Poker couple Alex Foxen and Kristen Bicknell recently took first and second place in a major live poker tournament. The tournament was streamed online with hole cards shown, and there have been accusations of them soft playing each other, a type of collusion, made in the online community. I haven't watched the entire final table, and a few of the hands people have complained about seem fine or at least defensible to me, but the JJ vs AA hand is the most blatant collusion I've ever seen. I don't believe there is a reasonable argument otherwise. My hope is to raise awareness to this issue and encourage an honest and meaningful discussion which will lead to tournament organizers taking action in determining an appropriate penalty.
First, I want to explain what soft playing is and why it’s a problem. Soft playing occurs when two players with a personal relationship play hands differently against each other than they would against other players because they feel bad about taking each other’s money. Typical examples include never trying to bluff each other in a big pot, betting smaller than usual or not betting at all with a value hand, or in extreme cases outright telling the other person they should fold. This may not seem like a big deal at first, but in tournament poker it’s especially problematic because players are paid out according to what place they finish in, not how many chips they have in front of them. The two players soft playing each other are unlikely to ever bust each other from the tournament, and that hurts everyone else’s chances of moving up a spot in the payouts. It’s especially problematic at a final table, where outlasting one extra player is usually worth a significant amount of money. It’s a form of collusion because the two players soft playing each other increase their combined equity at the expense of everyone else in the tournament. They are effectively working together for their own benefit, whether that’s their intention or not. It’s important to note that soft playing need not be openly discussed or premeditated. It may not even be a conscious decision. In a poker game decisions are not always made rationally. When faced with a close decision players often speak of playing on instinct or “trusting their gut”, referring to listening to their subconscious mind in some way. If your subconscious is as concerned about another player’s feelings or success as your own, this may influence the decisions you make against that player.
Before I get to discussing the hand I’d like to provide some background. I regularly play high roller events, where a large percentage of the player pool consists of some subset of the same group of pros. They often have pieces of each other, and there are many groups of close friends among these pros. Collusion is a very serious concern in this environment where the stakes are so high, the player pool so tightly knit, and financial incentives for an individual are potentially not completely aligned with their own performance in the tournament. The final tables of these events are usually streamed with hole cards shown, and yet over a fairly large sample now I’ve never seen a hand I felt was conclusive evidence of collusion. This hand between Kristen and Alex is the first. I would go further to say that if this hand between the couple played in this context is not viewed as sufficient proof to result in them being penalized, then I don’t know what realistically could be. That would be a severe problem for the integrity of poker tournaments going forward.
For the purposes of full disclosure, I have played with both Kristen and Alex a moderate amount, enough to have some basic perception of how they play. I don’t know them personally but have only ever had positive interactions with them.
The hand takes place 3-handed in the $5k MSPT event at the Venetian Las Vegas. Kristen and Alex are 1st and 2nd in chips with 2.4M and 2.2M respectively. Kahle has around 700k, short stacked but hardly out of it. 25k/50k blinds and 25k in antes.
Alex opens to 115k on the button with Jh Jc, Kahle folds, and Kristen reraises to 400k in the big blind holding Ah Ac. Alex calls.
(850k) Flop: 5c 4h Js. Kristen bets 200k, Alex calls.
(1.25M) Turn Kd. Kristen checks, Alex bets 375k, Kristen calls.
(2M) River 3c. Kristen checks, Alex bets 600k, Kristen folds.
If there was no soft play the money should go in here preflop most of the time, especially given these are generally pretty loose and aggressive players preflop. But just calling JJ there could be defensible, or at least an understandable mistake. Some people do really tighten up in big money situations. I have no reason to believe Kristen or Alex is one of these people given their recent successes, but it happens. Even at the highest levels there seem to be vastly differing opinions about how ICM strategy works in these spots.
The turn action is fine. Again, not the the most probable line, which adds some suspicion, but it's fine. Kristen’s snap call is extremely suspicious though, like she wants Alex to know she's really strong.
The river bet sizing from Alex is very suspicious with only two thirds pot to play, but I can imagine someone thinking "my opponent probably has QQ and is going to fold if I shove", or at least having some general concern of them making a big ICM-related fold if he shoves, and betting this smaller size. I don't think Alex would choose this size against a player he respects, but it's not impossible. Folding AA as Kristen did is obviously a completely nonsensical play though. You wouldn't fold to the biggest nit in the world there, and anyone who knows Alex's game well knows he's definitely not that. Her statement from the PokerNews article is problematic: "I thought he probably had aces, ace-king, kings or jacks. I don’t really do well on the river against those hands. I thought he had zero bluffs."
The fact she doesn't believe he can have even KJs is concerning. Maybe she just forgot to say it. She has 50% equity against the range she listed getting over 4:1 pot odds. By her own analysis she has a slam dunk call. No one with an intimate knowledge of Alex's game could ever face a river bet from him and think he has zero bluffs in his range in almost any situation if you were playing honestly. This quote reads like a rationalization she came up with after the fact, not her actual thought process during the hand. Maybe she just choked under the pressure but happened to make a correct fold in this instance. Maybe they both truly believe that correct ICM strategy involves never bluffing in this spot and making huge folds despite the fact that your opponent is aware of the same. I have to believe they are better players than that. Regardless, any reasonable Bayesian analysis of this hand suggests it's a near certainty they were colluding: the probability of them playing the hand this way honestly is remote. For an unbiased observer with a solid understanding of poker and tournament strategy, the mental gymnastics required to believe all these decisions were arrived at fairly are simply not reasonable. Compared to the obvious possibility that their relationship may make it difficult for them to play a big pot fairly against each other, that perhaps they both knew they wouldn’t make big bluffs against each other regardless of the situation, one explanation is overwhelmingly more likely.
Now that collusion is established, there are two main questions of interest: how should Kristen and Alex be penalized, and what does this say about the couple ethically? The two questions are related but different, and I think conflating the two is giving people trouble understanding what to think of all of this. I believe there is room to think they are not necessarily "bad people", while at the same time understanding a serious offense has occurred and should be punished appropriately. I suspect there are many people who know at least one of the couple and generally like them and think highly of them, and are having difficulty bridging that opinion of their friend with the clear evidence they colluded.
The biggest piece of evidence in favor of the possibility that they weren’t intentionally colluding is simply that folding AA in this hand as Kristen when everyone is going to see your hole cards is comically ridiculous if you are knowingly cheating. If Kristen called the river they could maybe keep some shred of plausible deniability and both still be in the tournament, but as soon as those cards hit the muck it's gone. Whatever your opinion of Kristen and Alex, they certainly aren’t stupid. So that leaves two possibilities: Kristen doesn't fully understand soft playing or is unaware on a conscious level that they are soft playing each other, or she does and is aware but doubts that she can or will be punished, and so folds anyway. The latter possibility would be particularly brazen, to an extent that makes it less likely. In terms of potential punishment, ignorance is not a defense. Given that there are no clear written rules about what an appropriate punishment is for this type of situation, any punishment will be subjective, and perceived intent can be factored in to some degree. However, the ethical issue depends entirely on this distinction. This is either a case of a very clear and deliberate transgression against Kahle (and potentially everyone else in the tournament by extension), or it's a disappointing display of ignorance or cognitive dissonance in a situation where Kristen and Alex should know better. Simply as professional tournament players in general, but more specifically as players in a relationship who have even made a final table together before, this is a contingency they should have considered carefully. Yet it's possible that they didn't fully grasp all the nuances of this situation.
Ultimately, what you take away from this about Kristen and Alex as people comes down to how you interpret the intent behind their actions. It's a subjective judgement and I can't tell you what to think. I like to believe the best in people, and I hope they will prove to be worth giving the benefit of the doubt in the long run. The possibility that they don't realize they have done anything wrong despite the fact they almost certainly have seems plausible.
As stated above, ignorance may be a valid moral defense, but not a legal one. So let's move on to punishment. I assume the Venetian has already paid out the players, but Kahle deserves money closer to the 2nd place payout. The collusion doesn't really affect his chances of winning the tournament, but it hurt his chances of laddering up to second place, and indeed given the JJ vs AA cooler that was dealt he should have been unlikely to finish in third place. I don't think it's unreasonable in the slightest for Kristen and Alex to rectify the situation with Kahle directly now after the fact, even as the Venetian may no longer have any recourse. However, I think the more crucial question is what should the penalty be going forward?
In my opinion, Kristen and Alex should be banned from playing tournaments together for six months. I understand this would be a considerable inconvenience to their lifestyle, but this needs to be correctly viewed as a serious offense. It is tempting to say they should perhaps only be banned from smaller field tournaments where they would be more likely to play at the same table, and then if they did happen to draw the same table just change the seat assignment. This compromises the integrity of the tournament in a fundamental way however, and what do you do if they make another final table together? Even if you believe there was no malicious intent, this ban gives them time to analyze the situation, learn how to play against each other fairly, or perhaps accept that they aren’t capable of playing hard against each other when the stakes are high, and that playing different tournaments is for the best. It's important that we monitor the integrity of tournament poker, and it's important that every player believes they are getting a fair shot in any tournament they decide to play. In order to protect the players and the game, a legitimate punishment must be enforced in this case, even if Kahle Burns and others at the final table are not directly compensated. I hope the organizers of major poker tournaments view the integrity of their events seriously enough to take action here. It's justified.