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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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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?
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!
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
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 email@example.com.
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