Which came first in poker, the chicken or the egg?

Credit to my friend David for suggesting I write about this topic as this situation is rare (and I admit never really paying much mind to it) but it happened to him in a poker tournament we played in together. When it happens to you you’ll be happy you thought about it ahead of time. 

You should all be familiar with big blind ante by how but have you given any thought as to whether you are posting your big blind first or your ante first? Sure if you can cover both then what does it matter but what if you don’t have enough to fully cover both the big blind ante and the big blind. Which is satisfied first and why does it matter?

It turns out that TDA rules now clearly specify that the ante is satisfied first. Part of this is an argument that traditionally individual antes are always posted first so big blind ante should be the same. There is also an argument that the big blind ante involves a debt to the other players (you got free antes for an orbit and in essence borrowed from the other players). Now that it’s your turn you shouldn’t be let off the hook just because your stack got crippled. Therefore, the proponents of this approach say, you should pay the ante first. I also saw an interesting thought experiment about what happens on the first hand of headsup play at the end of a tournament where both players happen to have exactly the same stack and get it in on the first hand. The player who posted the bb ante not only is unable to bust the other player but then if they win the hand a curious situation develops. The opponent, though crippled, is still alive and has an unusual advantage if they are not obligated to post ante first on the next hand. Folks point to this as a fundamental flaw of doing big blind first as this situation seems somewhat unfair.

To compound the confusion around this I inquired about this to the WSOP which, in pior years, has operated under a big blind first rule at odds with TDA rules. I haven’t seen anything to indicate that this would change this year. Negreanu seems to be on the side of big blind first because it is friendlier to the recreational player who would rightly be surprised and annoyed if they learned the details of the ante first rule the hard way. 

There is a significant strategic consequence to this of course and so you should try to get confirmation of which rule is in effect in the tournament you are in. If your stack gets crippled and you are choosing between shipping the hand you are dealt under the gun or waiting for the random hand you will get in the big blind you need to know the rule. If it’s ante first and you wait it’s a disaster because the pot you can win will be a small fraction of what you could win if your crippled stack were to pay big blind first. So in the extreme case where all you have is 1bb you’d never wait for the big blind if the rules say ante first. You’d need to get it in while your single bb not only entitles you to the posted big blind but also one bb for every other player who enters the pot in addition to the ante, a massive difference.

Personally the thing that confuses me about the ante first reasoning is that it assumes that when it is your turn to ante you are paying back a past debt. I’m not exactly clear on why it can’t be viewed the other way round (obviously no one is tracking who has paid more bb antes). If you viewed it as you were prepaying for the next orbit then surely if your stack was crippled and you were likely to bust before the rest of the orbit played out why would it be ok for you to prepay the ante for the whole orbit and then not be around to recoup the benefit by the other players posting for you. 

Also, The tradition argument doesn’t hold water for me. An individual ante is something quite different than a big blind ante. We should set the rule the way it works best in practice. The headsup thought experiment argument is interesting but the whole thing is still prone to a chicken and egg argument. 

In practice the ante first rule only seems to serve to surprise/annoy the person who encounters it for the first time not knowing the rule. For everyone who knows the rule they will simply gamble at least one hand earlier.

I think I’m marginally on the side of big blind first which, as it stands, I think is still the WSOP rule. But TDA rules usually win the day eventually so its good to check what rule you’re operating under.

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