Poker is a very exciting and highly emotional game. With all the massive pots, big bluffs, and tough river calls, it’s both fun to play and entertaining to watch. With emotions running high at all times, you never know what to expect.
For the most part, players try to stay in control and keep in line with written and unwritten poker etiquette rules. However, every now and again, someone crosses that fine line.
In this article, we’ll look at some of the most controversial hands that have taken place over the years.
Some of them were caused by deliberate attempts at angle-shooting, while others came about due to a mistake or lack of attention.
Either way, these controversial hands are both educational and fun to watch. They don’t just teach us about dos and don’ts at the poker table, they also show why you should never let your guard down.
Staying sharp, focused, and in the moment is your strongest weapon in a poker game.
1. Estelle Denis Waving Pocket Aces Goodbye
We’ll start this list of controversial poker hands with a hand from the 2009 Main Event involving Estelle Denis and a beautiful pair of pocket aces.
Sitting on somewhat of a short stack, Estelle must have been thrilled to peak down at pocket aces after JC Tran made a raise to 32,000. She promptly moved all-in, pushing her stack of chips to the middle, neglecting to protect her cards for just a moment.
That moment was enough for the dealer to sweep her cards and put them into the muck.
It only took Denis a few seconds to realize what had just happened, but it was already too late. Her cards were already shuffled into the rest of the discard pile.
Since her hand wasn’t easily retrievable, the floor made the only decision he could. Estelle’s hand was declared dead, and she had to put 32,000 chips in the middle to match JC’s original raise.
This doesn’t sound really fair, but the rules of poker are quite clear on this point since it’s the player’s responsibility to protect their cards at all times.
If the dealer mucks one’s hand by accident and cards can’t be easily retrieved, that’s the end of the discussion.
Of course, the dealer should have paid more attention and if he did this wouldn’t have happened, but dealers’ are just human beings.
Mistakes and errors will always happen, and the best way to minimize them is by players and dealers both doing their part.
An unpleasant and slightly controversial situation for sure, but also a good lesson as to why you should always protect your hand.
2. Raise Or Call? Ivan Freitez Can’t Make Up His Mind
Poker rules are very clear when it comes to verbal declarations.
If you announce a call or a raise, it stands. You can’t change your mind a few seconds later. That only happens in movies that didn’t have a good expert advisor.
Ivan Freitez is clearly well aware of this rule, and he tries to take advantage of it in one of the most controversial poker hands we’ve seen over the years.
Having filled up on the river and holding the virtual nuts, Freitez announces a raise over Eugene’s river bet. However, he only throws in the calling chips and then tries to explain he just wanted to call.
Obviously, Freitez knows that this won’t fly and that he’ll be forced to make a raise.
He’s just pulling an angle shoot to confuse his opponent and squeeze some extra value on the river. The floor is called to handle the situation, and he confirms Ivan had done this before with very strong hands.
Despite all this, Eugene ends up making a call since it’s just a min-raise, and he has a pretty strong hand in absolute terms.
This hand has received quite a lot of coverage over the years, and it’s been the topic of many discussions.
It’s a clear example of an angle shoot, especially since it’s not the first time Freitez had tried to pull a stunt like this.
The tournament director and other players at the table are clearly disgusted, but there isn’t much to do to actually punish the offending player.
While Ivan’s actions are clearly unethical, he didn’t really do anything to break the rules.
He pretended to have changed his mind, but he announced a raise and eventually put in the chips to make the raise.
I’d say the tournament director did the best he could to punish Freitez by telling Eugene that this was his trademark move and that he was likely holding the nuts.
3. Negreanu’s “Unfortunate” Mis-Click
When you play live poker, it’s easy to get your chips mixed up and put out a bet larger or smaller than you’d intended. It happens all the time.
Usually, it is just a laughing matter, but sometimes it can create a bit of controversy.
In this hand from Shark Cage, Negreanu opens from the button, holding a very strong starting hand: ace-king. But, instead of making it the standard 2.5x or 3.x, “KidPoker” makes it 11x.
He immediately starts laughing, letting everyone know he made a “misclick”, and he didn’t want to make his raise so big.
This is a very interesting situation.
The first question is whether Negreanu really made a mistake, which is entirely possible.
The second, more important one, is if he would actually let everyone know about it if he had a relatively weak hand, and the answer to that is probably no.
This creates a tough spot for Silverman, who has a king-jack, a very solid hand against a button raise.
If Daniel truly has all the hands he’d open from the button in his range, then the decision is easy: Move all in, pick up all the extra chips in the middle, and punish the Canadian for not paying attention.
That’s exactly the route Silverman ends up taking, and he’s not thrilled to see he’s up against it when cards are turned on their backs.
Of all the hands in this list, this one is probably the least controversial.
Even if Daniel did what he did on purpose, there is nothing really wrong with it.
If you’re going to take a professional poker player at his word and base your decisions on that, you might be playing the wrong game.
4. Tony G vs. Phil Hellmuth – The Legendary Hand
Even if you somehow missed all other hands in this article, you’ve probably seen this one.
It involves two of the most colorful characters in all poker, Tony G and Phil Hellmuth – and G’s actions are definitely a bit controversial.
The setup is simple.
Hellmuth is playing a short stack in a cash game, and Tony is annoyed by it. He wants to get Phil’s chips to try and force him to rebuy or leave the game.
When he looks down at AK in the double straddle facing an open from Phil, the opportunity presents itself.
Tony effectively moves all in, and Hellmuth, sitting with AJ, faces a dilemma.
He knows he is up against a wild player who also has beef with him. But, to add to the controversy, Tony G declares he didn’t look at his hand before moving all in.
After giving it some thought, Phil decides to take Tony’s word and make a call, as his AJ is way ahead of two random cards G is claiming to have. However, he soon gets the bad news accompanied by the needle from Tony.
Hellmuth seems to be in shock that Tony G would lie about his hand, but Tony doesn’t seem to agree. “Of course I lied,” he replies. “It’s poker, Phil!”
It’s not a nice move to pull on someone, and you probably shouldn’t do this at your local card room.
But, at the end of the day, we are getting back to the previous advice of never taking poker player’s words at face value.
I’d call this one more of a level than an actual angle-shoot. The hand is only controversial if you think Tony G is someone who’d never do something like this, but you could only think this if you’d never played against him or seen him play.
5. Ensan Shows Some Good Sportsmanship
Remember how we mentioned that verbal declarations are binding in poker? Sometimes, that can lead to awkward situations even when neither player is trying to shoot an angle.
Where words are involved, there’s bound to be some miscommunication every now and again.
Hossein Ensan found himself heads up for the EPT title against Gleb Tremzin. The situation doesn’t get much more intense than this.
Both players are zoned in and focused on trying to win. And then, this awkward hand happens:
The two get into a bluffing war on the river.
Ensan makes the last raise on the river, thinking he’s bluffing. However, he has the best hand, and Tremzin is holding two napkins. He sees Ensan pushing chips forward and, thinking he got caught with his hand in a cookie jar, says, “Good call.”
The confusion ensues as Ensan turns over his measly pair of fives, saying, “you win”, assuming Tremzin called his raise with a stronger hand. Then Tremzin tables his napkins and repeats, “yes, good call.”
The floor is called over to clear the air.
Tremzin said “good call,” but Ensan thought he just said “call,” and thinks he should put the rest of the chips in the middle to match the raise. Gleb is adamant that he couldn’t have possibly called a raise with eight high.
As the floor tries to figure out how to best go about this situation, Ensan puts a stop to it and declares he doesn’t want any more chips. It’s quite clear that there is no way Tremzin wanted to make a call with his hand – and he doesn’t want to angle-shoot his way to a victory.
Now, I don’t know if there is karma, but Hossein Ensan didn’t just go on to win that event. He also triumphed in the 2019 Main Event, pocketing $10,000,000.
The man has an unorthodox play style for sure, but no one can call him an angle-shooter – that much is clear!
6. Major Controversy Deep In The Main Event
This hand that took place between Dario Sanmartino and Nick Marchington with 11 players left in the 2019 WSOP Main Event might be one of the more controversial ones we’ve had an opportunity to see over the years.
The hand caused a lot of debate in the poker community on who was right, who was wrong, and what should have happened.
The basic breakdown is this: Sanmartino opens the hand with pocket tens. Marchington moves all-in on top of his raise with pocket queens. Dario asks for the count, the dealer announces 17 million, and Dario puts out the stack of chips, indicating a call.
However, immediately after, another player notices a mistake and says Marchington has more. As it turns out, the all-in is for 22.5 million, not 17.
Cards are still hidden, and Dario isn’t really complaining. He nods his head and doesn’t say a word.
Then, hands are tabled, he sees he’s up against pocket queens, and the chaos ensues.
Dario claims he shouldn’t be forced to call a bet because he was given the wrong count. However, several floors come over and confirm that the call stands.
Finally, Jack Effel, WSOP VP, is called to the table, and he makes the final ruling. The call stands, and the hand will play out.
Jack explains that it’s the players’ responsibility to make sure the count is correct and to verify the information before making a committing action.
He says it’s in the WSOP rulebook, and there is really nothing to discuss.
However, what got some players really upset was his final comment. As he was walking away, Effel said: “You’re calling 17 million; you’re calling 22.”
Many interpreted this as if to say that the size of the bet didn’t matter.
Of course, if poker is a skill game, the bet size matters a lot, and the difference of five million at this stage is quite significant. This controversial hand started a series of outraged tweets and videos discussing the subject.
In the end, despite losing the hand, Sanmartino ended up going all the way to the heads up in that Main Event. He finished runner up, as he lost the final skirmish to none other Hussein Ensan.
7. Will Kassouf And Griffin Benger Going To War
We can’t make the list of the most controversial poker hands without mentioning the one that took place between Will Kassouf and Griffin Benger in the 2016 Main Event.
Leading up to this point, Kassouf has done a pretty good job getting under other players’ skin with his antics and “speech play”.
That, combined with the high pressure of running deep in the biggest poker tournament on the planet, contributed to the heated atmosphere and the not-so-friendly exchange between the two.
Will’s behavior at the tables is a bit questionable, but he’s not breaking any rules.
To try and antagonize your opponent with words isn’t the most ethical thing in the world, but it’s not forbidden, either.
If there is one questionable thing, it’s how long Kassouf takes to act, but it is a big decision, and players are within their rights to call the time to address this issue.
So, Benger’s reaction seems somewhat excessive.
For me, the real question here has always been whether Griffin really meant what he said or if he wanted to turn the tables on Kassouf.
If he could get Will to think he’s annoyed, he might think that Benger is raising him lightly and come over the top with a weaker hand.
Of course, Griffin doesn’t know that Kassouf is sitting across the table with pocket kings and that all chips will end up in the middle regardless.
The word exchange that comes after the inevitable happens and the cards are tabled is pretty entertaining.
In the end, it was pretty much the biggest cooler you can experience in Texas Hold’em, so all the drama surrounding it was unnecessary.
But at least it made for good TV.
Regardless of the stakes and players, controversial hands have always happened in poker, and that’s not about to change. It’s a highly emotional game, after all, and there is usually money involved.
Put these two things together, combine it with rules that aren’t always perfectly clear, and it’s almost impossible to avoid controversy.
If you do play regularly, some of these situations can be valuable lessons for the future.
The best way to avoid controversy at the poker table is by staying alert and paying attention to everything that’s going on around you.
Lead image: YouTube