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Improve Your Poker
by Bob Ciaffone
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One of the more respected writers of this generation, Ciaffone's material, now compiled under one cover, has previously appeared in a variety of publications. Here, he helps sharpen the skills of beginners and experienced players in ten different areas, including general concepts like beating a loose game, and tight/loose play. He moves to gambling skills like the mental side, and money management; then to Reading Opponents, including tells and using your eyes. A vital section on Deception and Bluffing is followed by incisive advice on Hold'em including raising and missing.
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Absent Player Rules

When should an absent poker player's hand be killed? This subject has been a matter of debate for a long time, particularly in tournament play. I am referring to a player who was not at the table whenBob CiaffoneBob Ciaffone is one of America’s best-known poker players, writers, and teachers. He has numerous poker tournament wins and placings, the most prominent being third place in the 1987 World Championship. He has been a poker teacher since 1995, with his students having earned well over a million dollars in tournament play.  Bob's website is  the cards were dealt, but received a hand anyway.

There are two basic schools of thought on this subject, the "lenient school" and the "strict school." The lenient school is the more traditional way of doing things. It is the way that money games have been handled throughout the history of the game. The strict school has arisen with the steadily increasing popularity of tournament poker. Here are the two main alternatives for handling an absent player's hand in the rules.

The lenient school wants the absent player's hand to be live until he faces a bet. This is the more charitable way of doing things. The absent player, who often has money in the pot by way of an ante or blind, is given the maximum opportunity to get the benefit out of the money that he or she had put into the pot. In tournament play, a player has a strong incentive to stay at the table, so an absence is likely to be for a necessity such as answering a call of nature, rather than just lobbying.

The strict school wants the hand of an absent player to be dead if the player is not there to take action, whether or not he is facing a bet. So, if someone is in the big blind, once the betting gets around to him, he has the option to raise. If he is not present to exercise this option, the dealer kills the hand. This rule can be extended to stud, governing the forced bet by the low card. The person with the low card has an option, to bet the minimum or to bet the full amount. (We sometimes tend to forget that this is an option, as this "choice" is to bet the minimum in virtually every case.)

At the sixth annual World Poker Industry Conference in July, there was a meeting of a group of people called the "Tournament Directors Association." They had a big discussion concerning the standardization of tournament rules. As you know, there is no such thing as a standard set of poker rules; each cardroom has its own rule set. So, it seems that if anarchy over poker rules is to be finally ended, termination of discord will be greatly aided by standardizing tournament rules. We can all be happy that poker now has an organized group of tournament directors that is trying to standardize rules.

Members of the Tournament Directors Association agreed on 14 rules they would all follow. Some are general rules of poker, such as: "If a player puts in a raise of half or more of a previous bet, he will be required to make a full raise." Others are rules that would apply only to tournaments, such as: "All cards will be turned faceup once a player is all in and action is complete." I fully agree with 13 of the 14 rules adopted by the TDA. However, I have misgivings about portions of the rule for treating the hand of an absent player; hence, this article.

Here is the wording of the TDA on an absent player's hand: "Players must be at the table to call time. In flop games, the big blind's hand will be dead if he is not there to act on it before the flop. In stud-type games, the forced low hand will be immediately dead if the player is not there to act on his hand at the time required to put money in the pot (the minimum bring-in must be posted and the hand will be killed)."

I think the first part of this rule is good, requiring a player to be at the table to call time. It is disruptive for a player to be hollering across the room, and it also slows up the game by making the entire table wait on his arrival. So, I will confine my discussion to the portion of the rule that discusses when an absent player's hand should be mucked by the dealer.

I asked a person who was present at the TDA meeting for the reasoning behind this rule. Here is how it was explained to me:

"In hold'em, action is required by the big blind in the form of a check or raise before the flop. If he is not there, he cannot make the required action. We should not assume that he would check, any more than we can assume that he would raise. Since he did not act when action was required (just before the flop was to come out), his hand is dead. In stud, the action is required at the time of the bring-in. The bring-in is required to act by deciding whether he will bring it in for the smallest bet or for the full bet. Again, we should not assume which one he would do, so he will put in the small bet and his hand will be dead."

I do not agree with this reasoning. First, I think the situations in stud and hold'em are not equivalent. In hold'em, one can draw a conclusion about the big blind's hand by his failure to raise. In stud, we know zero by the failure to bet the maximum when having the forced bet, since this is hardly ever done. It is the hold'em equivalent of giving the big blind the option of posting twice the small blind or six times the small blind. Is this truly an option? Was the opponent of an absent low-card player in a stud game handicapped in any way at all by being deprived of information? Hardly.

Second, even though in hold'em one can argue that the failure to gain knowledge about an absent big blind's hand is a drawback, one cannot say the absent player benefits more than he loses by not having the chance to raise preflop. Basically, it appears to me that players at the table are not content with deriving only half a pound of flesh by the player in the big blind being absent; they want the full pound. So, I do not buy this argument.

However, there is a strong argument for killing an absent player's hand later on in the hand, even though he has not faced a bet. This argument is particularly meaningful in pot-limit or no-limit tournament play. Picture this situation: You are in early position at a no-limit hold'em tournament table. You call the big blind, who is absent, and the button calls, so three of you take the flop. The absent big blind checks, and you decide to bluff by putting all of your chips into the pot. The button, who is a short stack, thinks for such a long time that the big blind is able to return. The big blind wakes up with two aces, has a big stack and calls, and your attempt to get the short stack out results in your getting knocked out yourself. Worse yet, you find out later that the short stack had a clear fold! Evidently, his huddle was done for the purpose of letting the absent player get back to the table, giving the short stack a better chance of winning a bigger pot. For this unfairness to happen, there is a hole in the rules someplace. You need to know how many opponents you have when making this type of bet, and you do not want one of them having direct control over that number by stalling to get you more opposition.

Here is my opinion on the rules that we need: For stud, let the absent player's hand be live on the initial bet if he is the forced low card. Simply treat it as an automatic blind bet. Kill the hand if the player is not back in time to get a fourth-street card (or if he faces a raise, of course). It is a simple matter to have the rules declare the "decision" of how much for a stud low card to bet as trivial, and exempt it.

For games with blinds, such as hold'em, one possibility is to let the big blind's hand be live until the flop. Then, kill the hand on the flop betting round when the action reaches the absent player. The argument about players being deprived of info on the big blind's hand seems a bogus one, since the other players gain more by not being raised than they lose by the hand being of undisclosed strength. The argument about needing to know who is in the pot with you later on is a strong one, so I do not like waiting until an absent player is faced with a bet before mucking the hand. Perhaps this compromise is a reasonable way to handle this admittedly thorny problem.
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