Although I no longer manage any poker room, I still get several texts throughout the week from those that do asking me various ruling questions. I have had the privilege of running a handful of games and being part of some great management teams in various poker rooms both in the States and here in Cambodia. While nearly every game that I have run has been of the underground variety, I suppose I have accrued some amount of cache when it comes to these matters. That having been said, I received a text from a good friend of mine this morning about a ruling in his room. A player UTG raised to $10 in a $1-$3 game and the next player to act did not notice the raise, although the dealer had called it out. So he put in $3 thinking he was calling the big blind. When he realized his error the dealer allowed him to take the $3 back and fold the hand. Some players had an issue with this and thus my friend was called over for a ruling. How do I think he should have ruled?
Before we get to the hand in question, I just wanted to mention that while I lived and played poker in Las Vegas I had the honor of learning from some great dealers and floor managers. In a tightly regulated environment such as this, it is paramount that management personnel make correct decisions every single time. And while every poker room is diligent about following the rules and procedures of their room, there is one single phrase that is present in every rule book that trumps all other regulations. The phrase reads "in the spirit of the game" and allows floor managers to make the most fair and reasonable ruling in the actual context of the game that is being played in their room. To give an example I was once playing $1-$2 NLH at the Binions Casino during which I ended up in a big heads up pot. I was on a monster draw and had pushed all in on the turn to which my opponent called. When the river bricked both my draws I tabled my hand to show something along the lines of 7 high. The chips were all in and there was no more action to be had. The dealer clearly called out my hand and then my opponent threw her cards toward the dealer but they somehow ended face down. In my immediate need and desire to win the hand, I told the dealer that hand was dead as their rule book clearly states that forward motion of a hand face down is a fold. But she claimed the cards had slipped out of her hand and so the dealer allowed her to retrieve the hand and turn it over, showing pocket aces. I called the floor manager for a ruling and he agreed with the dealer that my opponent's hand was live and gave her the pot.
Looking back on the incident I completely agree with the decision. Context is everything here as no one can reasonably conclude that she meant to muck pocket aces in this situation. Even if she had not heard the dealer call out my hand nor seen me table it, the way the board was constructed it was doubtful that she did not think she had the best hand. If such were not the case, she would have folded to my shove on the turn. I had a friend at the South Point Casino who was a shift manager there and he probably taught me more about the game than anyone else. And he would always tell me that what was most fair in his mind was to award the pot to the winning player whenever possible. He made all his rulings accordingly and while they did not always follow the letter of the rules, they certainly fell in line with the spirit of the game. No one should win a pot in poker on a technicality, especially when the context is clear as to what really happened. But this is Cambodia and we are a long way from Las Vegas. Cambodia, and Phnom Penh especially, is filled with players who would want every poker room to follow every rule to the letter even if it results in a player winning a massive pot based on an honest mistake or a technicality. I certainly understand this desire among expat players as poker is relatively new in Cambodia. That having been said, it might stand to reason that local players who do not know nor understand all the rules should be given a rigid structure to play under, at least until they catch up in terms of their understanding. But we are not talking about simple people as Cambodians who come to a poker room are often reasonable and educated people. They are perfectly capable of understanding that while rules exist, there is also grey and that what matters most is the integrity of the game.
I will give one more example to further illustrate my point. In a room I managed here in Phnom Penh we had a large tournament in which the guaranteed prize pool was $7,500. The turnout was so great that the total prize exceeded $10,000. Very late in the tournament when we were getting close to the bubble, an incident occurred on one of the tables. A player under the gun had raised, two more players called and then a player in middle position went all in. Two players folded and the next player announced call as he was covered and pushed his chips into the middle. The dealer was not paying attention and almost immediately took his cards into the muck. The action was stopped immediately and I was called to make a ruling. As only two other players had folded the muck did not have that many cards. I asked the player to whisper into another dealer's ear what his cards were and then she told me that it was the As7s. I asked her to check the muck to see if those cards were present, which they were. I then ruled that the hand was retrievable and allowed him to play on. The rule clearly states in this situation that although the dealer did make a mistake, each player is responsible for protecting his own hand to "ensure" this sort of thing does not happen. I put that word in quotes because in this situation the player had no chance to do so. There was nothing to say that he was not on his way to doing just that as the dealer hardly waited for him to say "I call" before sweeping his cards into the muck. Two other players had folded and she quickly assumed he would as well and thus took his cards in. I had previously mentioned that context is everything and that certainly applies here. Consider the specific nature of the two cards that he had. There was clearly no angle here on his part in the initial error, but even when given the opportunity to create one he was honest in telling the dealer two cards that were far from premium. Of course the matter was not helped when the dealer put out three spades on the flop vs the player who had initially pushed all in with pocket queens. That player strongly disagreed with my ruling, which I of course expected and understood. But then again, I doubt I would have heard a single word from him had the queens held up and he doubled through.
And that is what all of this really comes down to, is that we all want to win. In my earlier description of Cambodian players I did not intend to insinuate that expat players look down on locals and that is why they want strict rules. Anyone who has played in this country even for a few days are fully aware that their local counterparts are reasonable and perfectly intelligent people. But in the moment, we all just want to win and that is perfectly fine. But I expect all reasonable players to perhaps think different though after having walked away from the table and thought about the issue. But even having said that I do not expect every player to agree with the contents of this article. At the very least, we should all be able to conclude that we can agree to disagree. There are plenty of poker room managers, and good ones at that, who do not agree with me and would rule by the letter of the law every single time. And although we disagree I have as much respect for them as I hope they have towards me.
So getting back to the hand in question, how would I have ruled? From what was described to me, the player was a well known expat who played regularly and is not known for angle shooting. The dealer initially allowed him to take the $3 back and fold when my friend was called over. I will not mentioned how he ruled, but I would have agreed with the dealer and allowed the game to continue based on her decision. I realize the ruling is not technically correct, but I am not about to hold up a game over $3 when it was simple mistake that nearly everyone on the table knew the intentions of. And generally speaking, I told my friend to not overrule the dealers in situations where they might be technically incorrect but ruled in the spirit and context of the game. In every room I have worked in I have always tried to give the dealers every bit of respect I can muster. This is especially the case if they can deal out 20 to 25 hands per 30 minute down and efficiently run a table. And that is indeed what they do, run the table and the first ruling should always originate from them. Although the floor manager should not be motivated by always wanting to agree with the dealer, they should only be overturned on egregious mistakes and should be backed up whenever possible. This is how players develop respect for the dealers as there will be none to be had if their own superior does not show any. And as for the floor manager, he or she should be consistent in their rulings as many times that is more important than how one rules. Once players know the philosophy and paradigm from which they draw their rulings from, they can come to expect fairness and consistency in each instance.
Of course then a further challenge lies in getting every single manager and dealer on the same page. This is why it is paramount that every poker room have one single leader, a general manager who is not only clear about the rules but can effectively communicate to his staff how they want them to be applied. Anyone can write a poker rule book as they are available online and one can simply copy and paste. And it is even simpler to go to a table each time there is an incident and repeat the rule verbatim like some sort of robot. But if the one in charge emanates from within reasonable accountability and authority, those will surely make its way down to the staff and also to the players. This is how you create culture and community, words that are too seldom used in a poker room.
I have lived in Sihanoukville three separate times during my stay in Cambodia. At first it was a quiet, little beach town. I remember riding my moto up and down the coast as often as I could, eating at some really nice restaurants and drinking the night away with my friends. The only problem then was the poker as $1-$2 games ran infrequently and the main game in town was only $1-$1. That all changed my second time around a couple of years ago when the Chinese started to invest in the city and would arrive both as tourists and developers. All of a sudden games were running as high as nosebleed games anywhere in the world. Poker rooms were opening nearly as fast as casinos were being built. And yet not a single one of those games is still around today, either having changed ownership multiple times or many being closed altogether. So what exactly is going on down there?
POKER ROOMS ARE NOT RUN BY THE CASINO
I would return to Sihanoukville two more times, my first return being two years ago to manage the poker room at the Bao Mai Casino. And when I say this I do not mean that the casino hired me as the General Manager, but rather that my friend rented the space from the casino and then hired me and the rest of the staff. The casino really had nothing to do with us at all other than the fact that we were tenants. In fact we were one of several as other groups would rent out tables to run games like baccarat. They viewed us as any other casino game and expected us to generate the same kind of revenue. This is very much reflected in the amounts that the casinos would charge in rent, which were often exorbitant. I had a friend who rented out what was essentially a two table poker room in a hotel that did not even have a casino for $15,000 per month. We've all heard the saying regarding passing savings onto the customer. In this case it was quite the opposite, which goes a long way toward explaining why rake is so high in Sihanoukville.
At the time of our opening there were twelve other poker rooms operating in the city. As competition was fierce rooms had to do whatever they could to attract customers. So nearly every game in town was ripe with promotions from game starting bonuses, bad beat jackpots and rakeback to entice players. Then there were the private deals in which select players were offered a certain higher percentage of each night's rake. Having to pay out so many players combined with the high rent, this was hardly a sustainable model. I know this because this is what happened in our poker room. In order to compete we had free food, game starter bonuses and a $10,000 freeroll. In the end it was just too much to keep up with and we closed after six months. Although the reasons might have slightly varied, other rooms suffered from the same fate. I previously mentioned that there were twelve other games in town when we opened. By the time of our closing there were only three.
RECS GOT CRUSHED
The main attraction of these games were that they were populated by Chinese players who for the most part were recreational players. They were used to playing casino games and losing so they didn't really sit down at the poker tables with a high expectation of winning. They played for the thrill of the few hands that they won and for bragging rights over the regs who constantly bum hunted them. But over time those regs had a huge advantage and would eventually take large sums of money from the Chinese players. But a poker economy can usually withstand this, but not in Sihanoukville. The Chinese players were in the middle of a three man gangbang in which they were not only getting it from winning regs, but also the high rake and lest we forget the insurance. For those unfamiliar with insurance, it is a very popular aspect of poker in Asian countries in which players ahead in a heads up all in situation can insure their hand against the number of outs the other player has. To give a practical example one player has pocket aces and goes all in on a flop of 9d 8d 2s vs a player who calls holding KdQd. With nine outs the house will offer the player with aces 3:1 on taking insurance. The player ends up insuring his hand for $100 and if his opponent catches a diamond he will lose the pot but win $300 from the insurance. But that is only for the turn card. If the aces are still best, he's offered insurance once again for the river card. It is easy to see how expensive this can get over time and with the Chinese players taking insurance most of the time, they not only stand no chance to be a winning player but are actually losing on a more massive scale than originally thought. The poker room ends up making a ton of money on this and it can easily be argued that this is the main reason they run poker games at all. Like the casino they treat poker like any other casino game and as such they have no real concern over whether or not a game is unbeatable for a significant portion of their clientele
NO REAL FREE AGENTS
As I stated earlier poker rooms in Sihanoukville are not run by the casinos themselves, but rather by outside groups who merely rent space. These groups are usually Chinese and their members populate their own tables to start the game each day. The boss of the group will usually play and fill up the remaining seats with his "group", usually his friends or those that work for him. They will start a Wechat group, add hundreds of Chinese and invite them to the game each day. But the fact is that potential Chinese customers for a poker game are few and far in between. While they may be attracted by other casino games, the Chinese do not necessarily come to a casino specifically looking for poker. In the end these groups are trying to attract potential players who are part of another group who do the exact same thing that they do, just in another casino. And if members of the group account for most of the players on the table, they suffer from the same fate as any other player being subject to rake, insurance and bum hunting regs. In this way the game can never last too long as with whatever revenue they generate, they have to both pay out players receiving deals and also account for their own losses. One could reason that the room can compensate for this by attracting foreign expats. But as previously mentioned such players will almost always require a deal to be monogamous to one room and the fact is there are fewer expats in the city than there once was. For reasons that will be explained below, most expats have already left the city and players that used to come down from Phnom Penh are coming less frequently.
A ROUGH PLACE TO LIVE
Sihanoukville was a sleepy beach town, very inexpensive and filled with many foreign expats. It was also a frequent holiday spot for many in Phnom Penh and those looking for a cheap coastal holiday. That all changed about three years ago once the Chinese started investing in the city. As more Chinese populated the city, both as tourists and as permanent residents, new developments went up where nothing was before and older buildings were torn down in favor of newer projects. Not so slowly but surely, everything in the city became more expensive and foreign businesses were quickly replaced with Chinese ones. With these new projects, roads were torn apart, traffic was unbearable with the increase in population and the proliferation of construction trucks and beaches were polluted with all the runoff from new developments. All this is to say that Sihanoukville became a very difficult place to live or even stay for an extended amount of time. Hotels that were once $200 per month could easily cost almost the same amount per night. And apartments were difficult to come by as new residences could not be built fast enough. During my last stay in the city, small studio apartments were going for $600 to $700 per month. The changes in the city did not only affect the expats, but created a city that the Chinese themselves did not like. One poker room operator once confided in me that he considered Sihanoukville to be "hell on earth" and that many of his compatriots felt the same. So many foreigners who once populated the poker games fled to other cities such as Phnom Penh or Kampot. And those that once came down from the capital city became far an few in between. All of this serves to offer a very inhospitable poker scene.
Currently there are six casinos in Sihanoukville that offer poker, with a smattering of a few more private games that are not open to the public. If the past is any indication, none of these rooms will be around in a year's time, or at the very least will have changed ownership multiple times. Among the current games there is nothing to suggest in their operational practices that suggest that this trend will change any time soon. In cities like Las Vegas, poker rooms are run as a compliment to everything else that is offered and thus does not need to generate the sort of revenue that room operators seek in Sihanoukville. And Vegas is an affordable city for most looking for a holiday and offer more than just gambling with most casinos offering buffets, fine dining experiences and entertainment. At this point in time casinos in Sihanoukville are nothing more than pits designed to suck out as much money as possible from its patrons in the shortest amount of time. Until casino operators in the city start taking a longer term view and start offering real value to their clientele, it is doubtful that the current approach to running a poker room in the city will change any time soon.
Life in the Third World
Just a collection of random and not so random thoughts from my daily life here in Cambodia.