Poker’s Prime Directive: One Player Per Hand

by Lou on September 6, 2009

A recent email from a player in Northern California brought up the issue of unintentional collusion, something common to smaller rooms. Regular groups of local players, who have created friendships over the poker table, are often a little casual with the rules and treat their casino game like a home game in Charlie’s basement.

The player who emailed me—we’ll call him Jasper—described events that transpired during one session of Omaha/8 at his local cardroom. Jasper was in seat seven and folded before the flop. The player in seat eight raised and proudly showed Jasper his four hole cards. Jasper said, “Please don’t show me your hand, it’s not fair to the other players.”

And he was right. If the player in seat eight won the hand without a showdown, only Jasper would know whether he had the goods or was bluffing. If the player seat eight folded before the showdown, only Jasper would know what kind of lay down he made.

The “only Jasper would know” scenarios are too many to list, and Jasper’s complaint was based on the fact that the exact same thing was occurring between seats two and three at the other end of the table.

They weren’t cheating or trying to gain an edge, at least Jasper didn’t think they were, and he knows all the players. Nevertheless, the player in seat three had a blueprint of everything his neighbor in seat two would play, fold, and raise, and knew exactly what gear he was in at all times.

Jasper felt like a sucker because information was available to some of the players, but not to all. It wasn’t fair.

While Jasper could have continuously asked to see the shown hands, that gets old pretty quickly, especially at a table where all the players know one another.

But that’s not the worst of it. Later that same evening, a player who was shown a hand during play stopped his neighbor from throwing his hand into the muck at the showdown. “Wait, you’ve got a low,” he muttered, which was quickly followed by, “Oops, I’m sorry,” to the player who would have won the entire pot, but was now only getting half of it.

Fortunately, there’s a rule designed to prevent this, and it’s one of poker’s prime directives. It prevents players from calling hands that have not been put face up on the table, prevents players from giving information to some players and not others, and prevents players from encouraging or discouraging their neighbor from making a call on the river.

In our book, The Rules of Poker: Essentials for Every Game, Sheree Bykofsky and I talk about this right up front.

One player per hand:Poker is not a team competition, and each player is responsible for playing his or her hand without advice or assistance, either directly given or provided inadvertently by other players, dealers, or spectators to the game.

The ramifications of this directive are broader than you might imagine at first glance. Not only does this mean that you cannot ask your neighbor, who may or may not be involved in the hand, what you should do or how you might play your hand—that goes without saying—but your neighbor bears a responsibility not to assist you.

All of the rules and punishments for cheating at poker are, in fact, violations of the one player per hand rule. Collusion by two players, marked cards, signals, cold-decks—you know; you’ve seen all the movies—are methods cheats design to circumvent the one player per hand rule.”

Even when players have no malicious intentions, one player per hand—no ifs, ands, or buts about it—is an essential requirement for a fair game and a level playing field.

That’s sometimes tough to enforce when a game has adopted a style where card-showing is the norm, but it’s everyone’s responsibility—players, dealers, and management included—to ensure the integrity of the game.


BigTPoker September 7, 2009 at 8:14 am

I've always been uncertain about one thing regarding showing hands. What is the proper etiquette about discussing hands post game?

Obviously it can't influence the game, but it can certainly influence ones impression of other players. For example, if a few players discuss their cards it would be possible to know that the big move made was nothing more than a bluff – the play couldn't have had the cards.

Stef October 27, 2009 at 2:35 am

I dont like showing my hands!

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