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Top-10 things that are wrong with the poker scene in Star Trek: TNG's "The Measure of a Man"

3 December 2012

If you're a regular listener of the Casino City Gang podcast, you already know that Casino City editor-in-chief Vin Narayanan and I are both huge fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation. So it shouldn't come as any surprise that the two of us trekked to a local movie theater to watch the one-night-only showing of two episodes from the second season in celebration of that season's remastered release on Blu-Ray last week.

More importantly (at least for the audience that reads stories on this website), we also love a good poker game. So you can imagine how thrilled we were when one of the episodes, "The Measure of a Man," opened with a scene from the senior officers' poker game.

The poker game was a frequent plot vehicle in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and this episode marked its first appearance in the series. Unfortunately, as I've grown older and learned more about the game, I've realized just how horrible the show's portrayal of poker is. And the scene in "The Measure of a Man" is a perfect example.

So here are the top-10 ways the writers, director, producers and actors got the poker scene wrong in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Measure of a Man," listed chronologically.

You can watch the full episode (which is perhaps one of the best episodes of the first few seasons), or just watch the poker scene, which is the first three minutes of the show.

NOTE: Please understand that this was written with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek.

10. Riker's choice of game
I actually called 5-card stud in my home game a couple years ago. The only good thing about the game was that it was the fastest round we played all night, as not one hand went beyond third street. There is so much information available to all the players, and it's so difficult to bluff, that the game is virtually unplayable. That's why you can't find a 5-card stud game anywhere anymore, unless you're watching The Cincinnatti Kid.

9. Cheap cards and chips
I realize the poker game isn't where the starship Enterprise is devoting most of its resources. And if this were The Original Series, I'd give the plastic poker chips and the cheap paper playing cards a pass. But this is the Enterprise-D. This ship has replicators. Come on, Riker, order yourself a nice set of KEM plastic playing cards. Think about how easily those paper cards are going to get nicks and scratches. Do you really want those minor defects, which you and the rest of the table probably can't even perceive, to be out there for Geordi to notice with his visor? And while you're at it, get a normal setup instead of the jumbo index set you're playing with. I realize Dr. Pulaski is a bit on the older side, but I don't think she's ready for old lady cards just yet. And the plastic poker chips might be the most unrealistic part of the whole game. If you don't think Riker would have some authentic Pauslon chips, you're kidding yourself. The sound of those plastic chips splashing the pot pains me.

8. Data has queens and doesn't raise?
We don't learn this until the end of the hand, but Data starts the hand with split queens and merely calls the bring-in. Now if he were aiming to deceive his opponents this would be a logical way to play the hand. But we learn later that Data doesn't understand that deception is part of the game. He even says that the players' betting patterns will reveal the strength of their hands, but doesn’t act in a way that shows just how strong his hand is.

7. The betting structure
I can't tell if this is a limit game, a pot-limit game or a no-limit game. There's an ante and a bring-in, and Dr. Pulaski brings it in for 5 to start, and Data leads out for 10 on third street, which seems to indicate that they're playing a 10-20 game with a 5 bring-in. But on fourth street, when Data catches an ace to go with his pair of queens showing, he bets 5, indicating a pot-limit or no-limit game, where bets are flexible. (Don't even get me started on how bad Data's bet sizing is, if this is the case.) Then, on fifth street, he bets 10 again. But Riker's raises are never more than the minimum, and you would think that he would make a more meaningful raise if he were trying to get his opponent to fold.

6. Riker's string bets
This is almost a prerequisite for bad poker scenes. On fourth street, Data bets 5 (we're not sure what the currency or units are, but there's already 90 in the pot after Chief O'Brien calls), and then Riker throws out this gem: "Your 5, and 5," reaching back for raising chips after putting out the call. Try doing that in a casino, Riker, and you'll get a lot of funny looks and a reprimand from the dealer. He later repeats the action on the river.

5. O'Brien's line on fourth street
I can't figure out if Chief O'Brien is terrible or if he's really good. On fourth street, he calls Data, who is showing a pair of queens and an ace, for 5, but folds after Riker raises 5 more with just three hearts showing, after offering the obligatory "Too rich for me" line. We don't know what O'Brien's cards are, but he was willing to call 5 in a pot of 85, but isn't willing to call 5 more when the pot has ballooned to 105? If he had pot odds to call Data's bet before, doesn't he have the odds to call again and try to beat Data's holdings and fade Riker's possible flush draw? Perhaps he figures out that he's got no way to catch up to Data's set, but my guess is that he's the pigeon that he mentions earlier in the scene that's going to get plucked in this game.

4. Data's lead on the river
Once all the cards have been dealt, Data is showing a pair of queens and Riker has jack high with four hearts. There is no reason for Data to lead out on the river. Riker is never calling here; the only line for him to take is to raise or fold, so there's no value in betting.

3. Data has to recheck his hole card on the river
There are two major problems with Data's hole card check. First of all, his down card here is irrelevant. Riker is showing jack high with four hearts, while Data has a pair of queens showing. With just one down card, Riker either has a heart or he can't even beat Data's board. The fact that Data has the queen of hearts in the hole to make three of a kind doesn't even matter; if Riker doesn't have a heart, Data's pair of queens would win. Beyond that, a mere human would be able to remember starting with a pair of queens in 5-card stud; there's no way an android would forget.

2. Data's river fold
So Data's fold establishes the fact that he doesn't understand the concept behind deception in poker. But there's one major problem with this: Data has researched the game prior to playing. The premise that he could have downloaded poker texts into his positronic brain without uncovering the idea of deception is incomprehensible. Obviously the rules of the game are important, but did he only find Robert's Rules of Poker in the Enterprise's computer database? Surely Doyle Brunson's Super System hasn't been lost to history in the 24th century.

Beyond this, the pot is 135 at this point, and it only costs Data 10 more to call. He has to think Riker is bluffing only 8 percent of the time to be right to call here. Data's fold on the river is just a terrible, terrible play.

1. Pulaski's game choice
Don't get me wrong, I love 7 stud high/low, but what the hell is the game Dr. Pulaski calls at the end of the scene? Here's the exact line.

"The game is 7-card high-low with a buy on the last card. And just to make it more interesting, the man with the axe takes all."

I can get behind the buy on the last card. I'm assuming there's an option to replace, much like in Mini-May. But "the man with the axe takes all”? So whoever holds the king of diamonds just wins the hand? If it's up, does the hand just end? And if it's down, do you get to build the pot then reveal that you have the winning card at the end? I have so many questions, but chief among them is how ridiculous of an action junkie is Dr. Pulaski? Seriously, I'm a little nervous that she's running a cockfighting ring after hours in Ten Forward. No wonder she only lasted one season.
Aaron Todd

Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd was an editor/writer at Casino City for nearly eight years, and is currently the Assistant Director of Athletics for Communications and Marketing at St. Lawrence University, his alma mater. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and Badugi.

Aaron Todd

Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd was an editor/writer at Casino City for nearly eight years, and is currently the Assistant Director of Athletics for Communications and Marketing at St. Lawrence University, his alma mater. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and Badugi.