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When you see a poker reality show, are you amazed by the amounts of money involved? Does it seem like poker pros must be worth tens of millions of dollars to be playing in $100,000 high roller events and the million dollar One Drop? The most well-known professional players seem to have an infinite amount of money and they don’t seem terribly attached to their cash when you see the prop bets they make in front of television cameras.

We all know that reality shows on television aren’t exactly real. Some are scripted, and others just reward certain behaviors with camera time to encourage those behaviors, and the reality stars learn quickly what will earn them camera time and more money. I like to suspend my disbelief sometimes and forget that Bear Grylls has a camera crew nearby to help him if he needs it, but when it comes to poker on television, I have trouble.

Let’s start with a story

A few years ago I was in Las Vegas with my friend and coauthor Adam Stemple. We were eating at a Subway inside the old O’Shea’s and there were beer pong tables just over a waist-high wall from where we were eating. Of course, we started betting on the participants in the games. How else are we supposed to pass a whole five minutes while we eat our subs? We needed action!

Adam and I are not big gamblers. We’ll lay down a bet here and there, but we aren’t like a lot of poker pros who behave like they hate money on a daily basis. We were betting $10 a shot on the beer pong game, but we were in Vegas to play poker so we each had a few thousand dollars with us.

“Let’s kick the stakes up a notch for the kids,” Adam said.

We’ve been friends a long time. I knew exactly what he meant. When the next shot was a miss, I swore loudly and handed him $500, clearly within the sight line of the competitors. A college girl, couldn’t have been more than 22, came walking over and asked us if were betting on their game. We told her that we were and she asked what the stakes were. When we told her we were betting $500 a shot, she looked like we had just told her that we were betting our lives.

When she returned to take her next turn, she told everyone at the table that we were betting $500 a shot. They looked surprised, but there wasn’t real shock until she made her next shot and Adam handed me back the same $500 I had given him a minute ago. Seeing the hundred dollar bills exchanged had them all wide-eyed. Five bills is a lot of money to a college kid in Vegas for the weekend, trying to get drunk on $30 a night and splitting a hotel room five ways.

We kept this up for a few minutes while we finished our subs, and a couple of the other competitors came over to talk to us. We mostly told them the truth. That we are poker pros in town for a tournament series, that we were betting on their game, and that we would bet on almost anything. What we lied to them about was the stakes we were playing for.

It’s Mostly Harmless

It was not just a harmless lie, it was for their entertainment as well as ours. They had a neat experience in Las Vegas, met a couple big gamblers, and had real money riding on their performance in one of the dumbest games ever invented. They definitely went home with a story to tell their classmates, and they are probably still telling it. Why wouldn’t they, it’s a great story. And everyone who hears it believes that there are people who will bet $500 on the toss of a ping pong ball.

I’m not saying that there aren’t people who would bet $500 on the toss of a ping pong ball into a dirty cup of beer, but I can tell you that it wasn’t happening that night. You can probably guess where I’m going with this. In many cases, the huge games you hear about just aren’t quite as big as they seem.

Is a million dollar buy-in cash game really a million dollar buy-in? Probably. The participants do likely have to put up a million dollars to play. But if they all swap action, then there isn’t really much risk. Even if only three or four of them swap 10% each, it cuts down on variance drastically. And many of those players have backers or have sold a significant amount of action in those games.

If a player sells 75% of his action, and swaps 5% with two other players, then the buy-in is really only $150,000 for him. If he has a backer, or sells all of his action, then he may not have any money invested at all. And what if an investor buys 50% of every player? What if that investor is associated with the television network and is simply cutting the stakes in half so that the players can afford to play. When does it become deceptive?

In my opinion, it’s television. When you watch something on screen, you should know that it can easily be manipulated and that you are only seeing what they have chosen to show you. I know a player who recently played on a poker broadcast who sold action on Facebook. It’s clearly not being kept a big secret, they just don’t mention it on the broadcast. I don’t think it’s wrong, just interesting.

This is reflected in all kinds of things that civilians, people who aren’t serious about poker, believe about our game. They think Antonio Esfandiari has actually won $26,000,000 in tournaments and must have mountains of cash. I’m sure Antonio is doing just fine, but he has basically admitted that he didn’t have all his own action in the One Drop, and estimates of his percentage are as low as 10%.

But I Thought that Guy was Rich?

When you count buy-ins and backing, some of the biggest names in poker who have millions in tournament “winnings” may not even be up significantly. Most of them are way up, and most of them are truly great players, but don’t believe the numbers you read online, they aren’t related to “reality” any more than the things you read about Kim Kardashian in the tabloids or the junk you can watch about ancient aliens on television. Just because someone says it doesn’t mean that it’s true. Even if you watch it happen on television, it doesn’t mean that the money really changed hands in the quantity that the cameras presented.

Is this good for poker? I’m not sure. I know that it keeps people interested, but I think people would be interested in the biggest buy-in events even if the entry fee was only $10,000. That’s a pretty big cash game to me. I also know that it’s not going to change. Selling action is a smart thing for many players, and I often sell action myself. In my bracelet win this summer, I had less than half of my own action.

There are debates about players trading action because it can influence how they play against each other, but there isn’t much to be done about that. Players can trade action without telling anyone and there is simply no way to verify that players don’t have a portion of another player’s action. Other than being conscious of the fact that some players in any major tournament will have traded some action, there is nothing to worry about. Just don’t let yourself be deceived into thinking that all of the numbers you see reflect reality when they may only reflect reality television.



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Chris Wallace

Chris "Fox" Wallace is a professional poker, author, and poker coach from St Paul, Minnesota. While he spent most of his career playing cash games,Fox recently started playing more tournaments and won a bracelet in the $10,000 HORSE World Championship in 2014. Follow him on twitter