Ethics and Professional Poker

The poker authors I read, Mike Caro, Doyle Brunson, and Bob Ciaffone tell me not to “soft play” anybody. That means that when you’re at the table, you take advantage of whatever opportunities for profit come your way regardless of who you’re taking this profit from. As the poker expression goes, “I’d check raise my own mother out of a pot.” If you really feel that bad about taking money from a someone, just give them their money back when the game is over.

Of course, these are the tactics and attitudes of a professional poker player. I’m learning that house players, despite technically being professional poker players, have a different set of attitudes. They are more akin to union workers: they’re all drawing a paycheck from the boss, so they are all content to try to do their best to look out for each other and continue to cash their checks every two weeks. Consequentially, house players by and large go out of their way to not take advantage of each other. It’s not an uncommon thing to witness a house player raise preflop, have another house player call in the blind, and then both of then check it all the way to the showdown.

As a house player who has come from a actual professional poker background, I don’t fit in with my peers. I have the attitudes of a professional card player. That is to say that I don’t soft-play anyone. If I’ve got an opportunity to make money at your expense, well, sorry about your luck. Eventually an opportunity will come along and you can make profit at my expense. Over a sufficiently long time horizon, who made the most from who over time is going to be determined purely by our comparative skill level. Which brings us back to our the most basic of poker truisms: good players make their profit from bad players.

I didn’t expect that these attitudes would make me the most popular guy amongst my peers. They realize that over time I’m taking their money and there’s little that they can do about it other than try to get better. Human nature being what it is, making an effort to improve one’s game seems almost as painful as asking a smoker to give up smoking. This allows me to rest easy at night knowing that most people are simply not capable of making the necessary adjustments to playing a better game of poker. Instead I’ve started to get some rather overt peer pressure from my fellow players to lay off.

Surprisingly, this message isn’t coming from the worst of the house players, but rather the better of them. I’ve been asked directly and in clear language by no less than two of the better house players to go back to chopping the blinds in the $15-30 game and to stop adjusting my seat choice so that I can sit next to the weaker of the available house players to better maximize the hands I play when the blinds don’t chop. In other words, stop being such a card shark and stop trying to work over your peers.

This is a bizarre message for me because it goes against everything I believe in. Yes, I do realize that the absolute worst house player there seems to have to little concept of how to play the game other than to play a very weak-tight game: she gives up way too many hands and if she’s playing back at you, you should throw your hand away because you can rest assured she’s got the nuts. I also realize that she’s a single mother who has two children to support. To the other players this means she should be coddled, but that’s just not how I see things.

There are other jobs out there that she could take. Hostess at a restaurant or, if she really wanted to stay in the casino business, she could just become a dealer. Both management and myself have had conversations with her where we’ve counseled her to seek a different vocation, but she’s having none of that. So we’re are left with this awkward situation whereby we are thrown together in a competitive game with someone who does not have the skills to compete. A lot of people are conflicted about this, but I just refer back to my basic poker training: don’t softplay anybody. If I felt bad enough for her at the end of the night, I could just give her some of her money back.

But the truth is that I don’t feel bad enough for her. No one forced her to be a house player. No one forced her to play as badly as she does. No one is forcing her to stay in that profession. And she also has the nasty habit of a lot of other bad house players and that’s that she disappears for rather long periods of time in the bathroom to avoid being called to a game. We get paid the same amount per hour, so in some ways I just look at it as a pay raise to myself for my good performance at her expense.

Another situation that came up was that I sat in our $15-30 game for a free round towards the end of my shift with no intention of playing on once the blinds got to me. The house adopted the policy that new players don’t need to post, so I saw no problem with “abusing” (as the other players put it) the policy. I did not expect to find so many damn Eagle Scouts in a poker room, but it seems that they spend their time polishing their halos when they are not in a hand. I asked management and was told that, in order to avoid the “appearance of impropriety” that I should go ahead and take one more round after the free one, which I’m fine with. The other players feel that this still reflects some ethical abuses on my behalf, but long ago I decided that I wasn’t playing my game to make them happy.

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