Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Is Soft Playing in Tournaments Cheating?

Almost everyone will say that soft-playing in poker is downright cheating, at least at first take. But upon further delving into the definition of what it means to cheat at poker, there are still those who believe that the practice of soft-playing one's friends or family is perfectly acceptable in poker, since it takes place because of personal beliefs and emotions that are just as legitimate as the ethical values of players who would refuse to soft-play anyone. Is this hogwash?

One argument that supports the allowance of soft playing in poker is that poker's uniqueness as a gambling game in itself deems soft play allowable. Their stance is that since poker is a game of multiple betting rounds, and the position of strength and weakness varies with each round and turn of a new card or cards, players should be allowed "varying" strategy tactics and that soft play is nothing but a combined tactic that ultimately becomes individual strategy at the end, when one or more soft players at the table no longer participate in soft playing. With blackjack, craps and other casino games, they argue, you make one bet on one decisive outcome, either win or lose, while second, third and fourth bets are optional and not intrinsic to the first. Only in poker does the amount of money at risk to each player accumulate with the deal of each round, therefore, those people who are not overly bothered by soft play feel that two or even more players involved in a pot have the right to "blanket the hostilities" at a certain point. Since any pair, set or group of players can do this, they claim, and that soft playing is not open or "active" cheating, they take the stance that soft playing should even be tolerated.

I, as certainly an "active" cheater (to say the least!) wholeheartedly disagree.

When soft-playing players have an ongoing agreement not to bet into each other once the action becomes heads up or reaches a certain point, they are tearing the innate competitive threads of the game. Whatever the reason, this arrangement amounts to a private deal that is more than just an ethical violation of the game. It not only gives those making it the chance to curb losses at several key junctures of play but also negatively impacts those not involved in it. In tournament play, soft playing can make or break the final table, leaving one player who might have been eliminated in honest, non-collusion play with just enough chips to survive and eventually go on to win the tournament. What soft play is, no matter how you cut the cake, is collusion, and, in my opinion, no less form of collusion than outright collusion players signalling the values of their hole cards and whipsawing opponents at the table. The fact is that these actions give those who are soft-playing in tournaments the edge over those who are not.

To illustrate the point, imagine that you're in a seven-card stud game, and you're the low-card bring-in on third street. Two soft-playing partners, A and B, enter the pot on either side of a fourth player who completes the bet. You call, player A raises, and you, Player B and the fourth player all call. Fourth street brings overcards for everyone, and gives you a split pair to go with your three-card flush. Player A bets and the fourth player folds, leaving just you and the soft-playing partners A and B. Now Player B raises. Your pair is smaller than their fourth-street cards, and since you don't like the odds you're getting for your draw, you fold. The moment you do, Players A and B proceed to check on fifth, sixth, and seventh streets. It's pretty obvious just how advantageous this arrangement is for them. By fourth street, they had locked up eight bets, half of it strange money, plus the antes. But the problem isn't only the pact to eliminate risk on betting rounds five, six and seven; it is the looming prospect of it that appears on round four, which offers incentive for two players who are soft-playing to bet a third player off his hand. By doing so, they are acting as a collusion team, converting the already invested chips of the uninvolved player into dead money. Clearly, this puts players who don't have soft-playing partners at the table at a distinct disadvantage against those who do.

Soft playing at poker is nothing short of cheating.