Although I no longer manage any poker room, I still get several texts throughout the week from those that do asking me various ruling questions. I have had the privilege of running a handful of games and being part of some great management teams in various poker rooms both in the States and here in Cambodia. While nearly every game that I have run has been of the underground variety, I suppose I have accrued some amount of cache when it comes to these matters. That having been said, I received a text from a good friend of mine this morning about a ruling in his room. A player UTG raised to $10 in a $1-$3 game and the next player to act did not notice the raise, although the dealer had called it out. So he put in $3 thinking he was calling the big blind. When he realized his error the dealer allowed him to take the $3 back and fold the hand. Some players had an issue with this and thus my friend was called over for a ruling. How do I think he should have ruled?

Before we get to the hand in question, I just wanted to mention that while I lived and played poker in Las Vegas I had the honor of learning from some great dealers and floor managers. In a tightly regulated environment such as this, it is paramount that management personnel make correct decisions every single time. And while every poker room is diligent about following the rules and procedures of their room, there is one single phrase that is present in every rule book that trumps all other regulations. The phrase reads “in the spirit of the game” and allows floor managers to make the most fair and reasonable ruling in the actual context of the game that is being played in their room. To give an example I was once playing $1-$2 NLH at the Binions Casino during which I ended up in a big heads up pot. I was on a monster draw and had pushed all in on the turn to which my opponent called. When the river bricked both my draws I tabled my hand to show something along the lines of 7 high. The chips were all in and there was no more action to be had. The dealer clearly called out my hand and then my opponent threw her cards toward the dealer but they somehow ended face down. In my immediate need and desire to win the hand, I told the dealer that hand was dead as their rule book clearly states that forward motion of a hand face down is a fold. But she claimed the cards had slipped out of her hand and so the dealer allowed her to retrieve the hand and turn it over, showing pocket aces. I called the floor manager for a ruling and he agreed with the dealer that my opponent’s hand was live and gave her the pot.

Looking back on the incident I completely agree with the decision. Context is everything here as no one can reasonably conclude that she meant to muck pocket aces in this situation. Even if she had not heard the dealer call out my hand nor seen me table it, the way the board was constructed it was doubtful that she did not think she had the best hand. If such were not the case, she would have folded to my shove on the turn. I had a friend at the South Point Casino who was a shift manager there and he probably taught me more about the game than anyone else. And he would always tell me that what was most fair in his mind was to award the pot to the winning player whenever possible. He made all his rulings accordingly and while they did not always follow the letter of the rules, they certainly fell in line with the spirit of the game. No one should win a pot in poker on a technicality, especially when the context is clear as to what really happened. But this is Cambodia and we are a long way from Las Vegas. Cambodia, and Phnom Penh especially, is filled with players who would want every poker room to follow every rule to the letter even if it results in a player winning a massive pot based on an honest mistake or a technicality. I certainly understand this desire among expat players as poker is relatively new in Cambodia. That having been said, it might stand to reason that local players who do not know nor understand all the rules should be given a rigid structure to play under, at least until they catch up in terms of their understanding. But we are not talking about simple people as Cambodians who come to a poker room are often reasonable and educated people. They are perfectly capable of understanding that while rules exist, there is also grey and that what matters most is the integrity of the game.

I will give one more example to further illustrate my point. In a room I managed here in Phnom Penh we had a large tournament in which the guaranteed prize pool was $7,500. The turnout was so great that the total prize exceeded $10,000. Very late in the tournament when we were getting close to the bubble, an incident occurred on one of the tables. A player under the gun had raised, two more players called and then a player in middle position went all in. Two players folded and the next player announced call as he was covered and pushed his chips into the middle. The dealer was not paying attention and almost immediately took his cards into the muck. The action was stopped immediately and I was called to make a ruling. As only two other players had folded the muck did not have that many cards. I asked the player to whisper into another dealer’s ear what his cards were and then she told me that it was the As7s. I asked her to check the muck to see if those cards were present, which they were. I then ruled that the hand was retrievable and allowed him to play on. The rule clearly states in this situation that although the dealer did make a mistake, each player is responsible for protecting his own hand to “ensure” this sort of thing does not happen. I put that word in quotes because in this situation the player had no chance to do so. There was nothing to say that he was not on his way to doing just that as the dealer hardly waited for him to say “I call” before sweeping his cards into the muck. Two other players had folded and she quickly assumed he would as well and thus took his cards in. I had previously mentioned that context is everything and that certainly applies here. Consider the specific nature of the two cards that he had. There was clearly no angle here on his part in the initial error, but even when given the opportunity to create one he was honest in telling the dealer two cards that were far from premium. Of course the matter was not helped when the dealer put out three spades on the flop vs the player who had initially pushed all in with pocket queens. That player strongly disagreed with my ruling, which I of course expected and understood. But then again, I doubt I would have heard a single word from him had the queens held up and he doubled through.

And that is what all of this really comes down to, is that we all want to win. In my earlier description of Cambodian players I did not intend to insinuate that expat players look down on locals and that is why they want strict rules. Anyone who has played in this country even for a few days are fully aware that their local counterparts are reasonable and perfectly intelligent people. But in the moment, we all just want to win and that is perfectly fine. But I expect all reasonable players to perhaps think different though after having walked away from the table and thought about the issue. But even having said that I do not expect every player to agree with the contents of this article. At the very least, we should all be able to conclude that we can agree to disagree. There are plenty of poker room managers, and good ones at that, who do not agree with me and would rule by the letter of the law every single time. And although we disagree I have as much respect for them as I hope they have towards me.

So getting back to the hand in question, how would I have ruled? From what was described to me, the player was a well known expat who played regularly and is not known for angle shooting. The dealer initially allowed him to take the $3 back and fold when my friend was called over. I will not mentioned how he ruled, but I would have agreed with the dealer and allowed the game to continue based on her decision. I realize the ruling is not technically correct, but I am not about to hold up a game over $3 when it was simple mistake that nearly everyone on the table knew the intentions of. And generally speaking, I told my friend to not overrule the dealers in situations where they might be technically incorrect but ruled in the spirit and context of the game. In every room I have worked in I have always tried to give the dealers every bit of respect I can muster. This is especially the case if they can deal out 20 to 25 hands per 30 minute down and efficiently run a table. And that is indeed what they do, run the table and the first ruling should always originate from them. Although the floor manager should not be motivated by always wanting to agree with the dealer, they should only be overturned on egregious mistakes and should be backed up whenever possible. This is how players develop respect for the dealers as there will be none to be had if their own superior does not show any. And as for the floor manager, he or she should be consistent in their rulings as many times that is more important than how one rules. Once players know the philosophy and paradigm from which they draw their rulings from, they can come to expect fairness and consistency in each instance.

Of course then a further challenge lies in getting every single manager and dealer on the same page. This is why it is paramount that every poker room have one single leader, a general manager who is not only clear about the rules but can effectively communicate to his staff how they want them to be applied. Anyone can write a poker rule book as they are available online and one can simply copy and paste. And it is even simpler to go to a table each time there is an incident and repeat the rule verbatim like some sort of robot. But if the one in charge emanates from within reasonable accountability and authority, those will surely make its way down to the staff and also to the players. This is how you create culture and community, words that are too seldom used in a poker room. ​

Reposted with permission from Poker Triad 2+2.