How much collusion goes on in big-action ring games? Well, I can’t tell you exactly how much, but I can tell you this: the bigger the stakes the more of it you’ll see. And in Vegas’s biggest venues, you will more likely than not find some sort of collusion going on, especially where established pros lie in wait for high-rolling tourists and poker wannabees coming to challenge them at their own game. At these tables, I am not talking about the “soft collusion” that Jamie Gold admitted to en route to last year’s WSOP championship. I’m talking about cutthroat play, “whipsawing,” where old-timers and young Turks join forces to siphon cash from well-heeled amateur players who don’t seem to mind getting raised, re-raised and finally chopped up in these big cash games, perhaps just to boast that they got into the ring with the best of ’em.
I learned the rest of the signals for high pairs. Jacks, tens and nines followed suit by placing the chip from left to right across the middle of the cards. So if I had a pair of tens off the deal, the single chip would go dead center. Eights, sevens and sixes used the bottom of the cards. “Learn to place your chip quickly on your cards,” Carla said. “You don’t want to be out there looking like you’re painting a goddamn logo on them.”
It all seemed easy enough, so I asked how strong non-pair starting hands were signalled. Carla’s boyfriend, who I’ll call “Preacher,” answered with a knowing smile. “We use two chips,” he said, which made perfect sense because you had two cards with different values. “But it’s slightly more complicated because we have to differentiate between suited and offsuit cards.” Sure, I reasoned, my cohorts had to know whether I had a flush draw or not.
Preacher further explained that only high running cards were worth signalling. When signalling hands such as A-K, A-Q, A-J or A-10, you used two chips on one of four different positions across the top of the hole cards. When your hand was K-Q, K-J or K-10, you used one of three positions across the middle of the cards. With Q-J or Q-10, you dropped to two positions at the bottom of the cards. When these hands were suited, the two chips were placed precisely one atop the other. It followed logic: neat like that implied “suited,” as if it “fit well.” When the high starting cards were offsuit, the top chip would be angled slightly off the bottom chip. Again, you could follow the same logic: sloppy and therefore “unsuited.” I quickly learned that the secret visual language of poker collusion was sound in its application. (To see the actual images of collusionspeak, go to the magazine page of richardmarcusbooks.com and click on the collusionspeak article.
What about after the flop? A colluder’s pre-flop signal of suited high cards did not identify which suit it was. How does he tell his cohorts that he’s flopped a flush draw, or a made-flush when all three cards are of the same suit?
The signal used to communicate flush draws is a simple continuation of the suited high-cards signal given after the deal: two chips lying neatly atop the cards. If the flop contained two cards of the right suit or all three to make the flush, the person with that hand would simply drop a third chip on top before removing all three in favor of the innocuous chip-shuffle.
Straight draws worked basically the same way, although by knowing the value of each person’s hole cards we could deduce when a straight draw came alive simply by looking at the board. When the straight draw or made straight was not clear (due to lower running cards that had not been signalled before the flop), we would switch down to the bottom of the cards and place the chips in the location exactly opposite the flush signals.
My best advice, having been a participant and witness to many crooked poker games, is to simply get up and find another table (or poker room) whenever you’re wary of collusion taking place. I know that it’s sometimes difficult to do that, but in the long run it’s the best move. Even the most skilled players are not going to win out against the best collusion teams.