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A Look at House Rules: Substantial Action

A Look at House Rules: Substantial Action 0001

Substantial action” — also known as “significant action” — is one house rule you can't count on. It is a rule, but the ruling in any given poker room may not be the one you heard a week ago in a different room. As a matter of fact, when it comes to establishing just what “substantial action” is, you may not get the same ruling from two different floor managers in the same poker room.

We aren't scared though! We're going to tackle it and try to narrow it down with examples and explanations to show you what you should expect if you're ever in a hand when a decision is needed that involves substantial action.

What is “substantial action”?

What does "substantial action" mean? Put simply, it refers to two players acting on their hands (that is, by folding, calling, raising, checking, or betting). Some rooms require three players to create substantial action.

One way to think of substantial action is as a time limit set by a poker room to allow it to correct an error. Examples follow:

  1. Player XYZ is next to act but has his cards semi-obscured under his arm as he stacks chips. Player C mistakenly assumes it’s his turn and bets, then Player D acts by folding, calling, or raising. (Note: In some rooms the dealer may be considered to be part of the action; the dealer’s role would be assuming the action is complete and proceeding to tap the table and deal.)
  2. Player A starts a hold’em hand with three hole cards, but doesn’t realize it until two or three players have already called the big blind.
  3. Player D turns up a winner but the hand was misread and the pot mistakenly is pushed to another player. All the cards are pulled in, scrambled, and the dealer starts the shuffle for the next hand. (Tip: Pay attention when you are in a hand, and don’t give up your cards if you aren’t sure what you made at the end of the hand. And yes, after long hours of play you may be in exactly that spot at some point in your playing career.)

All three of these examples show substantial action taking place.

What happens when substantial action has taken place?

That depends. The norm is that the hand is dead and all money in the pot is forfeited. But as we stated earlier, you may not get the same ruling from two different floor people in the same card room, so let’s revisit our examples and talk about what might happen in each case.

In Example 1 in which Player XYZ was busy stacking chips and the action was taken over by Player C, the floor manager could rule that since Player XYZ was preoccupied and busy, the action would revert back to him. That ruling brings up several issues, one of which is if Player C is a vindictive player and purposely acted before Player XYZ, having seized the opportunity to act in hopes that Player XYZ’s hand would be declared dead. It happens.

By the way, if you run into a player nicknamed “Bad Attitude” for a reason — say, like our Player C — who wants to spoil the fun and action at your table, get on the transfer list. Or if you do stay in the game, watch Bad Attitude closely — your game will love you for it. Also, if you know the dealer is passing a player in the action, help the dealer and your game play by stopping the action until the situation is rectified.

Now, why would the hand normally be ruled dead when substantial action has taken place? It has to do with fairness. In this case, Player XYZ would have the opportunity to act knowing what two players behind him were going to do. That’s a huge advantage, because if Player XYZ has a big hand and knows that Player C is going to bet, Player XYZ can check to set up for a check-raise. Player C’s bet would be considered as an “action out of turn” and he would be forced to bet unless Player XYZ’s hand is ruled dead.

Moving to Example 2, in which Player A gets dealt three hole cards, that hand would have to be declared dead unless the dealer or other players could verify that Player A had not looked at any of the cards. In that case, poker room management might allow the three cards to be scrambled, face down, and the dealer would pick one to slide into the mucked cards.

Finally, in Example 3 in which the wrong player was awarded the pot and the shuffle for the next hand began, Player D would rarely have an option available to salvage the hand unless the player was able to stop the dealer before the cards went into the muck. The hands must be retrievable in order for management to piece everything together and award the pot to the winning hand. Many big poker rooms have cameras running on tables but not on all tables. If the camera were running, it’s possible that management could go back and find the winning hand.

If the dealer pushes the pot to someone other than the winner, that’s another huge issue. Will the person who wrongfully received the pot give it up? In the long run, the house is responsible for making sure the pot goes to the winning hand. Most house rules will just save all the headaches for management by simply stating that if you don’t stop the action before the cards are scrambled and the shuffle begins, the hand is DEAD!

Of course, we aren’t a stickler for rules, but we do know a bit about them. Still, we aren’t sure how the player or other players at the table would even begin to sit quietly through the following decision once posted on the TwoPlusTwo forums:

Re: Definition needed for "significant action"

The first time I saw a player dealt only one card after significant action, the floor said u may fold or play the hand with one card. he was the button. This was at the trop in ac.

Keep in mind that rules may vary by interpreter, so be prepared.

Home Games and Online

Even though home games usually consist of a group of friends gathering over a card table every week, most hosts want to make sure the game is fair and so many of them run their games by standard poker rules found online. One very reliable source is Robert’s Rules of Poker for private games.

The problem of defining “substantial action” may never be an issue in your favorite home game and most certainly will never crop up if you start your own online poker club with PokerStars Home Games. Online poker software always keeps game play running smoothly, so all you have to do is play and enjoy the fun.

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