Jason Wheeler, who goes by “jdpc27” on Twitter and TwoPlusTwo, made the decision early yesterday morning to go public with the details of a scenario that played out last night in a multi-ticket satellite to the Seminole Hard Rock Poker Open $25,000 High Roller. Wheeler was not himself directly involved in what happened, except for having been one of the players at the table, but he got caught up in the aftermath and has apparently been asked about it enough that he wanted to create a public record of his version of events so that, he says, he can move on with his life.

The problem hand

The satellite had played down to the final ten players and gone on break. There were seven tickets to be awarded, with $17,000 in left-over prize pool going to eighth place. Three players had been left short-stacked before the break, so the most likely scenario was that one of these would walk away with $17,000 and the other two with nothing. The shortest of these was Lily Kiletto, who, in the last hand before break, had folded her big blind after two others had gone in before her, leaving herself less than one big blind – something that could only ever happen in this sort of satellite. She was now in the small blind, and, barring the extremely unlikely scenario of three people being all-in before her, committed to being all-in without any fold equity.

The player in the big blind, meanwhile, was Mike Dentale, who is known mostly for three things: his biceps, his temper, and his tendency to find himself at the center of controversy. He had one of the deeper stacks at the table, and seeing as he was nearly certain to win a ticket, had little incentive to accumulate more chips. The action folded around to Kiletto, who tossed the last of her chips in. The dealer announced “all-in,” but since Kiletto didn’t even have enough chips to complete the big blind, there was no need for Dentale to make a decision; at this point, the only thing that should have happened would be for Dentale to get his excess chips back, both players to turn over their cards, and the dealer to deal out the community cards.

Instead, Dentale verbally announced a fold and then threw his cards into the muck. As soon as he’d done so, Kiletto did likewise, whereupon the other players at the table began to protest, beginning with Mukul Pahuja, who knows Dentale personally. Confusion ensued and the floor was called over. Under ordinary circumstances, Dentale’s mucking of his hand would be his own problem, but given the nature of the payouts, allowing Kiletto to avoid going to showdown would be to the detriment of everyone else at the table, particularly the other short stacks.

The floor asked the dealer if the players’ cards could be identified, and he said he knew which four cards they were, but not which ones belonged to which player. The players were then asked if they remembered what they had. Kiletto said her exact cards had been the Seven and Four of Clubs, while Dentale – according to Wheeler – was clear that he had likewise had a Four, but was vague about what the other card had been. The two cards most likely belonging to Kiletto were then turned over and turned out to be the Seven and Four of Clubs, as she’d said; at that point, the other two presumably belonging to Dentale were about to be turned over as well, whereupon, in Wheeler’s account, Dentale spoke up to say he might have had an Ace. Sure enough, his cards had been the Ace and Four of Hearts.


Throughout all this, Pahuja and Dentale had been arguing, with Dentale insisting that he hadn’t realized Kiletto was all in for less than his big blind and Pahuja not buying it. Wheeler commented to Pahuja that Dentale must have known what he was doing, because otherwise it would make no sense that he would have “forgotten” that he’d had an Ace, only to remember it again just before the cards were turned over. This provoked Dentale’s rage, leading to a lot of shouting and swearing.

Ultimately, the decision made was to give Dentale a two-round penalty – fairly serious at this stage of a satellite, but still too light in the eyes of Wheeler and others, who feel that the situation was both clear-cut enough and serious enough to warrant immediate disqualification. The board was then run out, since the players’ hands had been identified, and Kiletto hit her three-outer to double up. Fortunately for the other short stacks, she lost her next all-in and was eliminated anyway, but the mood had become very sour.

Correction/Clarification: Dentale’s initial two-round penalty was given for shouting and swearing in the aftermath, not for the act of mucking his cards as implied in the headline.

Dentale returned after his penalty, but due to Kiletto’s elimination, came back to a different position than he’d expected and thought he’d been penalized more than the two orbits he’d been given. Still in a bad mood himself, he accused the others at the table of somehow being complicit in keeping him out of play for more hands than he should have missed. That was the last straw for Pahuja, and the ensuing argument resulted in Dentale being given another penalty. That one left him short enough that despite having been one of the deep stacks to begin with, he ended up busting without winning a ticket.

The fallout on Twitter was immediate, with many players saying Dentale’s actions were so blatant, it was disgraceful that he would even attempt to defend himself. Dentale reacted in his usual fashion, first posting, then deleting a series of tweets slamming his accusers, before ultimately making a single, lengthier statement of his version of events which he posted to both the TwoPlusTwo thread and to Twitter.

Dentale’s version

Dentale’s defense essentially boils down to “I was drunk, felt I had a ticket locked up, and was just folding everything and not paying attention.” Aside from this, his statement mostly consists of attacking the character of Wheeler and his friends, pointing out their drug habits (which I understand mostly just means pot), and so forth. There are, however, a couple of important differences in Dentale’s version of things, compared to Wheeler’s.

Firstly, Dentale points out that he was not talking one-on-one with Kiletto, but had rather approached her boyfriend, who is also a friend of his, and that the three of them were just having a friendly chat. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t have been negotiating a collusion deal, of course, but the presence of a third person with whom Dentale is close does mean it would be fairly normal for them to be talking on break and that this isn’t in itself cause for suspicion.

Secondly, Dentale says that he announced both cards in his hand from the start. This is not necessarily inconsistent with Wheeler’s version, as the latter says that Dentale initially “mumbled something” and “wasn’t clear” about the second card in his hand, not that he said specifically that he couldn’t remember the other card. Thus, it’s possible that Dentale said something along the lines of “I had a Four and, I guess an Ace,” but slurred or trailed off at the end, if he was as drunk as he claims.

Finally, Dentale accuses Wheeler of lying outright when it comes to the claim that another player at the table had asked about Kiletto’s stack size. This is a little weird, because if Dentale was drunk and not paying attention, you’d expect him to be less certain that something didn’t happen, and more likely to claim that if it happened, he must have missed it. Of course, he’s clearly angry about the whole thing and it’s not out of character for him to assume the worst about anyone speaking against him.

Collusion in multi-ticket satellites

Regardless of whether or not one is willing to give Dentale the benefit of the doubt in this particular case, the situation is an extreme example of the basic problem plaguing these sorts of multi-ticket satellites. As the bubble approaches, accumulating additional chips becomes of extremely little value to those players who are already more or less guaranteed their tickets, while for the shorter stacks, it becomes a game of surviving while hoping for others to bust out. The potential for collusion is therefore massive, as a player in Dentale’s position can potentially have a huge impact on who else gets a ticket at minimal cost to himself, by calling all-ins from those players he’d like to see eliminated, and folding to those he’d like to help stay in.

The problem is so big, so obvious and so well-understood that events of this format would be unlikely to exist at all if it weren’t for two simple facts: they’ve been a part of the poker world for so long that everyone has accepted them as inevitable, and they are more or less essential to the viability of major tournaments. Without satellites, few recreational players and semipros would be able to afford to play such events, and without those players softening the field, there would be far fewer professionals buying in directly; at the very least, the major tours would be much smaller affairs than they are with the satellites, and might very well not survive at all.

Plenty of suggestions have been made for ways to improve on the format to avoid or mitigate the collusion problem, from switching to a shootout format at the end, having only single table satellites, awarding additional money for first place, or even more exotic ideas like the “Hit and Run satellite” format being experimented with by Winamax. The trouble, of course, is that recreational players are mostly unaware of the collusion problem and the professionals are, one imagines, mostly benefitting from it themselves, and only see it as a problem when it’s both blatant and working to their detriment. There’s therefore not enough pressure being put on tournament organizers to make such a change, which would no doubt be confusing and off-putting for many people used to the way things have always worked in the past.

Hunting the fabled colludicorn

Usually, when accusations of soft play or collusion come up, I point out how it’s simultaneously almost certain that it’s something that happens frequently, yet all but impossible to prove in any particular case. On first glance, just based on the mutually agreed-upon facts, this seems like what I’m tempted to call a “colludicorn,” that is, the improbable, possibly imaginary scenario in which collusion is so clear-cut as to be provable. Sticking only to mutually agreed-upon facts, here are the aspects of the situation that look the worst for Dentale:

  • Dentale was sitting right next to Kiletto, and spoke to her on break right before the hand happened. It seems incredibly unlikely that, even drunk, he could fail to notice that she was down to her last few chips, or that she would fail to mention this in conversation, especially given that it was specifically Dentale she would very likely be racing against in the next hand after break.
  • A ticket is never entirely guaranteed in a satellite, as it often happens that the short stacks keep doubling up rather than busting. Everyone at the table in these situations will usually be keeping track of the shortest stacks and rooting for them to bust to end to both the stress and tedium.
  • Dentale did remember his cards before they were turned over, so he’d obviously looked at them and been at least somewhat present in the situation. Of course, even a player intending to fold no matter what will probably look at his cards so as not to let everyone know that’s what he’s doing… but the fact that he correctly remembered both cards, especially the Four, kind of puts a cap on how drunk and oblivious he could have been.
  • Psychologically speaking, if Dentale was interested in winning the pot, then when asked what cards he’d had, you would expect him to remember the Ace first, and announce it more clearly. Regardless of whether he couldn’t remember at first, or mumbled, or what, the fact that he was more clear about having a Four suggests that his motivation may have been to minimize others’ suspicions rather than to have the best chance of recovering his hand and eliminating Kiletto.

If this were a court of law, I think that although it’s never possible to prove intent with 100% certainty, a judge or jury would be likely to find that the degree of uncertainty fails to meet the definition of “reasonable doubt.” For Dentale’s actions to be deemed innocent requires assuming that he was completely unconcerned with how close the short stacks were to busting out, that Kiletto didn’t make any joke or comment about her situation while they were talking, despite knowing that she’d be all-in on the first hand after break, that despite seeing an Ace in his hand, he didn’t bother to check what the action to him had been, and that when later pressed about his hand, he was clearer and more firm about having a Four than about the Ace. Each of these things is individually somewhat plausible, but it seems like a long shot that they’d all be true.

Update: It seems there’s some doubt about just how “aggressively” Dentale mucked his cards. The situation is considerably less damning if he didn’t actually attempt to make the cards unrecoverable. See discussion in comments below.

And yet, and yet…

This is the conclusion many people reached, and yet, others have defended Dentale. The most common argument in his defence is that he could not have expected to get away with such a plan, with eight opponents (not counting Kiletto) watching and $25,000 tickets on the line. One counter-argument is that if Dentale’s cards had made it fully into the muck and had not been retrievable, then there would have been no choice but to give Kiletto the pot, and Dentale would likely have gotten away with a penalty, which would affect him relatively little given his position. It would still have been a risky move, but the potential was there for Dentale to help Kiletto out without costing himself his ticket.

Since these are the only two options, it’s surely the case that Dentale, in his drunken state, was foolish enough either to be completely oblivious of the situation at the table, despite the value of the tickets on the line, or foolish enough to agree to a collusion plan that had a relatively low probability of working successfully and certainly ran the chance of him being disqualified and losing the ticket he was otherwise all but guaranteed. The question, then, is which of those is actually more foolish, and that seems to be a matter of debate.

I don’t have a firm answer to that question myself, but I will say two things about it. First, when people do get caught committing crimes and unethical acts, it’s quite often in unbelievably stupid ways. This is as true in poker as it is elsewhere; one example that springs quickly to mind is Christian Lusardi smuggling an absurd number of counterfeit chips into a tournament at the Borgata, and when he began to fear detection, attempting to cover up his crime by flushing them down the toilet in his own hotel room. Secondly, collusion is, as I’ve said, something incredibly hard to prove; indeed, in live poker, the only way anyone can truly be caught colluding is by doing something obvious to the point of idiocy. If, in those cases, we give the person in question a pass because we don’t believe they could actually be that foolish, we’ve put ourselves in quite the catch-22.

So, while I can’t say one way or the other what was going on in Dentale’s head on Monday night when this happened, I do think the poker community needs to do some serious thinking about the role intent plays in judging situations like this. Do players have a responsibility to avoid actions which are indistinguishable from collusion, or merely a responsibility not to collude intentionally? And if it’s the latter, then what are the heuristics we use for gauging intent? Without an answer to those questions, the colludicorn is likely to prove as elusive as any other mythical beast.

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