This week’s big poker controversy relates to Mike Leah’s win at the WPT Fallsview, his first title in the tour. Leah has had one hell of a run at that particular stop, winning the $1,100 preliminary event there three out of four consecutive years, from 2014 to 2017. Between that and his lack of a WPT title, once he began to run deep in this year’s Main Event, it was all about the win for him: the perfect cap on five years of dominance in his home province of Ontario.
The win proved controversial, however, because of a deal he made with his friend and heads-up opponent Ryan Yu at the end of the tournament. The casino could not – not “would not,” this is important – facilitate such a deal, so Leah and Yu worked theirs out away from the table.
Where things get sticky is that it was Yu who proposed the deal, and Leah reflexively answered that the title was important to him and he wouldn’t be willing to chop unless it went to him. Yu quickly agreed, but because the deal was made privately, they still had to play the game out officially, and the only way they could guarantee that Leah would get the title was for Yu to dump his chips to him.
To make matters worse, because it was a WPT final table, there were cameras on the action, and Leah began as a short-stack; for Yu to make a series of big raises only to fold to Leah in such a visible and obvious way has been characterized by some as “making a mockery” of the tournament.
The case for Leah
It’s not a controversy unless there are two sides, however, and plenty of people were quick to rush to Leah’s defense. The most common argument in that regard is that such absurdities wouldn’t happen if tournament organizers were consistent in facilitating deals, as is usually the case these days.
That argument is moot in this case because the WPT’s general stance is to allow deals, but in the specific case of Fallsview, it isn’t legally allowed to do so under Ontario law. That aside, it’s generally true that both professional and recreational players prefer to be allowed to make deals; anyone who’s made the final table of a typical low-stakes live tournament knows that the fish often want to make deals six ways and more.
Totally true. Also Matt’s hands are tied as to how much he can do with the event once the proposals have been submitted to AGCO. Casino not allowed to deviate from proposal submitted to regulator for any event, not just WPT.
— Chris Tessaro (@ChrisTessaro) February 14, 2018
When it comes to particularly prestigious events, however, like WSOP bracelet events and WPT main events, the title itself is important to the organizers in terms of marketing value, even if it’s not to an individual player. The WSOP notoriously does not facilitate deals for that reason; there’s many a grinder and recreational player who dreams of winning a bracelet one day, and there’s validity to the view that allowing the official title to be assigned as part of deal-making undermines the integrity of that honor.
A norm, not an obligation
How those situations should be handled is up for debate, but although I’m generally pro-deal making, I take strong exception to how some players are framing the issue. One notable example is Ike Haxton; although he’s far from the only one arguing this way, he’s generally outspoken on such issues, and frequently errs on the side of pro player entitlement.
When we’re being paid to play rather than charged rake, you can make whatever rules you want. Until then, the prizepool belongs to the players and you don’t get to tell us how we can divide it up. https://t.co/yDFntlyO6h
— Isaac Haxton (@ikepoker) February 15, 2018
However one feels about the desirability of deal-making, the statement that “the prizepool belongs to the players” is blatantly incorrect. The fact that many players feel it to be true doesn’t change that, and the insistence that it is only serves to undermine whatever other points they might be making.
The entitled attitude of professional players like Haxton is off-putting not only to the people on the industry side at whom their scorn is directed, but also those of us in the media, and to any recreational players who happen to be watching. It’s also kind of embarrassing, because it represents a complete misunderstanding of both poker tournaments and how transactions under capitalism work, two things one would expect professional poker players to be well-acquainted with.
I’m sorry if this is patronizing, but…
(…not really sorry)
In a cash game, the chips on the table represent cash, which is why it’s called that. The chips in front of the player belong to them, and they can pick up those chips and redeem them for cash at any time. Unless the casino is willing to make legal accusations of cheating, the player is entitled to keep whatever chips they have in their possession, even if ejected from the game.
A tournament, on the other hand, is an event with an entry fee. In return, the player receives the promise of certain services, and of certain predefined rewards based on their performance. They also agree to certain codes of behavior and can be ejected from the tournament at the sole discretion of the director; in this case, they are not entitled to any sort of refund.
In other words, a player’s seat in the tournament and their chips have no cash value, and this is made expressly clear when one registers. The idea of “tournament equity” is a mathematical concept created by players to study strategy, not one with any legal standing in the eyes of the casino or gaming regulators.
In other words, once that entry fee has been paid, it is not in fact the player’s money anymore. The tournament venue has a responsibility to the player, namely to provide the services agreed upon and to distribute the prize pool in accordance with the rules, but no obligation to indulge player requests beyond that. By analogy, passengers on a flight will end up at the airport they bought a ticket to; that’s where the plane is going, even if everyone on board the flight agrees they’d prefer to go somewhere different.
In my view, this is the height of arrogance and entitlement. The prize pool very much doesn’t belong to the players the way you claim. It is entirely within the right of tournament organizers to divide it up the way they want to.
— Olivier Busquet (@olivierbusquet) February 16, 2018
Entitlement: a widespread problem
This sort of whining is no different than, for instance, Justin Bonomo refusing to take a winner’s photo at the EPT Monte Carlo to spite PokerStars, or Allen Kessler frequently berating tournament directors about their structures. As a customer, it’s completely valid to offer feedback, but there’s a difference between that and asserting a moral right to dictate a company’s policies.
It’s also completely valid not to purchase a product or service if it’s not to your liking, but that doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to get the product you want, when and where you want it, and at the price you want to pay. That’s not how capitalism works. It’s up to the business to decide what they’re offering and for how much, and your choice is not between the deal you’re offered and the one you want, but between the one you’re offered and not making any transaction at all.
Moreover, it’s important to remember that when it comes to attendance at events, the customer’s obligations are not, in general, completely satisfied once they’ve paid their entry fee. If you’re watching a movie, you’re also agreeing to remain silent for its duration. If you’re buying an airplane ticket, you’re agreeing to go through security checks. Receiving the service you paid for is contingent on continuing to hold up your end of the bargain. If you’re not willing to do that, then you shouldn’t buy the ticket.
Respect is a two-way street
I still think it’s a good business decision for a tournament organizer to facilitate deals, and as mentioned, the WPT does so when legally allowed to. When it comes to title tournaments, however, I think it’s a reasonable expectation that players will compete in good faith for the honor even if there is no money left on the line. The integrity of the title is important to the tournament’s image, and so playing one’s best until the end is, in my opinion, not much different from having appropriate attire, hygiene and table etiquette.
Chip dumping is blatantly against the terms of any tournament. No doubt Leah and Yu figured that they were doing nothing wrong because there were no other players remaining in the tournament, so it didn’t amount to collusion in the traditional sense. However, it does make for a bad look for the WPT when it’s done on camera and is still technically a rules violation.
The WPT would be entirely within its moral and legal rights to ban Leah and Yu from future events for what they did. It would be business suicide to do so, of course, and the tour clearly has no such intentions given what a great ambassador Leah is overall.
Outrage on their behalf is wholly unwarranted, however; they bought entry to an event under certain conditions, violated those conditions, and were allowed to get away with it. That they should be exempt from all criticism simply because they paid to play, or that the event organizers are somehow to blame is, quite frankly, absurd.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada.