An Introduction to Ethics in Poker

Note: I have tried as much as possible to minimise the use of poker jargon throughout.  If needed, an excellent glossary covering poker terms is available online at http://www.conjelco.com/pokglossary.html

Once upon a time, “poker players were lumped together with petty thieves, drunks, prostitutes, and other degenerates.”[1]  Further, the “presumed association of gambling with criminality is a common viewpoint.”[2]  Today, many poker players are famous TV stars, and the game of poker has spread to casinos, bars and homes right across the world – from high stakes games in Las Vegas, USA, to popular Stud games in Chang Le, China, through to Five Card variations in Eastern Europe, growth in recent years has exploded thanks to the internet.  The development of internet poker has created for the first time in the history of poker the capability to actually detect (on a repeatable and verifiable basis) cheating, and consequently, there is a developing need for ethical decisions to be made on the issues of punishment, and compensation in online poker.  “While on one hand it is easier to pass information between colluding players in online poker than it is in brick & mortar rooms, it is much more difficult to avoid eventual detection as the cards for all players can be examined after the play.”[3]

“The modern era of poker can be precisely dated as starting in May 2003, when the delightfully named Chris Moneymaker won the “Main Event” in the World Series of Poker (WSOP) in Las Vegas.”[4]  Moneymaker, who won his entry to the WSOP on PokerStars[5], sparked an online boom, with over half a million players playing online at any moment.[6]  This natural boom has meant that poker has become incredibly accessible to people across the world, and the natural openness of the game (anyone who has the money to buy-in can take part) contrasts to almost every other major competitive endeavour, where extensive registration and training is required to take part in formal competitions.  Consequently, players join the games without any formal training in the rules or ethics of the game, and coupled with a lack of a respected global governing body, the rules and ethics of online poker have evolved naturally over the last two hundred years.

From the game’s very beginnings, and “until players and casinos decided that certain acts (gunfights, robbery, cheating) were wrong, they were at least implicitly allowed and were a part of the game.”[7]  Clearly, theft and murder now contravene any reasonable ethical standard that applies to poker and, yet, lying (in the form of bluffing) is an acceptable (and integral!) part of the game.  The world of poker ethics, then, is an interesting study because there is so very little relevant pre-existing formal study of the issues involved, and further, there is no highly established official rules body.  The ethics of poker are a naturally arising object.

“The sites are very sophisticated at catching cheats, much more so than in any other poker environment, because they have a record of every single hand. They know everything-they know who you’re playing with, when you’re playing and what actions you’re taking.”[8]  With this knowledge, however, comes responsibility – By knowing what is happening, and being able to detect rules breaches, the online poker sites have created a responsibility to act on this information.  This obligation to act comes from both consequentialist but also deontological views – righting wrongs, and punishing offenders, leads to some positive outcomes, as we’ll discuss later.  Similarly, sites have a deontological obligation to act on information available to them, because of their pre-existing commitments to fairness and game integrity.[9]

Since poker ethics are so incredibly ‘unstandardised’ and there is no significant registration or qualification to join the contest, contests that sometimes have significant volumes of money at stake.  The largest poker tournaments distribute over $US10,000,000 in prizes[10] and while it ordinarily has a buy-in of $5,200 (typically, people who can pay those funds are familiar with the rules of poker) there are satellite qualification tournaments starting for $7.50[11].  Needless to say, people who play $7.50 poker tournaments have a drastically lesser understanding of the game of poker, and consequently, it is easy to imagine situations where two people engaged in the same contest can have radically different levels of understanding of rules, yet who can break the rules in the same manner.

From a deontological point of view, based on pre-existing moral codes, it seems fair to consider a breach by a $7.50 player to be deserving of lesser punishment than a $5,200 player.  While it is true that “money is money” and that the $7.50 player may value $7.50 as a $5,200 values that money, it is generally reasonable to use the stakes at risk as a proxy for understanding.  Generally speaking, high stakes games are played by better players – they’re more willing to play with large sums of money because they are more confident in their own skills and understanding.  We can therefore use this very rough self-estimation (the stakes) of a player’s skill as a rudimentary proxy to reflect a player’s general understanding of poker.

To apply this to a more definite example, high stakes players understand that various actions can have an effect on other players.  For example, let’s assume a hand in a satellite tournament, with six players remaining in the tournament.  There are five prizes (of equal value) to be distributed – of the remaining six players, five will win the prize, and one will receive nothing.  This is called the ‘bubble’ of the tournament – when a player is eliminated, the bubble bursts, and everyone remaining wins a prize.  In this hypothetical example, there is a hand where there are only two players still involved (there are 4 other people remaining in the tournament, but they have folded in this hand).  It is easy to see that each player who has already folded will benefit if the two players end up ‘all-in’ and one player eliminates another – the players who have already folded are safe from elimination, and will benefit from one player knocking the other from the tournament.

In such a situation (and this example is extreme to demonstrate the point) it is clear to see that if the two players remaining in the hand have a pre-existing agreement to avoid trying to knock each other out of the tournament, the other four players are theoretically hurt.  While the two players might not knock each other out anyway (the cards might fall in such a way as to make such a situation difficult) the fact that such an agreement existed certainly had a theoretical impact on their expected results – instead of having everyone trying to bust everyone else out of the tournament to win the prize, they’ve lost an opportunity for two of their opponents to collide and eliminate each other.

To apply this same concept, and without wanting to dwell on the mathematics of the situation[12], other players in all poker tournaments[13] are harmed if two players want to avoid knocking each other out of a tournament.  This concept is not universally known by players, and because the mathematics of it is sometimes complex, it’s not reasonable to expect an unsophisticated player to understand and be consciously aware of the effect.  To add onto this, there’s a natural human reaction to not want to knock their friends out of a tournament.  Many people simply don’t like causing harm to their friends, but in a zero-sum game like poker, you must cause harm to your opponents to be able to win – that’s where any profit comes from.  “They are novices, and they don’t know any better.”[14]

This causes relatively frequent situations where a player causes (at least) theoretical harm to another, while being entirely ignorant of it.  From a deontological point of view, such an offender cannot be held to a particular moral code, because they were unaware of the moral code.  Further, applying a penalty as deterrence from future offences makes no sense, since no other prospective offender would ever become aware that a penalty was issued.  Consequently, from a deontological point of view, the only reasonable resolution is to inform the offender of the rules, and to make them aware of the rules.

To look at the same simple issue from a consequentialist point of view, applying a punishment to the offender will decrease their happiness.  They don’t want to receive a punishment, and, by definition, a punishment will cause harm to the recipient of the punishment.  Further, the ‘victim’ of the offence doesn’t benefit from any harm caused to the offender, and there is little deterrence effect to other players, since the offenders are, by definition, ignorant of the rules.  It’s self-evidently impossible to deter people from ignorance by applying punishments.  “So, we educate them… We explain that what they’re doing is against the rules, and why. We tell them that we’re going easy on them – once – and that in the future, there will be stiffer penalties.”[15]

Given that players ignorant of the rules should not be punished for the reasons outlined above, and given that no one benefits from continued rule breaking, it is clear that the only remaining option is to educate the offender to not re-offend.  A simple warning – possibly requiring acknowledgement – is therefore the most prudent and ethically aware option.

In addition to the relatively ethically simple case of how to act when someone is ignorant of the rules, there are also other cases where ignorance cannot be plausibly claimed.  One such situation is in more malicious forms of collusion (eg, sharing your hole cards with a partner) and the case of educated offenders – offenders who should have known better, either by being experienced and sophisticated poker players, but also repeat offenders who have been previously warned.

Of course, there will need to be judgment made by the online poker operator, to determine whether a player should be reasonably expected to know the details of the rules.  We will examine one such case in detail later, but in short, while the stakes of the game are one indicator, there is further information that should be taken into account.  For example, in a cash game, with blinds of 50c/$1 (a very popular level with a buy-in of $100) the same game can include, players who have just deposited $100 as their first deposit, and long-term professionals.  Clearly, considering the stakes at risk is insufficient – it should be just one part of building a larger picture of the player and any appropriate resolution.

Unfortunately, simply asking a player if they were aware of rules before they breached the rules is unlikely to be sufficient.  While this would save time and effort if players were to admit to their wrong doing, there is little to be gained from such investigations – there is no incentive for a player to admit that they knew they were breaching the rules when they committed the relevant act.  Ignorance is, then, in this situation, a legitimate defence, so further information needs to be obtained to generate a best guess of the knowledge of the offender.

One key factor is how long a given player has played at the site concerned.  This again seeks to recognise that new players should carry a lesser burden of knowing the rules, while recognising that long-term players are reasonably expected to be familiar with the rules.  Similarly, familiarity with the rules can be identified if offenders have offended previously (and received warnings for such behavior) or if offenders have previously been complainants.  There is a remarkable frequency of people who accuse others of breaking the relevant rules, but then breaking the rules themselves.

Beyond these ‘internal’ indicators, there are also factors ‘external’ to the poker site’s previous interactions with the player.  These factors include issues such as the player’s experience elsewhere (for example, a high profile player who has a documented string of live poker play) should be taken into account.  Similarly, a player’s own public writings (often on an internet blog or message board) can be considered, while recognising that such postings can be unreliable, faked, or exaggerated for the particular audience they were aimed at.

Now that we have a process to consider the reasonable expectation of rules understanding, we have a variety of possible punishments to apply in the event of a rules breach.  These resolutions are typically limited by law, and by the practicality of enforcing such rules.  It would not be possible, for example, to seek capital punishment in such cases, even though that may well have been a ‘traditional’ punishment for a poker cheat in the American Mid-West past.[16]

In all cases to date, the remedies available to online poker operators have been limited to the maximum penalty of closing a player’s account, and seizing any funds held in a player’s account[17] – there is no published record of criminal prosecution to date for a rules breach in online poker.  Even the largest online poker theft, involving long-term systematic cheating of $US20million at Absolute Poker and Ultimate Bet, has not been the subject of any criminal prosecution yet.[18]

In addition to formal punishments available to online poker operators, people who cheat in games of poker can be held in very low regard by the rest of the community – to be labeled a cheater is to become ostracized by the poker playing community.  “In discussing ideologies and morality, the [career poker professional] seeks to distance himself from thieves, hustlers, con men and cheats”[19] as part of a self-image promoting hard work and self-discipline.  Consequently, even though “there was a time in America when poker players were considered social deviants,”[20] they now cast out offenders from their own community.  Public awareness of such offences can also severely curtail other opportunities for high profile players, and limit future sponsorship opportunities.  That said, Sorel Mizzi, who is publicly sponsored by Betfair as one of their ‘marquee’ players, has been caught in two separate multiple-account offences on other sites, yet continues to benefit from a sponsorship arrangement at Betfair.[21]

To return to the punishments available to be used, each punishment issued must be appropriate to both the situation and the individual rules breaker.  An excellent opportunity for a comparison of similar situations, but different offenders, exists with the concept of making a collusive agreement to go ‘all-in’ during a rebuy poker tournament.  Again, the precise details and poker intricacies are not relevant to the ethical discussion, but the basic concept is that two players in each situation made a public agreement to bet in a particular fashion.  That’s a clear breach of rules against collusion – “Poker is an individual (not a team) game.”[22]  That said, it is not a particularly malicious act, with the conspirators making their arrangements in a public manner, with all to see.

Three publicly available cases serve as useful studies that demonstrate how online poker operator PokerStars applies the ethical standards discussed above to apply increasingly serious penalties as appropriate.

The first relevant high profile case, involved the player known as ‘Annette_15,’ where she colluded as described above, and subsequently complained about that treatment in a public online forum[23].  In that situation, as the PokerStars staff member wrote, “It was disappointing because [PokerStars] expect exemplary behaviour from top tier, well known players like [Annette].”[24]  This shows a recognition by the online poker operator in this circumstance that a high profile player like Annette ‘should have known better,’ and consequently, she received a relatively severe penalty of a seven day ‘time out’ from using that online poker site.  Applying a penalty like this is consistent with the deontological view that she faces a greater burden to obey the rules than less-well-known players, and also likely to serve as a consequentialist deterrent to other players breaking the rules.

Around 15 months later, the same player broke the rules in the same fashion, and this time, received a harsher, one month penalty for essentially the same infraction.[25]  Having a very clear awareness of the rules, she now decided to break them again, and received a one-month suspension for her second rules violation of this sort.  Increasing the penalty recognises the greater severity of a second offence and should also provide further deterrent against further rules breaches.  Apparently, the first penalty was insufficient to deter her from further rules breaches, so increasing the penalty should increase the deterrence value.

By definition, the poker crime of collusion requires a partner to offend.  The partner of ‘Annette_15’ during the second offence was a player by the name ‘charder30’.  He was also disciplined for the same incident, but because this was his first offence, he was suspended for only one week[26].  This differentiation of punishment for the same offence, but different players, is entirely consistent with the ethical considerations laid out above.

Finally, a third case of essentially the same circumstances arose, with a player sponsored by PokerStars itself breaking its tournament rules.  The player ‘ElkY’ committed the same offence during one of the World Championship of Online Poker, and was both disqualified from the tournament (at a cost to the player of $US15,000) and suspended for one month[27].  Despite this being his first offence, PokerStars described the reasoning behind their decision to give him the severe first-offence penalty of a one-month suspension:

“..’ElkY’ has built up a wealth of tournament experience in both online and brick and mortar card rooms. As such PokerStars considers that ‘ElkY’ should have been well aware of our rules.

“After discussions between senior management, the decision has been made to disqualify ‘ElkY’ from T#200800029. He will forfeit his winnings in that event and all players will move up accordingly. Those players moving up in pay brackets will shortly be credited…

“ElkY is an ambassador for PokerStars and should not have acted in this manner. He has been educated as to why his actions were wrong, in order to prevent any repeat occurance…”

Again, PokerStars related to the expectation that the player should have been aware of the rules, and subsequently, explained that he would receive a one-month suspension for this offence.  This again is consistent the deontological ethics that ElkY had a greater obligation to obey the rules as an ‘ambassador’ for PokerStars, and again serves the consequentialist approach of being used as a deterrent for further rules breaches.

This brief review of some ethical considerations as they apply to online poker shows that the current practice of the market leader, PokerStars, is consistent with both deontological and consequentialist ethical principles.  This is not an easy task when players have radically different understandings of the rules, but by applying a fair ethical standard to punishments, it will help to protect the integrity of the game of online poker.  Punishments can be used to promote desired behavior (and discourage undesired behavior) and the current arrangements appear to be doing an adequate job of prioritizing the poker cultural value of fairness and obeying the rules of the game.

 

Bibliography

Dalla, N., The Ethics of Poker Players, CardPlayer Magazine, Volume 17, Issue 10
  Donner, R., Director, Maverick, Donner/Schuler-Donner Productions, 1994
  Flusfeder, D., Flushed with success, New Statesman, 1/19/2009, Vol. 138 Issue 4932
  Harder, C., elky d/q’ed from 500r, but will play WCOOP ME, retrieved from http://forumserver.twoplustwo.com/61/mtt-community/elky-d-qed-500r-but-will-play-wcoop-me-303845/ on June 13
  Harder, C., Email from stars-(prob going to be banned for a week-month)-flipping in the 109r, retrieved from http://forumserver.twoplustwo.com/61/mtt-community/email-stars-prob-going-banned-week-month-flipping-109r-255255/ on June 13
  Hayano, D., The Professional Poker Player: Career Identification and the Problem of Respectiability, Social Problems, 1977
  Jones, L., Be Gentle to the Novices, CardPlayer Magazine, Vol 18, Issue 5, 3 May 2005
  Kroft, S., Poker Face, 60 Minutes, Broadcast on CBS Television, USA, on 30 November 2008, and available online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rJaSXBDRMqg
  Mizzi, S., Setting the Record Straight on that FTP Issue, retrieved online from http://betting.betfair.com/poker/imper1um/news/setting-the-record-straight-on-the-ftp-issues-100308.html on 12 June 2009.
  Obrestad, A., Look at this email I got from Stars.., retrieved from http://www.pocketfives.com/poker-forums/7/look-at-this-email-i-got-from-stars-3098069?pageindex=1 on 12 June 2009.
  Obrestad, A., OMG suspended from stars for a week!, retrieved from http://www.pocketfives.com/poker-forums/7/omg-suspended-from-stars-for-a-week-95720/p/686149 on 12 June 2009
  PartyGaming, Terms and Conditions of Use, https://secure.partyaccount.com/about/legal_information_s.do?productID=poker&brandID=PARTY retrieved on 12 June 2009
  PokerStars., Secure Online Poker, online at http://www.pokerstars.com/poker/room/features/security/ retrieved on May 30, 2009
  Pseudonym ‘PygmyHero’, Ethics in Poker, Two Plus Two Internet Magazine, Volume 4, Issue 2, available online at http://web.archive.org/web/20080208112613/http://twoplustwo.com/magazine/issue38/kofski_0208.php on 12 June 2009
  Rational Entertainment Enterprises Limited, PokerStars – Poker Tournament Rules, retrieved from http://www.pokerstars.com/poker/tournaments/rules/ on 12 June 2009
  Rational Entertainment Enterprises, PokerStars Software Security, http://www.pokerstars.com/poker/room/features/security/ retrieved on 11 June 2009
  Rational Entertainment Enterprises, PokerStars.com – 2008 – World Championship of Online Poker, http://www.pokerstars.com/wcoop/ retrieved on 11 June 2009
  Rational Entertainment Enterprises, PokerStars.com – 2008 PokerStars WCOOP Qaulifiers, http://www.pokerstars.com/wcoop/steps/ retrieved on 11 June 2009.
  Shulman, B., quoted in Swimming With The Sharks, Sports Illustrated, May 30, 2005. Vol. 102, Iss. 22
  Full Tilt Poker, End User License Agreement, http://www.fulltiltpoker.com/end_user_license_agreement retrieved on 12 June 2009.

 

[1] Dalla, N., The Ethics of Poker Players, CardPlayer Magazine, Volume 17, Issue 10

[2] Hayano, D., The Professional Poker Player: Career Identification and the Problem of Respectiability, Social Problems,:1977. pg:556

[3] PokerStars., Secure Online Poker, online at http://www.pokerstars.com/poker/room/features/security/ retrieved on May 30, 2009

[4] Flusfeder, D., Flushed with success, New Statesman, 1/19/2009, Vol. 138 Issue 4932, p51

[5] Disclosure: I am now employed by PokerStars

[6] Kroft, S., Poker Face, 60 Minutes, Broadcast on CBS Television, USA, on 30 November 2008, and available online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rJaSXBDRMqg

[7] Pseudonym ‘PygmyHero’, Ethics in Poker, Two Plus Two Internet Magazine, Volume 4, Issue 2, available online at http://web.archive.org/web/20080208112613/http://twoplustwo.com/magazine/issue38/kofski_0208.php on 12 June 2009

[8] Shulman, B., quoted in Swimming With The Sharks, Sports Illustrated, May 30, 2005. Vol. 102, Iss. 22; p . 70

[9] Rational Entertainment Enterprises, PokerStars Software Security, http://www.pokerstars.com/poker/room/features/security/ retrieved on 11 June 2009

[10] Rational Entertainment Enterprises, PokerStars.com – 2008 – World Championship of Online Poker, http://www.pokerstars.com/wcoop/ retrieved on 11 June 2009

[11] Rational Entertainment Enterprises, PokerStars.com – 2008 PokerStars WCOOP Qaulifiers, http://www.pokerstars.com/wcoop/steps/ retrieved on 11 June 2009.

[12] For a basic introduction to the concept of the ‘Independent Chip Model’ (ICM) and the mathematics behind it, visit http://www.chillin411.com/node/7

[13] Except ‘Winner Takes All’ tournaments, because ICM does not apply in such situations

[14] Jones, L., Be Gentle to the Novices, CardPlayer Magazine, Vol 18, Issue 5, 3 May 2005

[15] Jones, L., op. cit.

[16] Donner, R., Director, Maverick, Donner/Schuler-Donner Productions, 1994

[17] PartyGaming, Terms and Conditions of Use, https://secure.partyaccount.com/about/legal_information_s.do?productID=poker&brandID=PARTY retrieved on 12 June 2009; and

Full Tilt Poker, End User License Agreement, http://www.fulltiltpoker.com/end_user_license_agreement retrieved on 12 June 2009.

[18] Kroft, S., op cit

[19] Hayano, D., The Professional Poker Player: Career Identification and the Problem of Respectiability, Social Problems,:1977. pg:560

[20] http://www.cardplayer.com/cardplayer-magazines/65535-17-10/articles/13982-the-ethics-of-poker-players

[21] Mizzi, S., Setting the Record Straight on that FTP Issue, retrieved online from http://betting.betfair.com/poker/imper1um/news/setting-the-record-straight-on-the-ftp-issues-100308.html on 12 June 2009.

[22] Rational Entertainment Enterprises Limited, PokerStars – Poker Tournament Rules, retrieved from http://www.pokerstars.com/poker/tournaments/rules/ on 12 June 2009

[23] Obrestad, A., OMG suspended from stars for a week!, retrieved from http://www.pocketfives.com/poker-forums/7/omg-suspended-from-stars-for-a-week-95720/p/686149 on 12 June 2009

[24] Wood, S., quoted in Obrestad, A., op cit.

[25] Obrestad, A., Look at this email I got from Stars.., retrieved from http://www.pocketfives.com/poker-forums/7/look-at-this-email-i-got-from-stars-3098069?pageindex=1 on 12 June 2009.

[26] Harder, C., Email from stars-(prob going to be banned for a week-month)-flipping in the 109r, retrieved from http://forumserver.twoplustwo.com/61/mtt-community/email-stars-prob-going-banned-week-month-flipping-109r-255255/ on June 13

[27] Harder, C., elky d/q’ed from 500r, but will play WCOOP ME, retrieved from http://forumserver.twoplustwo.com/61/mtt-community/elky-d-qed-500r-but-will-play-wcoop-me-303845/ on June 13

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