Finance, Ponzi Schemes, and Cards: Liar’s Poker

Lying to your friends can be exceedingly fun.  Unfortunately, other people are often angry when you mislead them in everyday interactions.  This is where Liar’s Poker comes in handy; it gives you all the satisfaction of lying to your friends, with none of the insalubrious repercussions!  I was first treated to this game last night, when I played it with my brothers and cousins, and I’m now a staunch advocate.  Please note that this is not the same as the similarly titled bar game played with $1 bills.

Liar’s Poker is very simple.  Much like in Ponzi schemes (or even the stock market), the idea of the game is to be one of the first people in, and be the very first person out.  You never want to be caught holding the overvalued collection of rubbish that is methodically working its way around the table, and you most certainly want to convince the next person in line that the crap in your hand is actually worth something.  Like I said, it’s very simple.  It also has the potential to be hilarious.

The first player is dealt a hand of five cards, looks at them, and declares a hand (anything from high card to royal flush).  They then offer the hand to the next player.  The second player (and every player after them), then has the opportunity to decide whether the offer is believable.  If they accept the offer, they receive the hand and now have the opportunity to discard face down up to three cards from the hand and draw cards to replace them.  They must then declare a hand of greater value than the one they recieved and offer it to the next player.  If they reject the offer, the rejected hand is revealed and evaluated; if the revealed hand met or exceeded the declared value of the hand (and the declaration did not substantially misrepresent the hand’s contents), the person who rejected the hand takes a point.  If the rejected hand was, in fact, the load of rubbish which the discerning player believed it to be, then the liar who tried to pass it off as something better takes a point.  The first player to 10 (or whatever you decide on for your preferred length of game) ends the game, and the person with the lowest point total wins.

While you are in possession of the hand, you may say whatever you like about its contents.  Once the hand is no longer yours, you should not declare anything about what had been in it except to repeat what you had claimed when you passed it along.  Table talk is otherwise encouraged.  Remember that all discards are done face down, so you can’t see what has moved in or out of the hand.  Also note that the next person must always claim a higher value than the one you gave them, and the only way to hurt people further around the table is by allowing a hand to keep moving.

What did I mean by “substantially misrepresent the hand’s contents”?   If you’ve got three aces in your opening hand, you could say “the highest card is an ace,” and not be in danger.  If you had a pair of twos and a king, you could simply say “pair of twos.”  If you wanted to turn up the heat, you could get more specific and claim the higher value hand, which would also narrow the range of claims available to the next player.  But if you have a straight in your opening hand and instead claim a pair, you would be in danger of taking a point if someone calls you on it, regardless of the fact that your straight certainly outdoes a pair.

So why do I like this so much?  It may simply have been a combination of sleep deprivation and alcohol, but I suspect that I would have similar results when playing this game with the right group of people.  That’s an important note: there are certainly people with whom you will not want to play this game, which may be a larger (or different) group than the usual people with whom you don’t want to play games.  Make sure that you have players who will be willing to laugh at being duped, even as they take joy in lying through their teeth to the next person in line.

Liar’s Poker requires only minor memorization, and will quickly teach familiarity with the values of poker hands, but it really shines when it comes to creating hilariously improbable situations and forces you to judge just how deep the lies really go.  It’s great fun.

To be perfectly clear, there are other games which are also called Liar’s Poker, and there is a book by Michael Lewis with the same title.  This game bears only passing resemblance to the others, but it seems far more interesting to me than the bar game.


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