Do the Right Thing: Staked Poker Player Edition

  • Poker pro and staker Patrick Leonard was called in to arbitrate on an unusual situation
  • Staking/Backer relationships are common in poker
  • A player gifted the $10,000 buy-in back to the eliminated player
  • Leonard presented the scenario, dividing the poker community
  • Leonard ultimately decided that the player should keep the money
Boss handing employee a cash bonus in an envelope
Patrick Leonard was called upon to weigh in on whether or not a staked tourney player who failed to cash should keep the $10,000 buy-in he was later gifted by the person who eliminated him. [Image:]

Who gets the gift? 

Picture this. 

You bust from a poker tournament and slink away from the table disappointed when the player who eliminated you gets up and offers you your buy-in back. It’s got to be a joke, right? 

immediately hands over the cash, saying how sorry he is for knocking you out

It turns out it’s not. He’s serious and he immediately hands over the cash, saying how sorry he is for knocking you out. You accept his gesture.

Well, there’s a catch, or at the very least there might be. You didn’t buy yourself into that tournament. Your backer did. Had he not, you wouldn’t have been in a position to receive this generous gift. On the flip side, it is a gift and your backer put you into the tournament from which you were eliminated fair and square. 

So do you pocket the gift? Does your backer get his money back? Do you split it? It’s certainly a tough one so it might be useful to bring in a third party to arbitrate. 

Enter Patrick Leonard.

Staking is important in poker 

Many tournament poker players at all stake levels do not play on their own dime. They rely on backers, either to buy action in individual tournaments on a one-off basis or to stake them on an ongoing basis. In the case of the former, the player might charge mark-up, a premium on the purchase of her action. In the case of the latter, the player would be put into tournaments, going into “make-up” when in arrears and splitting her profits on any sum above even. 

Both of these arrangements can be mutually beneficial for both staker and stakee and in fact, an entire sub-industry has evolved around those relationships in poker over the past dozen years. These days, a large number of individuals, co-operatives, and companies stake players as a business. 

For four years, I was part of such a co-operative (with fellow Irish pros Dara O’Kearney, Daragh Davey, and Jason Tompkins) and for longer than that, on a bigger scale, so too was Patrick Leonard, one of the founders of “BitB Staking,” a super-stable for MTT, cash game, and SNG players. 

An unusual staking situation

Staking deals sometimes come with contracts attached. Others are carried out more casually. The legal standing of contracts of this nature would be tenuous but they do serve to make clear the relationship between backer and player. Poker players live and die by their reputations, so the court of public opinion and peer pressure will often serve as the de facto King Solomon. 

when a situation comes from left field, a sensible measure is to bring in an impartial adjudicator

There are, however, scenarios unforeseeable by both parties and when a situation comes from left field, a sensible measure is to bring in an impartial adjudicator. Poker’s undisputed Umpire-in-Chief has for a long time been Phil Galfond. Most recently, he acted as referee between Doug Polk and Daniel Negreanu in their challenge, memorably called upon when Kid Poker began gratuitously tanking in response to Polk’s limping strategy. 

When it comes to matters involving staking deals though, it would be hard to think of somebody with more experience than Patrick Leonard. Last week, the high stakes online pro tweeted that he had been approached to arbitrate on an unusual staking situation that would certainly have fallen outside of any reasonable contract: 

Poker community was split

Teasing his ultimate decision, Leonard initially presented the spot without prejudice, eliciting a genuinely split response from the poker community. People who believed that the money should go back to the staker included Max Silver, Matt Salzburg, David Baker, Brandon Harris, Doug Polk, Scott Seiver, Adam Owen, Melissa Schubert, and Melissa Burr. People who felt that the money should stay with the player include Dan Merrilees, Rupert Elder, Tony Dunst, David Lyons, and David Yan.

The arguments for why the player should give the money to his backer varied but could be summarized as follows:

The player would not have been in the situation to receive the gift if not for the backer putting him in the tournament so the player effectively cashed in the tournament for $10,000.

The arguments for why the player should keep the money also varied but could be summarized as follows: 

The player did not cash in the tournament and the gift is an entirely different transaction that has nothing to do with the stake.

On the last episode of “The Lock-In,” Andrew Brokos made the point that the player who gave the gift probably doesn’t normally go around giving eliminated players their money back so in all likelihood, this player was given the gift by virtue of the person he is, rather than the player he is. That said, Brokos ultimately believed that charity should have won out and the money should have gone to a good cause. Niall Farrell made a – different – suggestion in the thread:

So what did Leonard do? 

Leonard ruled for the player

In 1953, the philosophical world pondered Wittgenstein’s rabbit-duck illusion. In 2015, the internet was divided by the white and gold/black and blue dress. Last Wednesday, the poker community was schisming over an unidentified player, his nameless backer, and a gift given to him by an anonymous benefactor.

Most took one side or the other but middle-grounds were also occupied. Mike “Timex” McDonald recommended a compromise: 

In the end, Leonard was not permitted to choose a half-measure and he ruled as follows:

How would you have ruled? 

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