Scandal: Should Sunglasses Be Banned at Poker Tables?

Sunglasses can provide for competitive advantage and cheating. Should poker room's ban them?

Sunglasses can provide for competitive advantage and, rarely, cheating. Should poker room’s ban them?

Poker players wearing sunglasses at the table. It’s a part of the game that we all take for granted these days.

There seems to be a player or two at every live table wearing them, largely stemming from the trend of the poker explosion in the early and mid-2000s.

Some of the most-exposed pros on TV during that era had sunglasses attached to their faces at all times: Chris Moneymaker, Phil Hellmuth, and Chris “Jesus” Ferguson to name a few.

It seems harmless enough, right?

Sunglasses give beginners some confidence and if players want to block the little light available in a dark cardroom and potentially misread their hand who cares?

But is it that simple? Can players use them as cheating devices? And, more importantly, should poker rooms and tournament directors start to ban sunglasses?

Sunglasses used to cheat at the 2015 WSOP?

I largely blame Chris Moneymaker's 2003 WSOP win for the explosion of sunglasses in poker

I largely blame Chris Moneymaker’s 2003 WSOP win for the explosion of sunglasses in poker

This issue came into focus again thanks to this controversy at the 2015 WSOP $10,000 Heads-up event.

Other players at the final table alleged that Valeriu Coca was using some sort of method for marking cards and possibly viewing those marks through a special pair of sunglasses.

Another cheating method this player was discovered to have used previously is making minute cuts or bends in Kings and Aces to keep track of them.

WSOP investigation

Player suspicions prompted an investigation by WSOP officials, but no card alterations were found or they weren’t announced publicly if they were found. Regardless, it’s made banning sunglasses into an interesting discussion point in the poker world.

How do sunglasses help poker players?

Chris Ferguson is one of the few pros to wear sunglasses regularly.

Chris Ferguson is one of the few poker pros to wear sunglasses regularly at the tables.

Sunglasses do give players an advantage – that is indisputable. It allows players to hide a part of their bodies they would normally have to control as part of a “poker face”.

Players hidden by sunglasses can stare at will and cover up possible tells given by the eyes. It’s likely that most opponents wouldn’t know how to use those tells against their eye-shaded counterparts but hiding any body part that is used to communicate non-verbal body language so well can only be thought of as an advantage.

Should that alone be enough to ban sunglasses at the poker table entirely?

How can sunglasses enable cheating?

This is more of an exotic, and very unlikely, use of sunglasses but as the recent 2015 WSOP event controversy showed the potential for cheating exists.

The most likely use of sunglasses for cheating would be a foreign ink or substance that could be placed on hole cards each hand. The substance would be invisible or very difficult to see by dealers or the rest of the table but show up to the cheater through those special sunglasses.

Kid Poker’s .02

Contact Lenses?

Daniel Negreanu got a lot of replies to the above tweet saying that specialized contact lenses would provide the same ability to spot marked cards, so (tongue in cheek) should those be banned as well?

Negreanu correctly replied that sunglasses specifically provide cover to a cheaters’ eyes so they aren’t spotted scrutinizing the cards, which would raise plenty of attention if done with contacts. Cheaters have tried this technique and, fortunately, are usually caught as far as we know.

Physically marking cards to cheat

poker-ban-sunglasses-3

Banning sunglasses wouldn’t eliminate physical cheating with cards as offenders can still try to mark or deface them

The other method most employed by cheaters at the poker table would be to mark the cards physically by bending, denting, or cutting a small section of the cards.

Sunglasses would then hide the obvious visual scrutiny they would be giving to the cards around the table, studying to see if they can locate their marks. It seems like a lot of work – not to mention a criminal act – to alter cards that will just be changed out for a new deck in a an hour or two but it is certainly possible.

Cheating is probably the best argument for banning sunglasses at poker tables over the competitive advantage because, truly, don’t you want players at the table who feel insecure enough that they need to hide?

Sunglasses help bring players you want at the table

poker-ban-sunglasses-7

Banning sunglasses would eliminate the minute risk of cheating at the risk of driving away losing players

For all of the annoyance and arguments for banning sunglasses at the tables there seems to always be one realization that shuts down any such talk from advancing beyond theoretical debate: sunglasses help the rest of the table make more money. It isn’t as simplistic as that of course, but indirectly it’s very true.

Inexperienced players, those who are converting from online to live games, and players who feel overmatched, timid, or nervous often use sunglasses at the table. It gives them a little more comfort and anonymity in an uncomfortable situation.

Don’t tap on the tank

Why would you want to possibly alienate or discourage the same type of player that’s probably going to be running a chip bank at the table? The goal is to encourage poor players to the table and feed the poker economy, not create more barriers like banning sunglasses that make them think twice about even sitting down.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve encountered seemingly experienced players at live tables, chips riffled with ease and sunglasses donned only to find them actually playing incredibly poorly. Let them keep their image and the chips flowing.

My take on banning sunglasses at the poker table

poker-ban-sunglasses-5

As much as I would love to see a ban on sunglasses it would ultimately hurt the game

A ban on sunglasses at the poker table is an interesting debate topic and I can certainly see the merit of what someone with the stature of Daniel Negreanu has had to say about it.

It does give players an advantage, probably goes against the natural spirit of the game, and can possibly enable cheating on marked cards.

No, I wouldn’t mind playing in a shades-free zone when I sit at a live table.

It’s slightly obnoxious to me, especially when done at small-stakes tables, and feels out of place in a game that’s been played well before sunglasses existed.

Shades are too valuable to today’s game to ban

However, at the end of the day those potential detriments to the game pale in comparison to the benefits of drawing beginners who otherwise may feel too intimidated to enter the cardroom.

Whenever I see a low-stakes beginner wearing sunglasses sit down at my table I usually just laugh a little inside and then not think about it again.

If I was playing in a significant cash game or for a WSOP bracelet as the players in questions were this past summer, I would certainly make it an issue if I saw irregularities from an opponent, sunglasses or not.

I’m glad WSOP officials seemed to take the allegations seriously and I hope cardroom authorities around the world will continue to. In today’s game, that’s the best we can hope for.

Background of Sunglasses used for poker

poker-players-sunglasses

Doyle Brunson, as with almost every old-generation poker player, does not use sunglasses. Deal with it.

Whether you’re watching a rerun of the WSOP Final Table or going to the local casino cardroom for some $1/2 NL action, you’ll most likely encounter more than a few players hiding behind a pair of sunglasses.

Upside down, right side up, designer-inspired, black as night, you name the type and  a player at the poker table is probably sporting it.

Many online players or those new to the game might wonder if there some sort of wacky correlation between photo-sensitivity and people who like to play poker in chromosome x456?

Why the heck are all these guys wearing sunglasses in a dimly-lit poker room?

While many amateurs simply wear them to emulate their poker heroes there are some tangible benefits to having shades available at the table. Let’s examine some of the pros and cons.

Sunglasses can potentially hide tells

Firstly, there are some textbook tells that can be deduced from the eyes.

For example, if a player quickly looks at the flop, looks down at his chips, and quickly looks away, the flop most likely helped his cards.

On the converse, if a player is intently studying the flop it probably didn’t help him and he’s trying to figure out some sort of straight combination to no avail.

Some say they can tell if a player is bluffing by the dilation of his pupils. I very much doubt that anyone besides an FBI profiler has the sort of eyesight or patience to study and compare the possible bluffer’s pupils across an entire session.

Nevertheless, if a player covers his eyes his tablemates can’t deduce anything from where he’s looking.

poker-sunglasses

Although it’s unlikely your opponents at most poker tables will pay extreme attention to your eyes if you’ve got an artificial shield you eliminate any chance of a tell-by-eye.

Wearers of Sunglasses feel tough

Next, there is the intimidation factor.

Have you ever seen Chris “Jesus” Ferguson staring down his opponent with dark black sunglasses, a black cowboy hat, and a scraggly beard that covers up the rest of his face? Pretty tough, isn’t he?

Or perhaps think of the bizarre combination of goofiness and intimidation that Greg Raymer gives off with his signature holographic dinosaur glasses. They’re a novelty but somehow look menacing on his healthily-padded face.

Many players believe that they strike more fear into their opponents with the blank stare of tinted glasses.

Unfortunately, most players don’t have the complete demeanor or physical appearance that Chris Ferguson or Greg Raymer have.

Reduces intimidation for beginners

Interestingly, wearing sunglasses at the table can also help players feeling intimidated themselves.

The screen over their eyes protects them against possible tells and reads by the professionals, but more importantly it allows them to hide at the table.

If you’re covering up your face with sunglasses and a low hat, you can almost become invisible and anonymous at the table.

This can have a calming effect on those playing their first tournament or new live players entering an intimidating major event filled with hawk-eyed professionals like the World Series of Poker Main Event.

poker-sunglasses-2

Intimidated players new to live poker or in a big event with pros may like the comfort of trying to disappear behind sunglasses.

Negatives to Wearing Sunglasses at the Table

However, there are also several negative aspects to wearing your favorite Ray-Bans, Oakleys, or cheap knockoffs at the table. The biggest risk you run is misreading your hole cards because of the incredibly-dark environment you’re creating.

Phil Ivey once commented in an interview that his wife bought him a $4,000 pair of sunglasses to try at the poker table. After losing a big pot because he misread his cards Ivey tossed the sunglasses in the garbage and never tried another pair.

Notable pros who don’t use sunglasses

While there are some professionals who favor sunglasses such as Phil Hellmuth and Chris Ferguson, there is a longer list of big name players who skip them:

  • Doyle Brunson
  • Barry Greenstein
  • Phil Ivey
  • Gus Hansen
  • Howard Lederer
  • Daniel Negreanu
  • T.J. Cloutier
  • Johnny Chan
  • Dan Harrington
  • Erik Seidel
  • Ted Forrest
  • A slew of other successful pros

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Breaking the spirit of the game

Besides making the cards tough to see, many old-time professionals feel like allowing poker players to wear sunglasses is against the spirit of the game.

In some ways, it can create an unfair advantage – one that traditionally hasn’t been a part of poker on any level. I tend to agree with this stance as both a player and a spectator.

Finally, players choosing to expose their eyes do have an intangible advantage: confidence in their appearance and their play. More than anything else, I personally feel that this reason keeps me from hiding behind anything at the table.

Sunglasses are largely pointless at smaller games

Plus, it just seems a little silly to block your eyes at the beginners’ table at the local cardroom.

Odds are that the other players at your table won’t even know what a tell is, much less how many millimeters your pupils dilate when you’re lying about your hand.

The choice on whether to wear sunglasses is yours, but hopefully now you have a better understanding of what motivates your opponents’ decisions.

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Josh H
Josh H
Owner and Editor-in-chief at Beat The Fish
A lifelong poker player who moved online in 2004, Josh founded Beat The Fish in 2005 to help online poker players make more-informed decisions on where to play and how to win once they got there. He hopes to cut through the rampant dishonesty in online gaming media with objective reviews and relevant features. Tech nostalgic. Nintendo apologist. You can reach Josh directly at support@beatthefish.com.
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