No Question Marks at the Poker Table

Alex Weldon : October 28th, 2015

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Here’s a classic live poker gray area. It’s heads-up on the river. The first player to act checks, but does so subtly – a little tap of the fingers, say, or declaring the action quietly enough that his opponent doesn’t quite hear. The dealer correctly interprets the action, and turns to the opponent, who also says “check,” but with rising inflection, like a question. Is that second player checking, or is he asking for clarification on his opponent’s action? And should the dealer have leeway to interpret it one way or the other?

Situations like this come up all the time, but the issue was most recently brought up by Chris Hunichen, who ran into such a spot in the EPT Malta Main Event, and felt that it was not handled correctly. He spoke to PokerNews about it in an interview, and also raised the question with WPT Executive Tour Director Matt Savage, the poker world’s go-to guy for second opinions on floor rulings.

In Hunichen’s case, it was his opponent who uttered the dubious “check?” but then went on to try to make a bet. The floor was called over and ruled in the opponent’s favor, allowing the bet to be made. Hunichen says that he’s been on the other side of the issue three times in the past, and each time the ruling was that his check would have to stand; it’s understandable, then, that he would feel unfairly treated to see the ruling go the other way with the situation reversed.

Savage’s response was somewhat ambivalent. He said that he “doesn’t hate their ruling,” but he himself would have ruled that the check would have to stand, based on his interpretation of Rule #3 of the official Poker Tournament Directors’ Association rules:

Official betting terms are simple, unmistakable, time-honored declarations like: bet, raise, call, fold, check, all-in, complete and pot (pot-limit only). Regional terms may also meet this test. Also, players must use gestures with caution when facing action; tapping the table is a check. It is the responsibility of players to make their intentions clear: using non-standard terms or gestures is at player’s risk and may result in a ruling other than what the player intended.

Savage didn’t elaborate much further, beyond stressing that saying “check?” as a question is generally problematic and he would rule against the player to serve as a lesson to them and others that it’s something to be avoided.

In terms of interpreting the actual rule, however, I imagine that what Savage is saying is that “check” is a standard term, while using inflection to indicate a question mark and change the meaning of it is not standard practice within the context of poker, even if it is for the English language in general (and, indeed, most languages). What Rule #3 says, essentially, is that when mixing standard and non-standard words and gestures (and, implicitly, other contextual things like intonation), the standard meaning takes precedence if there’s any ambiguity.

Now, of course the meaning of words can be changed by context; I don’t think Savage or anyone else would argue that saying “Did my opponent just check to me?” should be ruled a check simply because it contains the word “check.” The key sentence from the rule in this regard is: “It is the responsibility of players to make their intentions clear.” It’s when there’s a lack of clarity that it’s a problem. So the real question is whether inflection is sufficiently clear on its own, and I’m of the opinion that it is not.

For one thing, the inflection itself may often be subtle enough to be called into question, depending on the player’s manner of speaking. Exactly how much does one’s pitch have to rise before it clearly indicates a question mark? Even if the rising inflection is 100% clear, however, there’s still some interpretation to be done. Consider two examples.

First Example: We have a player who points at her opponent, raises her eyebrows and says “check?”

Second Example: We have another player, who looks down at his chips, scratches his head, then turns his palms face up and says “check?”

The first example is probably the sort of thing most of us imagine when we first consider the situation as outlined in the opening paragraph of this article. After all, if the person is saying it like a question, then she must be asking for clarification. The second example shows that this is not necessarily the case; based on that body language, I think most of us would take this to mean that the player understands that the action is on him, does intend to check back, but puts a question mark on it because he isn’t sure that he’s making the right decision.

I’ve argued in the past that tournament directors and floor staff need leeway to exercise discretion, but now we’re getting into reading body language to interpret a vocal inflection which is (possibly) intended to modify the meaning of a word that the rules clearly state is meant to be “simple and unmistakable.” To my mind, that’s well over the line of how much ambiguity we should be willing to tolerate.

Of course, some people will feel that the dealer should simply ask the player for clarification, but this is itself problematic because it opens the door to angle shooting. If a player knows that repeating his opponent’s move with a question mark on the end is never going to be binding, he’s free to do it and hope his opponent mistakenly takes the question for a binding declaration, and gives something away through his reaction.

Personally, I think Savage’s position is the correct one – there should be no question marks at the poker table. After all, if you need clarification, it’s not hard to ask for it in words: “Did my opponent just check,” or “Was that a check,” etc. Even without inflection, phrasing the request this way is unambiguous. Just make sure you don’t mumble.

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

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