Welcome to the first installment of poker autopsy. In this series we take some of the best poker scenes in TV's and movies and do a breakdown of what is going on. Unlike most other content which will analyze the poker hand itself, in this series we're going to be taking a look at the game from a more macro sense. Analyzing terms, the things the show gets right and wrong, and other things that touch more on the culture and community of poker more so than the hand itself. We'll talk about unspoken rules, etiquette, and all other kinds of fun stuff. So let's jump right in.
First context. This poker scene is from the first part of a two part episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called "The Best of Both Worlds". Often regarded as one of the best parts of TNG if not the entire Star Trek franchise itself, this episode tackles the star ship Enterprise encountering the Borg which has made it's way towards the alpha quadrant after they first met them back in an earlier episode when Q sent them to the Delta quadrant.
The Enterprise takes on a specialized officer named Commander Shelby who is an expert in the Borg. She is designed to be a foil for Commander Riker in this arc and this scene was made to help drive that point home. Shelby is a hotshot officer who looks to take Rikers place aboard the Enterprise as the first officer, and the whole episode is about them butting heads with their different styles in leadership. Riker has invited her to his officers poker game, which is were our scene starts off!
This first part is great because in this case Data is 100% correct. It is very inappropriate to make any comments about a live hand, even when in jest. Of course we know that part of the humor is that this is a laid back home game and Wes is trying to have some fun with it. Data being an android doesn't understand Wes's sarcasm and so makes that comment. What the audience might not realize is that Data is right. Poker is an observational game. It is on you the player to be paying attention to what is going on. If another player in the game makes comments about a hand, it might call attention to a detail that another player has missed and now that player will change his or her action. In a home game you probably will get more leeway. In a poker club or casino though, you really want to be careful about what you say when a hand is going on.
(Which by the way is hilarious because in the middle of this scene both Data and Geordi are going to absolutely BUTCHER this rule. You'll see what I mean when we get there.)
After that, Data does something interesting. He says that he is going to "buy another card". Data in this instance is using the wrong terminology. He's not buying another card. He's putting in a bet for the next round of cards and everyone is calling. A "buy" in poker is something very sepcific and not done very much these days. A buy is when you can actually buy an extra card to put in your hand for an agreed upon price, or you can buy a card to swap out a card from your hand in hopes to improve your hand. Poker games with buys are extremely rare and you usually can only find them in home games. You will probably never see them in a club or casino.
Let's now continue with the next part of the scene...
Ok so Troi is making a classic mistake here. She is announcing what people could have as she deals out the cards. Going back to an earlier comment, poker is observational. You are not supposed to give away information. This is most likely done in TV and movies to help the audience understand what is going on. In real life though the dealer should never do this. They should just put out the cards, look for the highest hand showing (because it's a stud game) and have that person start the action.
Speaking of which, Geordi completely acts out of turn. While it is not the biggest deal in the world to fold out of turn, it's not the best of etiquette either. By folding out of turn you could throw off the action by making someone think it is their turn when it really isn't. Even when you know your hand has no chance of winning, it is always best to wait for the action to get to you and then take your turn. Since Wes has the highest hand it is his turn first. Geordi should have waited for action to come around before making his announcement.
One more small detail that is interesting is you will notice that Riker takes some of Troi's chips and calls for her. Now the rule is you should never touch anyone's chips unless it is your own. You never want anyone to ever accuse you of trying to steal from someone else's stack. There is an exception to this rule, when a dealer instructs you to place someone's chips into the pot because they may owe an ante or blind. In this case you can do that because you are under the observation of the dealer. Other than that, never touch someone else's chips. In this case because Troi is dealing, she may have an agreement with Riker where she told him before hand if she has a hand and hasn't folded to call for her because she is busy dealing the cards. Once again this kind of stuff you can get away with in a home game. In a club or casino, there will be a designated dealer who will manage all that for you.
Now let's get to the best part of the scene...
Ok first of all Riker completely and utterly string bets. You see this in TV and movies all the time, where someone will say "I see" the bet and then raise it. That is a rule no matter where you are. Home game, club, casino, doesn't matter. You can't string bet. If you want to raise, you have to announce that you are going to make a raise before you place any chips in the pot. Saying "it's time for the long pants" may mean raise in Riker's mind, it does not mean anything in the poker world. The reason why string bets are not allowed is because it can help you gain information from an opponent before you commit to the second action. If I say "I see" your bet, your reaction to that statement could tell me whether or not I should put in the raise or just stop at the call. It all has to be one motion.
This error of course PALES in comparison to Data and Geordi. After Data correctly explained to Wesly earlier how talking about a live hand is inappropriate, you now have Geordi saying what Riker could have and then Data telling Wes that Riker could be bluffing. Once again we understand that this is for the audience to help with them. That said if this was a real game, Riker would be well within his right to give both Data and Geordi a complete tongue lashing for interfering in a live hand with their commentary.
Which now brings us to another key part of the scene...
While Geordi is once again showing bad etiquette by commenting on Wes's play, he is totally right in this case. The players are playing 5 card stud. For those of you unfamiliar in 5 stud there are no exchanges. You get one card down, and four cards up. That's it. That's what you get to work with. That means a three of a kind is EXTREMELY strong in 5 card stud. If you have a three of a kind and someone else could have a flush, you simply have to call. If your opponent has the flush, well congrats to them they got even more insanely lucky than you did. This is a situation where sometimes you just have to go broke on a hand. You will make more money in the long run making those calls then you will from losses. Of course Riker knows he can push Wes around because he saw how timid he was and how little he bet into the pot with three jacks showing.
And now we go into the climax of the scene...
Shelby's move here is actually more brilliant than most people realize at first glance. In stud games there is a saying, if you can't beat what you see, you fold. Shelby only has two pair and she knows that Wes has three of a kind. She knows for a fact that she can't beat Wes. As long as Wes is in the hand her hand is no good. Which means she needs Wes to be out of the hand for her two pair to be the winning hand. Here is where it's even more brilliant. Shelby knew that if she wanted to she could bluff Wes out of the pot. However, if she did that she knew that Riker would fold because he now doesn't have the means to bluff her out. If Riker folds, Shelby misses out on his money.
Shelby wants to make the most money out of this hand, and she knows that Riker is aggressive. So what does she do? She simply calls Wes bet. It's brilliant. Because she knows that Riker probably doesn't have the flush and is probably going to make a move on the pot trying to represent one. She also knows that if he does that, Wes is going to fold like a cheap suit. She effectively got Riker to do the dirty work for her and she got paid off all at the same time. Whomever wrote this scene if they intended this to be the interpretation, then they were absolutely brilliant and must have been poker players in some point in their lives. If not then it's for sure a happy accident.
When it comes to poker scenes, this is for sure one of the better ones. Aside from the butchering of the rules and etiquette there is a lot that this scene gets right in terms of the feel of a home poker game.
Speaking of which, if you want to the feeling of a home game in Cincinnati and you can't get one organized yourself, come on by our club during our operating hours and check it out. You might find yourself liking the club and community feel vs the more cold and corporate structure of the casino. We're in the West Chester area at 4844 Union Center Pavilion Drive. You can also email us or reach out on Facebook with any questions you have for us.