In mid-February Mike Leah accidentally opened a huge can of worms at WPT Fallsview when he agreed to a head-up chop with Ryan Yu that would also see him take first place and the trophy. As the WPT don’t facilitate deal-making, both men found themselves in a difficult position, having to dump off chips to one another to ensure that Leah won the tournament. This, unsurprisingly, created some controversy as the final hands of the tournament played out farcically.
Leah recently appeared as a guest on The Chip Race and gave a very fair account of what happened, explaining that he and Yu made no effort to hide what they were doing as covering their actions would have made things a lot worse. I have no doubts about the integrity of either player but the very existence of this situation should be alarming; the mere implication that there was something to hide identifies that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Leah and Yu are unfortunate victims of circumstance given that this scenario could easily have played out in any other major tournament but their actions have highlighted some serious flaws in poker’s culture of deal making.
While I’ve always been quite content to take a suitable chop, I’m often intrigued by why deal-making should exist in the first place. It’s understandable that players want to reduce variance, particularly given how steep it can be in the latter stages of a tournament, but it’s a pretty flimsy rationale with which to normalise it. It seems slightly absurd that players can embrace such a variance-heavy way to make money then get haughty about that very same aspect when it comes to getting paid.
One common defence is that the prize money belongs to the players so they should be able to do as they please with it. This is a perfectly reasonable argument that falls short on one significant count: it’s simply untrue. If a tournament doesn’t allow deal making then the players get paid the advertised prize for their finishing position within the rules of the competition. Regardless of how many players remain, the prize money belongs to the casino until the players sign for it and collect it from the cage. Just ask Chan Pelton and Gaetone Preite, who have both been disqualified from tournaments while in the money places.
The supporting position that the prize pool ‘belongs to the players’ because they, rather than sponsors, put up the prize money is interesting but is simply a straw man as the vast majority of competitions don’t enjoy the luxury of sponsorship. The World Darts Championship may be able to front a seven figure prize pool thanks to their backers but their contemporaries in the Whitley Bay and District Over 50s Sports and Social Grand Darts Knockout are likely to be funding any prizes themselves and would still find themselves in hot water if caught fixing outcomes. Additionally, I can’t imagine a scenario where anybody presenting this argument would think twice about deal-making in tournaments where there is either added money or overlay to meet the guarantee.
Even if it were true that the prize money belongs to the remaining players, it’s completely inconsistent to say that they can do as they please with it at the end of the tournament but not at the beginning. If I agree to dump my chips to another player in the first hand of a tournament then I’d be disqualified, but if it’s true that the players control the prize pool then surely I can do as I please with my equity whether I’m in the money or not.
The thing that is most perplexing to me is why Leah agreed to a deal at all given how significant a victory was for him. I can understand the motivation of wanting to win another event in a venue where he’s previously done exceptionally well but I can’t get my head around why he’d get near to the finish line and not play it out. Declaring a winner before the result is absolute is completely contrary to the point of a tournament as champions take titles by merit and not agreement; if a deal is struck then the event finishes without a winner. In a tournament format – particularly where no deal-making provision is offered – pre-determining who wins is exactly the same as match-fixing, which is often not just contrary to the rules but also illegal.
It’s important not to overlook how significant the trophy is when observing the bigger picture. The entire Fallsview controversy has arisen because of the trophy arrangement rather than because of what people get paid. Professional poker players may usually care little about winning trophies but if they denigrate the value of the trophy they reduce the appeal of poker to the recreational players they rely on. The WPT, like all promoters, are looking to market their brand to potential customers and pictures of the winner with a stack of cash and a shiny trophy is central to their marketing. If players instead choose to chop the money and knock off early, talk down the importance of winning outright or negotiate a payment where the trophy winner doesn’t get the biggest payout they risk undermining the appeal of the brand, potentially meaning the difference between having enough players to make the event viable in the long run.
There are considerations that go wider than the tournament tables to take into account. Sports-betting opportunities have skyrocketed with the growth of the internet and most sports and games’ bodies are especially vigilant when it comes to unscrupulous activity. Now that companies like PokerShares and StakeKings have entered the market and are geared specifically for poker betting, accepting deal-making as a normal way to finish a tournament creates an environment ripe for unscrupulous betting practices, particularly given the cliquey environs of Pokerland.
The culture of deal-making in tournament poker is almost universally accepted but this incident has highlighted the need for a moratorium. The high prestige of winning a big tournament appears incompatible with the desire to split prize pools. A solid compromise may be to ringfence a number of high profile events where deal-making isn’t allowed but I don’t feel that it would tackle the underlying problem, which is that any action pre-determining the outcome of a contest risks undermining the game as a whole.
It may seem counter-intuitive to experienced players but I believe that the only way to prevent future controversy and to maintain the integrity of poker tournaments is to treat deal-making as a form of collusion, like paying a boxer to take a fall, and ban the practice outright. The alternative isn’t just about sucking up the variance, it’s about accepting that players like Mike Leah may find themselves at risk of disqualification, not through malicious action but because compromises and tournaments don’t make good partners.