Rant: Why People Unintentionally Collude in Poker

Poker players don't treat all opponents equal, even if they think they do.

In a recent Rant I questioned how common it is for groups of players sharing a bankroll to work together in order to win, and how damaging it is to the game of poker.

The piece got a lot of feedback, both on and off the PokerListings site, so I thought it was a good idea to respond.

It seems I angered some people by suggesting that players who form syndicates are cheats, and I want to make it clear that unless I have concrete evidence that someone has cheated, all I have is an opinion.

And that opinion is that syndication increases the potential for cheating to occur and is a potential weak link in the integrity of our game.

One PokerListings poster commented:

“The High Rollers usually have hole cards up at final tables so even if the final 3/4 are sharing the same bankroll any type of collusion would be hard to do considering how many people watch the live stream. Plus I think most of these top level pros understand the dog eat dog/no friends at the table scenario, even if they are using the same roll.”

I agree with the poster that a syndicate member would be foolhardy to try to collude while playing in one of the highest-profile games in the world, but I do have an opinion that they do so without even realizing it.

Many Players Soft-Play Opponents They Like

Who hasn’t sat down at a poker table and used their charm to befriend a complete stranger, and then received a little bit of soft-play later on in the session? I know I have. In fact, it’s a strategy of mine to do so.

Irenus Eibl Eibesfeldt
Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt

These tactics are subtle yet highly effective. You might offer them a mint, buy them a drink, congratulate them on a hand well played or tell them that their look clothes nice.

Then when you try a big bluff they will look into your eyes and proceed to lay down the better hand.

This is known as the rule of reciprocity and humans derive a significant competitive advantage from the use of it, not only in sports and gaming but also in all areas of business and life.

Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt founded Human Ethology, the study of the evolutionary significance of human behavior, and hiw work can shed light on the subject.

Eibl-Eibesfeldt provided a detailed account of a German solider during World War II whose job it was to cross no-mans-land, sneak into the enemy’s camp and capture a prisoner before returning to the trenches to cross-examine him.

On this occasion the German soldier isolated and captured an enemy who was in the middle of eating. After being disarmed the frightened soldier gave his would-be captor some of his bread. This had such a profound effect on the German solider that he couldn’t bring himself to capture his enemy and instead returned to the trenches empty-handed.

The rule of reciprocation states that a human being should try and repay, in kind, what another person has provided us.

This is why most of only send out Christmas cards to people who have sent them to us, why only members of the family who provide us with birthday presents get the same in return, and why the bread-eating soldier wasn’t tortured and killed.

The Rule of Reciprocity in Poker

I was watching the action at the recent World Poker Tour (WPT) Grand Prix de Paris when a top professional player started to unload his bad beat elimination story into my left ear. To cut a very long story short the player was annoyed that another player (a friend) had made a move on him and got lucky to eliminate him.

Scotty Nguyen
If someone is nice to you at the poker table you might subconsciously repay the favor.

“I didn’t expect it from him. We go way back.”

That’s an example of reciprocity working at the poker table. When poker players know each other well, there is a unspoken agreement that if you have a monster then good luck to you. But if you don’t have it then go and bluff someone else because “we go way back”.

Each time someone uses the rule it creates an IOU system of never-ending leniency.

So although I think syndicates are open to collusion, and cheating, I don’t think anybody’s stupid enough to consciously do this. There is too much at stake.

But do I think players in syndicates subconsciously alter their game in accordance with the rule of reciprocity, because people have by default loaned each other money so they can get into the game.

Unfortunately, nobody is ever going to admit to it, because if they did they would be admitting that they don’t have total control over their actions, and who the hell admits to that these days?

These are not the actions of a cheat. They are the actions of a human being programmed by society to act in a certain way, under certain conditions.

Now it’s your turn. Tell us what you think? Leave us a comment below.


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