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The Rules Guy -- How To Conduct Yourself At The Poker Table

The Rules Guy Chimes In On Poker's Unwritten Code Of Conduct

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Most players learn poker’s explicit rules pretty quickly: the “one-chip rule,” for example, or “verbal declarations are binding.” But not everyone seems to have digested the game’s vast book of unwritten rules, admonitions like “don’t berate other players (particularly bad ones)” or “say ‘nice hand’ even when you mean something entirely different.”

Enter “The Rules Guy.” TRG believes that civility and sportsmanship are never wrong, and that bad behavior (even when you’re simply trying to get an edge) is bad for the game. Have you got a question about how to conduct yourself at the poker table? Email TRG at therulesguy@cardplayer.com.


Dear The Rules Guy:

I admit it, I’m a degen. I’m a pretty good poker player but I’m a terrible bankroll manager, and…well, I often need an investor. Or two. Occasionally more. So when I win, I generally owe somebody (and by “somebody” I mean several people) something (and by “something” I mean anywhere from 70 percent to 105 percent of my score). But when do I need to pay it? On the spot? The next day? Whenever I see the dude next? I admit I’m usually in no real rush, but does that make me… — Chintzy in Chino?


Dear CinC:

This could be the shortest column ever with a one line answer that is absolutely, positively, unambiguously correct:

You pay your backers or players who have a piece of you as fast as you damn well can.

But TRG has a column to fill and some philosophizing to do, so read on about why you, and players like you, don’t pay pronto, even if you know, somewhere in your heart, that you should.

Long ago, way back when, in the year 60 BM (that’s 1943: 60 years “Before Moneymaker”), psychologist Abraham Maslow articulated the “hierarchy of needs,” a framework for thinking about life. It’s a ranking of essentials on the journey to what he called “self-actualization.” Which sounds a lot more New Age-y than it actually is, at least to TRG.

The idea behind the hierarchy of needs is obvious once you see it. At the most basic human level, you need food, water, sleep, and sex. If you’re hungry (truly hungry), you cannot possibly think of lofty ideas like self-actualization. But once those most fundamental needs are met, you can begin to seek security and stability — again, fairly basic prerequisites for the most rudimentary existence. And then, when your existence is more or less assured, you can focus on more abstract but equally important needs like love and friendship. The next level includes even more abstract goals like intellectual stimulation, aesthetics and beauty. Ultimately, you may, with luck, reach the apex of the pyramid: self-actualization.

Let’s translate this to the poker world. Your most fundamental need as a player is money. If you’re constantly borrowing in order to play, you’re stuck on the first level of the hierarchy of needs. You can’t be thinking of the higher rungs if you don’t know where your next buy-in is coming from. You’re in survival mode, which focuses your attention on the here and now, on the exigency of putting together a stake for the next game. If you need a backer (and “need” is different from “want” — lots of people want backers to smooth out variance), you are hungry. And that gnawing hunger makes you forgo goals like fostering friendships, strengthening relationships, and maintaining the social contract.

In short: because you’re stuck at the bottom level of Maslow’s pyramid, you can’t see what is perfectly, transparently obvious to someone who’s on a higher level of the pyramid: You pay your backers or players who have a piece of you as fast as you damn well can.

Maslow would probably be turning over in his grave if he could read this column, and few poker players are going to strive to be “self-actualized” (TRG is not sure he understands it, but it does sound like something worth striving for). But the idea of reaching above the grubbiness of survival mode surely resonates with anyone who has ever played with scared money. Not fun and not good for your game.

From a moral perspective, the answer to your question may be unambiguous, but from a practical standpoint, repaying your backers and those you swap percentages with is also just plain smart. There is a rather grand tradition of poker players helping each other out with loans and staking arrangements, and there is an even grander tradition of poker players relying on nothing more than a handshake and a sense of personal and professional honor. But that makes the contractual obligation that much more binding — the social contract should trump the legalistic kind every time — and failure to uphold your end of the deal will greatly reduce, if not eliminate, your ability to get staked in the future.

Finally, here’s TRG’s take on the etiquette of repayment if you are regularly staked or if you do swap percentages with your pals: Pay your obligation as soon as the money has been counted out; if the person isn’t there in the flesh, send a text with the good news and arrange to a convenient time and place to make the payment. And never put the backer or the person with a piece of you in the position of asking for his cut. Pony up — and pronto!


Dear TRG:

Say I’ve raised or I’m in the big blind and someone with a bigger stack says, “I put you all-in.” Why does that phrase bug me so much? —- Annoyed in Anaheim


Dear Annoyed:

TRG knows exactly what you mean — and TRG knows why it’s so irksome when someone says “I put you all-in.”

It’s annoying because the phrase is categorically inaccurate. You are the only player who can go all-in. You might raise all-in. You might call all-in. You might fold to a bet that would put you all-in. But no one can make you go all-in, ever. (The only “forced” all-in is if you’re so short that the blind or ante makes you all-in — but that’s a different scenario.)

People say “I put you all-in,” no doubt, because they think that it must be intimidating. But that’s not what makes it so annoying. It’s annoying because the person saying it is robbing you of your free will. Don’t hear it that way. Remind yourself that you’re in control of your actions. Call or muck as the situation dictates, but don’t be intimidated. And don’t respond either. When you respond, the verbal assailant wins, unless you can make your riposte funny enough that the table laughs with you — and by implication, at him.

And to players who say “I put you all-in”: Just don’t do it. Comments that smack of intimidation are often the strongest indicators of weakness, and observant players will notice that. If your goal is to put someone all-in, just size your bet accordingly, and let your chips do the intimidating for you.


Comments? Questions? Behavioral issues? Email The Rules Guy at therulesguy@cardplayer.com.

 
 
 
 

Comments

Anthony8
over 1 year ago

Funny, the writer neglects the major reason I, and I'm sure many other people, use the phrase "I put you all in". We are fully aware it "looks weak" and begs for a call. Especially after hammering every street, this final act of seeming desperation almost always gets your opponent to call, feeling strong about their hand. When you have the best hand, "I put you all in" is a good phrase to get yourself paid off.

 
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Sazzle
over 1 year ago

Anthony, how about "I'm all in?" Does that not do everything you;ve just mentioned without being a douche?

 
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Guy1
over 1 year ago

No, it doesn't. It doesn't bet the size of his stack instead of the size of yours.

 
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Guy1
over 1 year ago

I was playing a very deep $2/$5 NLHE a few weeks ago. I was sitting with $2,100 or so, there was someone four seats to my left with about $3k, and a player one seat to his left with $350. We went to the flop three handed. The player with $3k announces "All in." I had flopped the nuts with 89d and a board of 6 7 T rainbow. I called. The player looked shocked, and informed me that he didn't know I was still in the hand. He had only intended to put the other guy, the one with $350, all in.

The difference between "I'll put you (meaning the 350 guy) all in" and "I'm all in" cost that man about $1,700.

 
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Michael30
over 1 year ago

Guy1, you're missing the point. If you want to bet someone's stack size, bet it. If the guy you mentioned isn't a good enough player to realize you're still in the hand then that's his problem. Saying "I put you all-in" isn't a bet size.

 
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Joseph7
over 1 year ago

This. If you want to act intimidating like, either go all in yourself(and be aware of the stacks to act behind you) or ask the person how much they have left and bet that(while making sure they aren't grossly lying to you, or ask the dealer how much that person is playing behind).

 
 

Guy1
over 1 year ago

Joseph, why waste so many words?

 
 

seanof30306
over 1 year ago

Interesting how "The RULES Guy" misses a critical point: "I put you all in" is not a valid bet.

 
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robtr3
over 1 year ago

I've been admonished by a few dealers and floor supervisors for that choice of words for the very reason seanof30306 cites, but also left alone by far far FAR more than have ever admonished me--the reason being that the only situation in which I've ever said that is when I'm playing a pot heads-up. With only two players in the pot, "I put you all-in" is invalid only in the very most technical respect as there is otherwise NO QUESTION WHATSOEVER about the meaning of that declaration and the issue is therefore hardly worth arguing by anyone--player, dealer, or floor. In my experience playing in casinos and other professionally dealt games in the last seven years, only a newbie (and by "newbie" I mean someone playing poker in a brick-and-mortar casino for only the very first time or MAYBE the second) would be even remotely likely to NOT recognize the ambiguity of such a declaration outside of a heads-up pot and not, therefore, innately know better than to use that phrase with three or more players in the pot. If you want to reprimand someone for improper English, become a second-grade teacher; otherwise, just go with the damned flow!

I'd be very interested to hear TRG's thoughts on this.

 
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seanof30306
over 1 year ago

@robtr3

First, let's remember that this is "The RULES Guy", so it would be reasonable to assume there would be a strict interpretation of the rules there.

Second, in most cases, the dealers and floorpeople who have not enforced this do not do so because the rule doesn't exist in their room, they're doing it because they either do not know the rule, or do not wish to enforce it.

There is real money at play in these games, and the dealers, or the floorpeople are never supposed to attempt to discern peoples' intentions, or "go with the flow". I once sat in a 25/50 NLHE game at Caesar's where a guy said "I put you all in", the other guy said call, and turned up the nuts. The "I put you all in guy" insisted he didn't owe the money, as "I put you all in" wasn't a valid bet, and the floor ruled in his favor. Yes, it was an angle shot, but one that could never have happened if the dealer had simply said "What is your action?", as he, or she was required to do.

People always want to "go with the flow", until the flow goes against them. Then they instantly transform into rule nits. There are reasons why the rules for betting/announcing one's intentions are so specific in this game.

 
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