poker rules

What Would a Supervisor Do (“WWSD”)?

In my previous post, I described a friend’s horrible stretch at the poker tables during our recent trip to Las Vegas.  For purposes of that blog entry I called him “Dylan” so we’ll stick with that here.

One of many bad beats involved a full house against a bigger full house, playing 4-handed.  This was at the Bellagio poker room.  Ouch!  To quote from the prior post:  “when Dylan showed his full house, the other player thought he was beaten, flashed his cards to a third player who wasn’t part of the action, then threw them into the muck.  The third player pointed out that the villain has misread his hand and actually had a bigger full house, and the dealer retrieved his cards from the top of the muck pile, declared the hand live, and awarded him the pot.”

Allow me to elaborate.  With pocket threes, Dylan opened the action pre-flop with a small raise.  Another player re-raised to 10 big blinds, with only 15 more BBs behind.  Not having the right odds for set-mining, and not convinced the villain’s 3-bet meant great strength considering the table was 4-handed, Dylan re-raised enough to put the villain all-in and the villain called.  Whether we like or dislike Dylan’s decision-making here quickly becomes irrelevant.

The flop was K88, followed by a 3 on the turn, giving Dylan a full house.  The river was another K.

After the board was complete, Dylan showed his cards first, and the dealer announced “full house.”  The villain in the hand, in seat 1 right beside the dealer, lifted up his cards and said (to no one in particular) “look what I had” before throwing them face down onto the muck pile.  The dealer could see his cards, as could most of the other players at the table including Dylan.  One of the other players – who was not involved in the hand – said “wait a minute!” telling the villain that he was folding a winning hand.  The dealer asked if Dylan saw the hand, to which Dylan replied that he saw an ace.  The dealer said, “oh, well it was ace-king,” giving the villain a higher full house, KKK-88, compared to Dylan’s 333-KK.

Noting this was, in fact, the stronger hand, the dealer awarded the pot to the villain.  When I pressed Dylan about the details, he didn’t recall the cards ever being retrieved from the much and placed face up on the table.  According to Dylan, once villain’s AK was revealed and a third player pointed out it resulted in a stronger poker hand, the dealer showed no hesitation in ruling that he should be awarded the pot.  Not wanting to pick a fight and not confident he would win if he did pick a fight, Dylan did not ask the dealer to call for a supervisor to review the dealer’s ruling.  But that won’t stop this poker blogger from speculating…

poker rulesThere are multiple poker rules at work here, some pulling in the opposite direction of others.

  • Cards must be tabled to win
  • Cards speak
  • One player to a hand
  • Ethical obligation to point out errors
  • Spirit of fairness
  • Cards may be retrieved from the muck to preserve the integrity of the game

Cards must be tabled

According to Robert’s Rules of Poker, “a player must show all cards in the hand face-up on the table to win any part of the pot.”  Laying both cards face up on the table is known as “tabling” the hand.  The language in Robert’s Rule puts this burden on the player.  I recall a tournament hand that got to a showdown involving two players sitting next to each other.  One player held his cards in the air, showing them to the other player, who said “nice hand.”  But the first player never tabled his hand; instead he tossed it face down towards the dealer after the second player verbally acknowledged it as the winner.  Since the second player still had his cards, the dealer awarded him the pot, which was backed up by a supervisor called over at the request of the first player.  Based on this rule alone, Dylan should have been awarded the pot.

Cards speak

Also from Robert’s Rules:  “Cards speak (cards read for themselves). The dealer assists in reading hands, but players are responsible for holding onto their cards until the winner is declared. Although verbal declarations as to the contents of a hand are not binding, deliberately miscalling a hand with the intent of causing another player to discard a winning hand is unethical and may result in forfeiture of the pot.”  This protects a player who misreads his hand, provided he shows his cards.  For the good of the game, the actual best hand should be awarded the pot.  The most literal interpretation of this rule would simply follow the declaration of the first two words… cards speak.  If the fact that the villain’s cards became known is more important than how they became known, Dylan should not have been awarded the pot.

One player to a hand

In his poker etiquette section, Robert lists the following actions as “improper, and grounds for warning, suspending, or barring a violator… Reading a hand for another player at the showdown before it has been placed faceup on the table… Telling anyone to turn a hand faceup at the showdown.”  In another place, Robert’s Rules simply states “only one person may play a hand.”  The third player who told the villain about his mistake certainly violated these rules.  One player to a hand means you cannot help another player, whether by announcing “he never bluffs in this spot” while someone is contemplating an all-in bet or in any other manner that might influence a poker action.  Based on this rule alone, Dylan should have been awarded the pot.  This rule should take precedence over ‘cards must be tabled’ and ‘cards speak’ as the villain did not table his cards and the dealer should not allow them to ‘speak’ based on the improper assistance.

Ethical obligation to point out errors

Robert again:  “Any player, dealer, or floorperson who sees an incorrect amount of chips put into the pot, or an error about to be made in awarding a pot, has an ethical obligation to point out the error. Please help us keep mistakes of this nature to a minimum.”  For this rule to work, however, the cards must first be tabled.  When everything else has been done properly, it is the dealer’s job to ensure the bet and call amounts are correct, identify the winning hand and award the pot.  Sometimes the dealer makes a mistake, presumably unintended, and honor among thieves dictates these errors be pointed out and corrected.  One might look at this rule completely in a vacuum and conclude that based on it alone, Dylan should not have been awarded the pot.  That requires imagining a vacuum that doesn’t actually exist by ignoring the other rules.

Spirit of fairness

Robert again:  “Management reserves the right to make decisions in the spirit of fairness, even if a strict interpretation of the rules may indicate a different ruling.”  This catch-all rule is designed to protect poker room personnel when they screw up whilst trying to do the right thing.  Sometimes things get complicated, one rule conflicts with another, in the heat of the moment a less experienced dealer or supervisor might not remember every rule correctly but act in good faith to resolve a dispute, or a strict application of the rules creates an unintended injustice.  Based on this rule alone, Dylan should not have been awarded the pot, as the rule presumes the dealer was trying in good faith to do the right thing.

Cards may be retrieved

Robert again:  “Cards thrown into the muck may be ruled dead. However, a hand that is clearly identifiable may be retrieved at management’s discretion if doing so is in the best interest of the game. We will make an extra effort to rule a hand retrievable if it was folded as a result of false information given to the player.”  Afterwards, Dylan told me he didn’t recall the cards actually being retrieved from the muck and placed face up on the table.  But suppose they were…  Did the circumstances warrant retrieval of the villain’s cards from the muck?  Was doing so in the best interest of the game?  I find it difficult to defend retrieval based on Dylan’s description.  The villain wasn’t deceived or given any false information; he simply mis-read his own hand, not realizing the river card gave him a full house and assuming he was beaten when the dealer announced Dylan’s (weaker) full house.  He threw his cards onto the muck pile voluntarily.

What Would a Supervisor Do?

Dylan could have asked the dealer to call for a supervisor.  This is always an option, and when used should be done in a way that shows respect towards the dealer.  After all, the first version of what happened that the supervisor will hear is going to come from the mouth of the dealer.  Let’s not piss him off!

I want to run this scenario past a few poker room supervisors for feedback.  How would they rule?  Which rules from above would they rely on the most?  Does their poker room follow Robert’s Rules of Poker or use their own set of rules (and if so, where do they differ from Robert’s)?

Poker supervisors… please post in the comments section.


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  1. A couple of comments I’ve received via Twitter:

    From @yourpokerdealer – how is that ever allowed? Why would a dealer make a call like that? I’d have the floor over immediately on that dealer and players. I don’t know how a floor would ever call it a live hand, ever, in any card room.

    From @devvynpdx – As the dealer I instantly muck the villains hand (into) the muck- not on top. As a floor supervisor if his hand was retrievable and 100% identifiable then the villains hand is live & therefore he wins the pot. I would give a penalty to the player who read the un-tabled hand.

  2. Excellent post! In several instances like this, I have seen the players split the pot. Maybe it is not an ideal solution, but with so many conflicting rules and interpretations, at least both players basically get their money back.

  3. Good point Lightning36. I thought that best case scenario, the pot would be split. But I also thought that despite essentially freerolling for half (or all) of the pot, a $300 hand in $2/5 isn’t really worth fighting over and getting everyone else at the table mad at me about. Although a chopped pot would have been better than the eventual ending.

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