him having picked up the first so quickly, I would guesstimate he’s now around 3-1 to grab a second before the series is out.

Even among those not directly involved in either the event or the betting, Mercier’s refusal to disclose the full details of his bets has ruffled a few feathers. Justin “Stealthmunk” Schwartz was the most vocal on the subject, complaining on Twitter that side bets change players’ incentives and thus their optimal strategies, and that this is unfair to other players at the table who aren’t aware of the bets. Schwartz is one of poker’s more colorful characters; he’s best known to the general public for having narrowly missed out on the final table of last year’s WSOP Main Event, a performance that earned him little love due to his abrasive behavior along the way and the decision by the producers at ESPN to cast him as a villain to Daniel Negreanu’s heroic image in their coverage. Within the pro community, however, he’s mostly regarded with mixture of respect, bemusement and affection, and people generally seem to enjoy the discussions provoked by his Twitter rants.

Schwartz’s argument is very similar to one I’ve made myself in the past, namely that side bets effectively change the payout structure of the player making them, and so, when such bets are in play, different players are actually playing slightly different games. In Mercier’s case, specifically, his bracelet bets mean that 1st place in any event is worth much, much more to him than to the average player, and any other finish position is worth slightly less. This means that he needn’t concern himself with “laddering” at final table (that is, playing conservatively and waiting for others to bust out in order to move up the payout structure), because he has such a strong incentive in place to get all the chips. Put another way, he experiences very little in the way of ICM considerations, compared to the other players at his table.

The natural counter-argument to this is the one made by David Yan and others in response to Schwartz; that the additional money Mercier wins or loses doesn’t affect the prize pool for anyone else, so they should only be concerned with his play vis-a-vis the money up for grabs by anyone. If he adjusts his play away from what’s optimal in terms of prize pool expectation value, then, it can only be good for the other players as a whole; in chasing his bracelet bet, he’ll be giving up opportunities to ladder, and risking busting out earlier, which should increase everyone else’s average profitability.

The key words there, however, are “as a whole” and “average.” It is true that these deviations should mean more of the prize pool tends to go to Mercier’s opponents, but that doesn’t mean an individual player can’t find himself in a bad spot due to a lack of information about Mercier’s possible payouts. If Mercier is playing looser than normal, for instance, a player in the know would prefer to go for value more and bluff less against him. A player who doesn’t know about Mercier’s bets, then, might find his bluffs getting called by hands Mercier should ordinarily have folded, and suffer losses as a result. The fact that his opponents are enjoying greater profits at both his and Mercier’s expense would be of little consolation to a player who has that happen.

Unfortunately, even though most serious players understand why side action can be problematic, it’s not a problem that can be expected to be solved at any point. Asking a professional poker player not to make bets would be akin to asking me to stop having opinions about things; it would be a denial of both their basic nature and their primary revenue stream. It’s also unreasonable to ask that everyone discloses all their side bets to anyone who asks. For one thing, the other party to the bet may not want their wagers to be public information, and for another, making a bet public may preclude getting better odds on a similar bet in future: For instance, if you were willing to give me 5-1 on a bet, but found out that I’d previously accepted 4-1 on a similar bet, it’s not hard to see how having that information made public ends up costing me money.

Ultimately, though, the question isn’t whether a given player has better information about his own payout structure than others do. At worst, that leads to the situation described above, in which all opponents enjoy slightly better statistical profitability, yet may suffer individual losses due to not correctly anticipating the player’s adjustments. Although it can be upsetting for the player who gets on the wrong end of that, it is at least impartial, in that as long as all opponents are equally in the dark, it is essentially random – or a matter of position and chip stacks – who suffers.

The real problem arises when one player knows more than another about a third player’s incentives. For instance, if I’m playing three-handed with a friend at the table, and I know about bets he’s made but you don’t, the prize pool equity he gives up in chasing those bets is more likely to go to me than to you. I will, for instance, know whether I should change my bluffing frequencies and if so, by how much, while you will not. On this point, at least, there is strong agreement; just as an exposed card at the table must be shown to all players in the hand, if anyone at the table knows about anyone else’s side bets, that information should be made public in the interests of fair play. That’s no guarantee that every player will be scrupulous in following this policy, but it is important that everyone realizes, at least, that this is what sportsmanship dictates.

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

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