PokerStrategy.com Column - Deal Or No Deal?

"Shall we just split it
9 ways, guys?"
My latest column for PokerStrategy.com. Please check them out for more of these, as they always appear there first. 

There is a big secret in poker. Everybody is doing it, but nobody ever admits to it.


I was talking to someone about the Main Event yesterday, about the possibility that the final three men in the tournament did a deal.

The guy I was chatting to felt they played just like they had made a deal (ie. early fireworks), but thought that it was not allowed in the Main Event.

I didn't catch a great deal of the footage so couldn't really speculate, but I did mention it happens a lot in WPT/WSOP/EPT events, but never gets reported.

He was surprised by this, but I followed up by estimating that most 'big 3' main events end in a deal that wasn't reported.

I felt inclined to back up what I thought that I knew. I have reported on hundreds of events in the last few years and know that it happens quite a lot, but wondered just how much. I reached out to my friends, in particular tournament organisers and the guys who report live from these events, to get their own estimates.

I felt that at least 60% of live tournaments end in a deal, and probably closer to about 70-75%. Almost everyone I asked confidently told me it was much higher, closer to 80-85%. This didn't shock me at all.

It never gets reported, but it happens all the time. If you are watching the live updates from a tournament and all of a sudden a 10 minute break is announced (in particular if it's reported that the players decided among themselves to have a break) that seems somewhat unscheduled, then they are usually discussing a chop.

Why Are Deals Never Reported?

It seems in just about everybody's interest to keep deals quiet. The players usually keep pretty quiet because they would sooner appear to have been 'playing for the win' and often deals get derided by the poker community as minus EV.

Peer pressure is very strong in poker; rarely is a deal made public without certain corners of the poker community ripping it to shreds. The deal is usually very good for at least one of the players, but there is always someone else who is percieved to have made a mistake.

The tournament organisers don't like them being reported because it is in their interest to showcase a huge first prize. Someone taking home a seven-figure score is much better PR than three guys walking away with similar six-figure purses.

The TV stations have the biggest interest in keeping deals quiet, because they have stories to tell and drama to create. A heads-up match becomes significantly less exciting when you know that both guys took $500k each and are just playing for $20k and a trophy.

But with such a high proportion of players demanding deals at the end of live events, surely it is abundantly clear that we are getting the payout structures wrong?

Nobody wants to admit to wanting a flatter payout structure at the start of a tournament. When it gets to the business end of a tournament, for most of us our instincts kick in.

Human Nature

pius heinz
Did Pius chop?
We probably will never know.
There are countless studies out there that demonstrate it is human nature to protect what we already have, or perceive ourselves to have, rather than taking risks for a big payoff.

You only have to watch the game show Deal or No Deal to see this in action. Most of the deals that are made are massively minus EV near the end of the game when they still have a big box in play, because they want to protect a perceived amount that is theirs.

They have decided an amount they want or need, and will pass up great chances to win more to protect it.

Likewise, those players who lose a massive box at a critical moment go the opposite way, and behave recklessly, in an attempt to regain what they believe to be their rightful winnings.

Everyone is 'going for the win' at the start of a tournament because it seems so far away, but when it gets down to the big money, many of us start mentally earmarking the amount we want to definitely walk away with.

Tournament poker is extremely high variance. We all want to make every decision on its long term merits only, but realistically most of us could never get a reliable long term sample of live poker tournaments, there simply are not enough of them.

It is understandable why all these deals go on. It is not like online where you can refuse a deal and load up 100 more MTTs that week without giving it a second thought. A lot of time, travel, expense, and frustration comes with live tournament poker.

Now at this point a lot of tourney grinders and pros will be wanting to tell me that they never deal, that dealing is minus EV, they always play for the win, and that it is the fish that tend to deal.

There are of course plenty of players, strong ones at that, who do refuse deals and more power to them. But with such a high percentage of tournaments ending in chops, it is clearly not just the fish that make deals.

Thankfully even though many tours claim they do not allow deals, or at least any deal must include an amount to still be played for, almost all of them do let it happen. The players paid the buy-in and the rake, so they should be entitled to have a say in what they stand to win.

It is obvious that live poker tournament payout structures are not flat enough, but do we need to change things and should the deals be made public?

The only reason the deals should perhaps be a little more transparent is for those people with a genuine interest in the winnings outside the tournament - in other words the tax man and backers.

Of course this is the responsibility of the players, and an attempt to cheat another party by not informing them of a chop could backfire, if the player actually goes on to win, but takes down a lesser prize.

But other than the backers, I happen to think that most of the poker community would actually be much happier leaving the system the way it currently is.

In other words, maybe everyone would be much happier to keep the prize pools as advertised, and deal behind closed doors. Tournament organisers get to boast a massive first prize, TV producers get to showcase the drama of massive pay jumps and the players get a prize they are happy with - without having to face the derision of forum trolls.

by Barry Carter


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