“Mountain Mike” exploded from his seat at the poker table, chair flying backwards as the obscenities flew at his foe across the table. And when “The-G” laughed at Mountain Mike, the fight was on. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on how you view the matter) three other players and two floor persons were able to drag Mountain Mike to the ground before Mountain Mike was able to deliver justice to The-G’s face.
What precipitated Mountain Mike blowing his top? The-G didn’t break any formal rules of poker, and The-G didn’t merely breach poker etiquette: The-G had lied to Mountain Mike. That’s right. There is ethics in poker. There is honour among thieves.
It is true that deception is an integral component of poker, but The-G’s lie was morally out of bounds, even for poker. Let’s rewind the tape and review the hand to make sense of the situation and the claim that The-G did something immoral by lying while playing poker.
But first, a recap of the game being played: no-limit Texas Hold’em poker. Each player makes the best five-card poker hand he can out of a total of seven cards. The first two cards dealt to each player are called hole cards. Hole cards are dealt face down to each player and are for his eyes only. A round of betting occurs after players receive their hole cards. After the betting round is completed, if more than one player remains, three more cards are then dealt face up. These cards are called the flop and may be used by all of the remaining players in making their five-card poker hand. A round of betting occurs after the flop. After the betting round is completed, if more than one player remains, another card is dealt face up and can be used by all of the remaining players in making their five-card poker hand. This community card is called the turn card. After the turn card is dealt a round of betting occurs. After the betting round is completed, if more than one player remains, another card is dealt face up and can be used by all of the remaining players in making their five-card poker hand. This final community card is called the river card. After the river card is dealt a round of betting occurs. If more than one player remains after the final betting round occurs, the cards are shown and the best five-card hand wins the pot.
Playing no-limit Texas Hold’em, Mountain Mike is on the button (i.e. in the dealer’s position). After the hole cards were dealt, three or four players limped into the pot by just calling the minimum bet, the big blind. Mike looks down at his hole cards, ducks (pocket deuces). Since Mike has the advantage of position, acting last throughout the rest of the hand, Mike decides to raise in an attempt to eliminate some of those trying to see the flop for cheap and to represent the idea that he holds a good hand. All but The-G fold, and The-G, who has more total chips than Mike, just calls Mike’s raise.
The flop comes: deuce, deuce, and a trey. Mike has hit quad ducks on the flop, an unbelievably strong hand. But Mike doesn’t flinch. He is deep in thought. How can he extract the most money possible from The-G? What is the right-sized bet? By all rights, the flop shouldn’t have helped either player, so Mike makes a modest continuation bet, representing the idea that his hole cards alone are probably good enough to beat The-G, but a bet not big enough to alert The-G to the monster hand Mike actually holds. To Mike’s delight, The-G calls. The-G must have something like an ace with a good kicker, a king or queen, and thinks his hole cards are actually better than Mike’s.
The turn card is an ace and The-G makes a bet equal to the current pot. “Fantastic,” thinks Mike as he calls; “The-G must have hit an ace and has two pair: aces and deuces.” Mike has The-G trapped by all appearances
The river card is a second ace. If The-G had ace-king or ace-queen like Mike thought, then The-G just made a full house, fantastic news since quad deuces beats a full house every day of the week.
The-G goes all-in, representing a very strong hand like a full house. But Mike thinks for a moment. The-G could have him beat with quad aces if The-G holds pocket aces. But The-G must not have pocket aces, since he would have raised prior to the flop with such a strong hand. With that thought in mind, Mike calls for all of the rest of his chips.
In a flash, and without showing his cards, The-G bellows, “Quad aces sucker!” In absolute disgust, Mike tosses his hand face down into the muck – the pile of folded cards. The-G has now won the hand because Mike has folded. But when The-G finally turns his cards over, he is actually holding seven-six suited. The-G had absolutely nothing but the pair of ducks on the board and this is when Mountain Mike exploded from his seat.
Mike isn’t mad at The-G because he lost the hand per se. Mike is mad because The-G won the hand by lying, claiming to have quad aces when he didn’t. Does Mike’s moral outrage make any sense? Yes.
The situation is analogous to professional boxing. Physically assaulting another person with your fists is a prima facie wrong. But professional boxers enter into a social contract that allows them to punch each other during their bout without legal or moral judgement. But the agreement doesn’t allow the boxers to assault each other before or after the bout, or between rounds. Similarly, poker players enter into an implicit social contract that allows them to lie to one another. The problem is The-G lied to Mountain Mike between rounds as it were, when lying hasn’t been authorised by the implicit social contract.
To make sense of this, a rule of poker needs a bit of explanation: the cards speak for themselves. The idea is simple: when cards are turned face up at the show down, the player with the best hand wins. For example, suppose that Smith and Jones mis-read their cards at the show down and mistakenly believe that Smith has won the pot. Given the cards-speak rule, the dealer must intervene and make sure that Jones receives the pot as if the cards declared the objective winner.
So, returning to the case of The-G and Mountain Mike: if Mike had placed his cards face up on the table, then his hand would have won when The-G actually exposed his hand. But after Mike’s call of The-G’s all-in, The-G led Mike to believe that the cards-speak rule wasn’t going to help him by way of his felonious declaration of quad aces. Moreover, players operate on the assumption that a hand is over, and the time for deception is concluded, whenever a player calls or folds to the final bet. Hence, the hand was over as soon as Mike called The-G’s all-in; now it was just time to let the cards speak for themselves, but The-G continued on with his attempts at deception – the false claim of quad aces – after the end of the hand. Hence, the unauthorised lie.
Those who know the rules of poker through and through will realise that, technically speaking, the hand between Mike and The-G was not actually over when Mountain Mike called The-G’s all-in bet. Technically speaking, a hand is over when a player folds or both hands are turned face up and the cards speak for themselves. This is the official rule a casino will enforce. But what is more important than the official rule is the understanding players have between themselves, the rule in their implicit social contract. And the understanding between players is that the time for deception is over as soon as a player in Mike’s position has made the tough call or folded. And Mike had already called, so the round was over at that instance as far as the poker-playing fraternity is concerned. Now the cards speak for themselves.
Evidence that players have a different assumption concerning the end of a hand, as compared to the official rules of a casino, is to be found in the following common occurrence. Not infrequently a player will be on a draw and miss the draw on the river but bet big anyway. The bluffing aggressor is representing the idea that he holds a big hand and that he can crush anyone that missed the very draw he missed. The opponent is faced with a tough choice then: is my hand strong enough to call the aggressor’s hand? When the opponent does make that tough call against the bluffing aggressor, the bluffing aggressors usually admits defeat immediately by saying, “You got me.” and tossing his cards into the muck without even showing them; the hand was over when the call was made. Sometimes, however, the bluffing aggressor doesn’t immediately give up after the call. Without showing his cards, he says, “I have nothing,” admitting to his opponent that he was bluffing but hoping that his opponent was bluffing too. In this case, his nothing might be better than his opponent’s nothing, and it is time to let the cards speak for themselves.
When asked, most grinders (i.e. fulltime poker players) will deny that there are moral rights and wrongs within poker until they are reminded of cases such as the above. And with their memories jogged, they will then proceed to enumerate a plethora of cases of immoral skulduggery that they have witnessed at the poker table, immoralities that don’t actually violate any of the formal rules of poker.
Returning to the original thesis, I’m not claiming that immoralities don’t occur at the poker table: they do. I’m simply claiming that even poker players recognise moral rights and wrongs at the poker table that are separate from mere violations of the formal rules. Of course, that is not to say that poker players unanimously agree on the moral status of any particular act. They may disagree amongst themselves just as ordinary folks disagree about moral rights and wrongs outside of the poker room.
The poker room is an untapped resource for the applied ethicist to investigate, and this should not be surprising, since large sums of money are frequently at stake. Whenever large sums of money are involved, some are apt to try to cash in by whatever means possible.
Careful ethical analysis of some of the scenarios that occur at the poker table can offer guidance in our everyday lives as well. Due to spatial constraints, I will not pursue this thought here. Rather, I would like to offer just one more case for consideration, one of many difficult cases that occur at the poker table, a type of case first suggested to me by Gabriel Schecter.
“Howdy boys!” yells Tex as he takes his seat and throws three bundles of hundreds on to the felt. Tex continues, “My doctor told me that I’m a workaholic and that I need to blow off some steam before I stroke out. So I am here to play some poker. I’m going to have a good time, get drunk, and play until I take all of your money or you take mine. Either way, it’s doctor’s orders. Don’t worry about taking all this here money, there is plenty more where this came from. Hell, I’ll be back once a week, every week, doctor’s orders.”
Most grinders salivate at the sort of opportunity for profit that Tex represents, but would helping Tex with his “therapy” be morally permissible? Supposing that Tex didn’t actually drink while playing, and supposing that Tex could easily afford to lose every week: nothing seems morally inappropriate. Tex has made an informed decision to put money at risk in a game that involves both skill and luck. It is the fact that Tex plans on drinking that complicates matters.
When Tex is drunk, his continual play cannot be considered consensual, as he cannot make an informed decision to continue as the alcohol impairs his judgement; Tex might wish to change his mind about playing poker if he were sober, but now he is unable, or won’t, because of his impaired judgement. Hence, playing with Tex while he is impaired is non-consensual and, therefore, morally wrong.
It is true that Tex’s drunkenness is voluntary. And this is a point most poker players claim as decisive in terms of the moral permissibility of playing against Tex and the like. But the voluntary nature of Tex’s drunkenness doesn’t mean that others are permitted to take advantage of Tex’s diminished ability to make rational decisions. The voluntary nature of Tex’s drunkenness simply means, as Aristotle might remind us, that Tex is responsible for the harms that he might cause others while acting in a state of voluntary ignorance and not that harms done to Tex by others are excused while Tex is in such a state.
Those bent on liberating Tex from his money might offer one final argument as follows. A prohibition against playing poker with drunken Tex is paternalistic at its core. And, as John Stuart Mill has shown, paternalism is never justified unless the restricted activity is likely to harm others (without their consent to being placed at risk). Call this idea Mill’s Harm Principle. And since Tex and everyone else at the table agrees to participate in the game in question what, exactly, is the problem? Nothing. Tex is not violating the Harm Principle, so who are we to boycott Tex’s poker playing when he has every right to play while drunk?
Gerald Dworkin’s detailed analysis of Mill’s Harm Principle as it relates to slavery identifies an exception to the Harm Principle. Even Mill believes it would be wrong to allow a person to sell himself into slavery although doing so may not harm others. So what Mill is really defending in his rejection of paternalism is the value of autonomy. People should be allowed to do whatever they want, so long as doing so doesn’t harm others, or strip the agent of his or her autonomy. Call this idea Mill’s Principle of Autonomy.
In this case, playing against Tex while he is intoxicated would be wrong because it violates Mill’s Principle of Autonomy; intoxication strips Tex of his autonomy and we ought not allow, or facilitate, Tex’s loss of autonomy.
There is, however, an important difference between slavery and intoxication that muddies the waters. Slavery is usually a permanent loss of autonomy while the loss of autonomy due to intoxication is usually temporary. Does such a difference matter such that voluntary and temporary losses of autonomy are morally tolerable while permanent losses of autonomy are to be eschewed? I leave this question for the reader to hammer out on his or her own. But my gut tells me that we should not tolerate or facilitate others participating in activities that surrender their autonomy, even if only temporarily. It is immoral to play poker against anyone that is intoxicated. And from this judgement others seem to follow. For example, dealers shouldn’t allow intoxicated patrons to play poker.
Of course, the inevitable query follows. How drunk may a player be before autonomy is lost and playing against him or her violates the Principle of Autonomy? Drawing a precise and defensible line is hard to do. But this is not to say that persons clearly on one side of the intoxication line or the other can’t be determined with ease. The only remaining question, then, is how to respond to the middling cases of intoxication. The answer here seems easy enough. Supposing that violations of the Principle of Autonomy are bad; whenever there is any doubt concerning a player’s autonomy, said player should be shut out.
A poker room is a land unto itself and a very foreign land to most. But applied ethicists ought to consider making the trip as the environment is full of cases yet to be scrutinised by their ilk. Please have a seat at my table and bring extra cash.