What Penalty Should A Player Receive For Looking At An Opponent’s Cards?

August 19, 2015
What Penalty Should A Player Receive For Looking At An Opponent’s Cards?

On the very last hand of Day 2 of the Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood Poker Open, longtime poker player Travell Thomas violated one of poker’s oldest rules: the one that says you have to pay see the cards.

The problem was a frustrated Travell didn’t pay to see his opponent’s cards; he simply reached out and flipped them face-up after his opponent had 3-bet him multiple times in a row.

Travell received a one round penalty for his transgression, a penalty that tournament director Matt Savage asked the poker community to chime in on.

The incident caused a mini-uproar on Twitter, with most people feeling Travell got off too lightly.

The most common complaint was the information gleaned from seeing an opponent’s cards in a big pot would often be worth sitting out a single orbit. For this camp, the feeling was that a one round penalty simply will not deter this type of behavior in the future.

A minority of people disagreed, feeling the one orbit penalty was a reasonable punishment for a first time offense. Most people based this on Travell’s solid reputation in the poker world, chalking it up to a bad decision by a good person.

My opinion is that both camps are correct.

How bad was the crime?

Since this rarely happens – this is the first such instance I’ve ever heard of at a major tournament – it isn’t a problem that needs much of a solution. I also don’t think Travell getting “just” a one round penalty will cause a spike in players trying to exploit the seemingly small penalty.

I think the reason it rarely happens is not only because of the penalty the offending player receives (a one orbit penalty isn’t exactly small potatoes, particularly if there are antes and a player is short-stacked), but more so because of the stigma attached to anyone who commits such an act.

Anyone engaging in this type of behavior is going to catch as much grief as an angle shooter. This by itself is a pretty strong deterrent for most players.

Furthermore, there is a logistical issue.

The player has to be in the immediate neighborhood of his opponent, who has to muck his hand somewhat lackadaisically to allow the opportunity. Because of this, it’s unlikely a player could flip an opponent’s hand unless he is within two seats of him.

It’s not impossible, but it certainly makes it harder.

However, while it’s not much of an issue, we have to make sure people aren’t trying to weigh the pros and cons of exploiting this rule. We don’t want shady +EV minded poker players purposefully looking at their opponents’ cards whenever the information gleaned is deemed to be worth the one round penalty.

This is a tricky situation. The act of looking at an opponent’s uncalled hand can drastically alter the game.

Not only is the player gathering information on his opponent’s play, but he is also likely to send the other player on tilt and/or prevent himself from going on tilt by easing his own mind about the decision he just made.

Does the punishment deter the crime?

As many people noted in response to Savage, a one round penalty would often be a reasonable trade off for gathering this type of information and tilting an opponent. This is certainly true, but again, there is also a reputation hit to consider.

On the other hand, there were people calling for Travell to get an hour penalty or more.

These people are essentially saying that what he did is so egregious, even as a first offense, that it’s worth taking him out of the tournament, considering the stage of the tournament and how many chips he’d lose over that period of time.

So the question is, how do we sufficiently punish someone who violates one of the game’s oldest and most sacred rules, without over-punishing a player who’s simply on tilt himself?

There are several possible solutions for this.

Potential resolutions

The first way to solve this problem could be to punish a player looking at his opponent’s hole cards where it hurts a poker player the most: his wallet, or in the case of poker players, their chip stacks.

What I would propose as a zero tolerance policy is anyone flipping over an opponent’s hole cards must forfeit whatever the uncalled bet was, whether he was involved in the hand or not. I don’t think anyone would ever violate this rule again if that was the penalty in place.

Unfortunately, I doubt any TD’s are going to implement that policy.

A more practical penalty is a quickly escalating two-strike policy. As some people have noted, everyone gets upset now and then and loses his mind and does something stupid. My feeling is we shouldn’t tar and feather these people. We should save that for the habitual offenders.

This is why I’m ok with the one round penalty Travell received for a first violation. However, I think a second offense, even in a different tournament, should be punished very severely.

If I were making the rules, a second offense in any affiliated tournament during the next year would result in an automatic disqualification. I would go so far as to create an entire subset of rules that fall into this category – basically any rule violation that is a blatant and premeditated violation of a core poker rule.

I’ll call this first offense the “yellow card.”

Once a player triggers the yellow card, any rule violation in this category results in an automatic DQ. A “red card.”

This allows someone to lose his mind once – ONCE. You give someone the benefit of the doubt one time; after that he needs to comport himself perfectly.


If the initial one round penalty and the ignominy attached with looking at an opponent’s uncalled hand without permission doesn’t prevent the behavior, this threat of future serious penalty should be enough of a disincentive to keep players from trying to exploit this rule.

Players may think they are getting a good return of information for the one round penalty, but if they flip an opponent’s hand for the information, they are essentially playing on a yellow card for an entire year.

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