Cheating and Collusion in Poker | How to Protect Yourself at the Table

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We’ve all seen the old western movies with the high-stakes poker games. They usually take place in an old saloon at a small wooden table with the bar and piano player in the background and one other common factor: someone is always trying to cheat. I literally could not name an old western poker movie, or any poker movie for that matter, that did not have some sort of attempted cheating in it.

Thankfully, this is an over exaggeration of the amount of cheating and collusion that actually goes on in the game. That being said, it still does go on and it’s important that you are aware of it, so you know what to look for and how to protect yourself. Poker cheating doesn’t just go on in home games or back rooms of bars; it goes on in casinos, card rooms, and online. Though it’s a gentleman’s game, a lot of people refuse to respect that and allow their greed and scum-factor to take over.

Before I get into what you should be specifically looking out for, I want to go over a few important things to remember when reading this article and when applying what you learn from it in the real world. First of all, always initially give other players the benefit of the doubt. Most things that are going to look like cheating are not going to be cheating at all. It’s easy to see what you want to see when you’re looking for something. It’s called the self-fulfilling prophecy. If you get it in your head that someone is cheating, everything you see will get bent and manipulated in your mind to fit that narrative. Be careful that you don’t let this happen or you’re going to end up in some awkward situations and possibly ruin some friendships or relationships. I can tell you from personal experience that I have played poker for a living for 10+ years and have only caught someone cheating twice. I share that to show you that it’s not as rampant as you might think it is, but it still does exist and can be very costly to you if you don’t catch it.

The second thing I want to mention before getting into the specifics is the importance of you never cheating at the game. Hopefully that thought never crossed your mind, but if it did, you need to get rid of it right away. There is no place for that kind of garbage in the game of poker. Even if you don’t care how it affects other people, it can have a pretty profound effect on you. You can be arrested for it. You can forfeit all of your money for cheating. You can be beat up and severely hurt if you are caught cheating. No, this doesn’t just happen in the movies. People take their money very seriously and don’t take kindly to people trying unfairly to steal it from them.

Now let’s take a look at the different types of cheating that you may encounter. I left out a lot of the Hollywood types of cheating as they really don’t happen much anymore and are more of a movie set kind of thing. The cheats and forms of collusion that I’ve included are the ones that you may actually run into in your time on the felt. I’ve also included tips on what to do when you see this and then a section on how to react if you think you have caught someone cheating or colluding.

One last thing I want to mention before proceeding is the difference between cheating and colluding. Typically the words are interchangeable, but when talking about poker, the two terms are usually used to mean different things. Cheating is usually used to refer to a player that is gaming the system by themselves. They usually have no accomplices and are a solo act. Collusion, on the other hand, is used in poker to refer to teams of individuals that are trying to game the system. This can be two players or a lot of players. It can also be between the staff, dealers, and players.

Running Teams

This is the most popular form of cheating you’ll probably see and also the one that can be the most detrimental to your bankroll if you become one of their marks (a mark is the target of a scam or collusion/cheating tactic). This happens when multiple players, usually two or three, at the table will work together in secret to try and gain an unfair advantage. The teams will usually try and accomplish one of two things; they will be looking to either squeeze you out of the pot or squeeze you in the pot.

This is all accomplished through the use of signals that the players will secretly send each other during the hand. This may sound Hollywood, but it actually happens. Players will touch certain parts of their face, touch certain chips, put certain chips on their cards, tap the table a certain number of times, or do any number of things to let their teammate know that they want them to do something in particular. The signals may let them know what cards they are holding or how they want them to bet to manipulate the other players in the pot. We’re going to look at some of the different bet manipulations know and how they might be used.

Squeeze You Out

Collusion teams might employ certain tactics to try and push you out of a pot when they don’t have a strong hand. If they can get you and anyone else not in on the scam out of the hand, then it doesn’t matter which one of them wins the pot as they usually split all their money at the end of the game.

The situation might look like this. You and two other players take a flop, and you are second to act. Player 1 bets and you have a pretty good hand, so you decide to call, but maybe it showed that you weren’t completely sold on your hand. The colluding players notice this and player 3 behind you decides to raise. Player 1 then also re-raises and now the action is back to you. You are forced to fold because you’ve seen a raise and a re-raise in front of you and there is no way your hand can be good. You fold, and player 3 behind you also folds.

You never get to see the hands and just chalk it up to running into some bigger hands. What you didn’t know was that both players didn’t have anything and were working together. Because they showed such extreme aggression, you were forced to fold your hand. They effectively worked in collusion to steal the pot from you and profited the money you put in pre-flop as well as your call on the flop. If they waited until the turn to do this, they would have extracted even more money from you as you can really only continue on in the hand facing that much aggression with the absolute nuts (which you rarely have).

Squeeze You In

This form of betting manipulation is similar to the above except this time they are trying to keep you in the pot and extract more money from you. This will happen when one of the colluding players has the nuts or a super strong hand. They will use raises from other players to help hide their strength and to extract more money.

The situation might look like this. Same set up as before, three players to the flop and you are second to act. On the flop, player 1 bets and you have a pretty good hand, so you elect to call. Player 3 decides to raise, but only a little bit. Player 1 calls, and since the price is great on the pot you decide to call as well. The same thing happens on the turn, and again you call because it isn’t that much more. On the river, player 1 bets and you call and player 3 also calls. It’s a little strange that player 3 just calls here, but not completely out of the ordinary. Player 1 shows you the nuts and you and player 3 muck your hands. You’re a bit confused because player 3 was the one raising the whole time, but player 1 had the goods.

What you were unaware of was that player 1 signaled to player 3 that they had a monster hand and wanted them to help build the pot up. You were worried about player 3 the entire time while it was player 1 with the goods. You ended up making way more calls than you wanted to and put in a lot more money because the price was so cheap and the raises were so small. This is a perfect example of how teams might work together to squeeze you into a pot.

How to Spot This

The reason this form of collusion is so popular is that it is extremely hard to spot and even more challenging to prove. The reason it is hard to spot and harder to prove is that both of the above situations could have just been normal betting patterns from players that aren’t that good. The first pot could have been two morons in a “pissing contest” that you got in the middle of. They could have been running bluffs that made no sense at the same time, and it just looked funky. The second hand could have been player 1 with the nut flush and player 3 with the second nut flush. Granted they probably would have gotten it all in the flop, and it could have played out this way which would explain why player 3 just called on the river.

If that’s the case, then how do you spot this? The answer is in longer term patterns. If these happen once or even twice, it’s not much to think about. If it continually happens and seems to be happening with the same players, then you need to start paying super close attention to it. If you constantly are seeing the same two players in the pot with one other player and the same squirrelly bet patterns, you may be looking at some teams.

If a team is extremely talented, they will do it with lower frequency, and it will be near impossible to catch. However, most teams that I have heard about aren’t that talented and get greedy and try and win too many pots. The higher up in stakes you go, the more sophisticated the teams are you will probably see. The other problem with this type of collusion is there is no real evidence that you can present if you catch it. If they were marking cards or hiding cards up their sleeves, you could check there and catch them red handed. But imagine trying to explain a bunch of hand histories to prove collusion to a floor man at a casino. You won’t get too far with that one even if you are right. I’ll address the best courses of action to deal with collusion of this type at the end of the article.

Chip Dumping

This is another popular form of collusion and again is difficult to spot and even more difficult to prove. This form of collusion is specific only to tournament play. In tournaments, your survival is everything. Once you are out of chips, you are out of the tournament and have no options to recoup your losses. For that reason, collusion teams or even just friends will sometimes try to “help each other” out when it comes down to the pay bubble of the tournament or if a player is really low on chips.

The situation might look like this. It is the bubble of a major poker tournament, and the next player out gets no money, and then everyone cashes. The short stack at your table only has 10,000 chips, and everyone else has over 100,000. One player opens pre-flop to 4,500 chips, and the short stack goes all in. Everyone else folds, and it comes back around to the pre-flop raiser. The player should call with literally any two cards but for some reason decides to fold and the short stack picks up a much needed 45% increase in their stack size.

What you probably witnessed here was chip dumping. The player with all the chips was probably friends with the short stack or was on shared bankrolls or had invested in their tournament buy-in. They were basically giving free chips to that player without them being at any risk of being eliminated. This is completely unfair to the rest of the players in the tournament and is 100% collusion.

There are a few things that make this form of collusion a bit tougher for cheaters to pull off. First of all, tournament seating in multi-table tournaments is random. Two players willing to collude have to end up at the same table. One of the players also has to have a significant amount of chips, so they have some to “spare.” This all has to line up for the collusion to even be possible. The one caveat to this is that in single table tournaments, it is a lot easier to get two colluding players at the same table and therefore this form of cheating is much more popular there.

Secondly, it’s a lot easier to spot this form of cheating because it usually requires the player dumping the chips to do some unorthodox things. Keep in mind, though, this one can also look like collusion when it really isn’t. I personally have been accused of this on the bubble of a tournament two or three times. When I play on the bubble, I am not scared to be eliminated. I have been at tables where the big stack is trying to take advantage of the bubble and people’s fears by raising every hand until the bubble bursts. Imagine this scenario and look at it from the involved player’s perspective and then from an outside player’s perspective.

Blinds are 1k/2k

I have 18k

Big stack has 68k

Hand 1: Big stack opens to 4000, I look down at AK and shove all in for 18k. Big stack has garbage because they are just trying to steal on the bubble and folds.

Hand 2: Big stack opens to 4000, I look down at JJ and shove all in for 25k. Big stack has garbage because they are just trying to steal on the bubble and folds.

Hand 3: Big stack opens to 4000, I look down at AJ and shove all in for 32k. Big stack has garbage because they are just trying to steal on the bubble and folds.

If you’re another player at the table, you might think the big stack is just dumping chips to me. What you’re missing though is this is just a case of a big stack trying to be aggressive on the bubble and another player not scared to bust pushing all in with their hands they feel are ahead. This is almost exactly the same situation I was accused of colluding in. Clearly, they were wrong. The point of the story is that again, most of the time you think you are seeing cheating and collusion, you probably are not.

Soft Play

This one is a hot button topic in the poker world because this happens a lot and a lot of people still don’t realize it is collusion. Soft play is when one player “takes it easy” on another player because they are friends or possibly on the same bankroll. In cash games, this isn’t really a huge deal because once two players are heads up in a pot, it doesn’t really affect anyone else at the table. In tournaments, though, this can be a big deal.

Imagine that two players who are friends are sitting next to each other on the bubble of a major tournament. The player in seat 1 has a huge stack, and the player in seat 2 has a very short stack and is at risk of bubbling the tournament. If everyone folds to player 1 in the small blind, they can either call, raise, or fold to the player in the big blind. If the player elects to fold to “help out their buddy” in seat 2, this is soft play. Imagine how you would feel if you were one of the other short stacks in the tournament trying to make it into the money. The big stacks would not be taking it easy on you, but this short stack gets to win pots uncontested just because their friend wants to be nice.

Unfortunately, it’s extremely hard to prove this, and again there really is no evidence that you can present to get people in trouble for this.

Collusion and Cheating with Staff

It’s important to note that when I say staff, I don’t just mean the hired personnel at the casino. I am also referring to the people that run the home games and home tournaments that you play in. Basically, anyone that is in a position of power in the games you play in is considered staff. This includes the guy who takes your money, any of the dealers, the floors making rulings, and anyone else involved in facilitating the games.

Casino Staff

Collusion with casino staff (at an actual casino or poker room) is a lot less likely to see than at a home game. This is because there are cameras and gaming control that oversee these games. That being said, it is still something that is possible to be on the lookout for. The most common that you should be on the lookout for is floor staff that rules in favor of their friends or regulars. If you know the rules of the game and the specific rules of the card room you are playing in, then you should be able to determine how each ruling or misunderstanding should go. Sometimes floors will incorrectly side with their friends in a disagreement and make an incorrect ruling against you. You cannot allow this to happen and need to stand up for yourself. I will discuss the specific steps to take at the end of the article to protect yourself if you fall victim to this.

Home Games

Homes games are where you’re going to run into a lot more sketchy behavior and probably a lot more collusion and cheating. People realize that in home games the risk of getting arrested or caught is lower because most of the time the games don’t have the same technology to protect them as poker rooms. There is a greater risk for bodily harm if caught cheating, but for some reason that scares cheaters and colluders a little less. For this section, I’m going to hit you with a quick list of the most popular to watch out for.

Mechanics – These are dealers that are capable of manipulating the deck of cards. They can force certain players to get cards they want. The only way to catch these cheats is to be able to spot the mechanic in the action hiding cards or dealing specific cards to specific players. A lot of times they will have a preset deck that they switch in that is set to deal one player a great hand, but the colluding player a slightly better hand. Again, the only way to catch this is to see it happen so you best be paying attention to the dealer.

If you’re ready to be terrified of what a good mechanic can do, here are the opening credits to the movie Shade. It’s a movie all about card cheating, and everything in the credits is real and can be done. The clips actually show you how some of the moves are made.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6dL-a9hyKws

Check Chopping – This one can actually happen in a poker room as well, but it is more common in home games. This is when someone helps to push the winning pot to a player and actually palms a chip while doing so. They then sneakily move that chip to their stack.

Going South – Going South refers to players in cash games sneaking chips or money off of the table. Let’s say a player starts with $200 and wins a few huge pots and has $600 in front of them. The player might be scared to have that much money at risk and might try and sneak some of that money off of the table. This is against the rules and is cheating. If you’re really scared about that money, you need to pick up your stack and leave the table for at least half an hour and then you can come back with the starting amount again. This can also happen in poker rooms, but not in tournaments as there really is no value to sneaking tournament chips off of the table.

Looking at your cards – You would be shocked at how often this one happens. Players will try and sit in a way that they can catch a glimpse of your cards and gain an insane, unfair advantage.

How to React | Protecting Yourself

Spotting collusion and cheating is only the first step of the equation. How you choose to react and protect yourself are much more important pieces of the puzzle. Depending on the type of collusion or cheating and the environment you are in, the reaction will be different.

Provable vs. Non-provable

As you noticed with a lot of the collusion we mentioned above, there is no real evidence that can be presented about it. Things like teams being run or soft play are just near impossible for you actually to prove. Things like people palming chips and improper rulings ARE provable and should be handled differently.

If something is non-provable, your best bet is to leave the game and make mention of it to the host or the poker room manager. There won’t be much they can immediately do about it, but they can keep an eye out for it and maybe do something in the future. If you’re sure of it and don’t want to leave the game, you could publicly voice your opinion and observations to the table which might cause the cheaters and colluders to stop or leave the table for fear of being caught. If this happens in a tournament, you’re unfortunately not going to have the option of leaving the table, so you’ll have to make as big of a stink as possible to try and get the players to stop. Just make sure you are right before you do anything.

If something is provable, you should voice your opinion to the host or poker room manager as soon as possible. If it is something that they’ll need to witness to prove, mention it to them in private so they can begin keeping an eye out for it. If it is something you can immediately prove, you can mention it out loud to the dealer and the table so they can catch the perpetrator immediately.

Poker Room vs. Home Game

Another big deciding factor on how to proceed is whether or not you are playing in a home game or in a poker room. In a home game, you have significantly fewer rights and fewer ways to attack the situation. If the “floor” makes a ruling you don’t like obviously in favor of a buddy, you’re kind of stuck with it. This is the risk with playing in home games and not in regulated environments. If you’re playing in a poker room, you have the gaming control board to back you up. I had a friend who was confident the casino staff and a player were colluding against him with a ruling about a poker tournament payout. My friend threatened to report the situation to the gaming control board, and the ruling was immediately flipped in his favor. Poker room staff may try and get away with things, but will immediately straighten up when they know their job or an arrest may be on the line.

The Bottom Line

Here are the absolute bottom line things you need to take from this article to help protect yourself and react properly to potential collusion and cheating.

  • Always pay attention to everything. You need to watch everything and everyone including the dealers and all players.
  • Watch for patterns and things that seem out of the ordinary. Most of the time when you spot something one-off, it probably won’t be cheating or something you can do anything about. Look for patterns to spot the actual cheaters and colluders.
  • Remember that your number one priority is to look out for yourself.
  • Only speak up when you are confident that something is wrong. If you just slightly suspect something is going on, you might end up in an awkward situation if you’re wrong.
  • If you suspect cheating or collusion in a game but can’t prove it, just leave the game immediately and don’t play in that game anymore. There are plenty of other games to play in or plenty of other tables at the poker room to play in.
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