Ethical Theories and Poker Players

Some ethical concepts came up in this recent post, where a woman pondering my all-in river bet said, “I fold, Will you show?”  I said, no, sorry I don’t show, then she replied, “In that case, I call,” sliding forward her calling chips and flipping over her cards.  My hand was good, the dealer pushed the chips towards me and I happily took the bounty from her apparent reversal of her initial decision.

Later, a couple of friends who were at the same table agreed they heard her to be making a declaratory statement of folding, rather than a conditional clause precedent to her questions, as in “If I fold, will you show?”  We debated how I would have reacted had I been bluffing.  Would I have insisted that “verbal is binding,” her words were declaratory, and the hand was over the instant she said “I fold”?  Would I get a favorable ruling on that?

We discussed then, and it came up again last week, whether this was an example of Situational Ethics.  Success in the game of poker requires developing and using skills at pattern recognition, probability theory, math, psychology, deception, self-discipline and anticipating human behavior better than our opponents.  More crudely, we seek to exploit others while avoiding being exploited ourselves to tilt the otherwise random distribution of 52 playing cards in our favor.

Each hand in a poker game presents a unique situation.  There are 1,326 combinations of two cards that you might be dealt in a Texas Holdem game. After removal of your cards, there are 1,225 combinations of the 50 remaining cards that a single opponent might be dealt.  For a second opponent, another 1,128 combinations, and so on depending on the number of players.  With a full table of nine players, 34 cards remain in the deck after the initial dealing.  Now there are 5,984 different combinations of a 3-card flop, followed by 31 possible turn cards and 30 possible river cards.  Add the differences in opponents’ skills and playing styles and everyone’s position at the table relative to the dealer button, and it’s impossible to try to develop a strategy for each exact situation.

When something non-standard happens, we have to figure out what to do, as when the woman seemed to declare her intent to fold to my river bet, then seemed to change her mind after I stated that I wouldn’t show my cards.  For many non-standard events, rules and protocols are clear, such as when a hole card is accidentally exposed during the dealing process.  Other times, not so much.  This can lead to disagreements with sizable sums of money at stake, most often with each player involved arguing for the resolution that results in his or her winning the most chips or losing the least amount possible.  Angle shooting, table talk, betting out of turn, prematurely exposed cards, dealer mistakes, outright cheating or collusion, etc. create non-standard events.  How often do you see players argue against their own self-interest?  While tempted to call this Situational Ethics (as I was first inclined), this label actually misses the mark.

Another non-standard event occurred at a different game recently.  The dealer thought both players had checked after the turn card, which left the board at 5d-4d-5s-2d.  He burned the next card and was in the act of turning over the river card when one of the players said “Wait!”  He had not in fact checked and he wanted to bet.  The dealer put the partially exposed river card back on top of the deck.  I saw the forthcoming river card was the Ad, but said nothing.  There was a bet, an all-in raise and a snap call.  The first player, who was at the far corner of the table where it was most unlikely that he saw the river card as the angle when it was partially exposed was facing away from him, had pocket fours for a full house.  The other player, who was in the line of sight where it was more possible that he saw the exposed card, had Kd 3d for a turned flush.

Then the river came, and the Ad gave the second player a straight flush and improbable win of a large pot.  His body language seemed too nonchalant for such a random/lucky outcome, however, which I mentioned to the host of the game later.  I cannot say for sure whether he saw the river card or not, but it was definitely a non-standard event that raises some questions.  Should I (or another player no longer involved in the action who later acknowledged seeing the river card) have interceded while the turn betting was taking place to insist that since I saw the card, it was possible that either or both players might have seen it and the prudent action would be to re-shuffle the remaining cards to re-randomize the river card?

To a non-philosopher, the term Situational Ethics would appear to apply here.  But having majored in philosophy in college (long, long ago), I thought it was worth some review.  According to Wikipedia:

Situational Ethics takes into account the particular context of an act when evaluating it ethically, rather than judging it according to absolute moral standards. In situation ethics, within each context, it is not a universal law that is to be followed, but the law of love.

Proponents of Situational Ethics refer to a biblical type of love that shows concern about others, caring for them as much as one cares for oneself.  The love is conceived as having no strings attached to it and seeking nothing in return; it is a totally unconditional love.

Joseph Fletcher, who became prominently associated with this approach in the English-speaking world due to his book (Situation Ethics), stated that “all laws and rules and principles and ideals and norms, are only contingent, only valid if they happen to serve love” in the particular situation, and thus may be broken or ignored if another course of action would achieve a more loving outcome.

A more accurate term for the ethics we most often see at a poker game is Ethical Egoism.  Again, we start with Wikipedia:

Ethical Egoism is the normative ethical position that moral agents ought to do what is in their own self-interest.  Ethical Egoism holds that one should not (as altruism does) sacrifice one’s own interests to help others’ interests, so long as one’s own interests are substantially equivalent to the others’ interests and well-being.

Yeah, that sounds more like poker players.

Ethical Egoism differs from psychological egoism, which claims that people can only act in their self-interest. Ethical Egoism also differs from rational egoism, which holds that it is rational to act in one’s self-interest. Ethical Egoism holds, therefore, that actions whose consequences will benefit the doer can be considered ethical in this sense.

Ethical egoism contrasts with ethical altruism, which holds that moral agents have an obligation to help others. Egoism and altruism both contrast with Utilitarianism, which holds that a moral agent should treat one’s self with no higher regard than one has for others, resulting in the so-called greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Ethical Egoism does not necessarily entail that, in pursuing self-interest, one ought always to do what one wants to do; e.g. in the long term, the fulfillment of short-term desires may prove detrimental to the self (in the case of poker players, actions that get you kicked out of a profitable game would be detrimental). 

Comments welcome…

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