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Heading Trouble Off at the Pass

by Barry Mulholland |  Published: Mar 22, 2005

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The other night I sat down in a hold'em game, and in the midst of my first hand, the player two seats to my left, who seemed somewhat agitated, folded several spots out of turn. The dealer said nothing. On the next hand he again folded early, and again the dealer said nothing. For the next couple of laps, the only time he acted in order was when he entered a pot or was in the big blind; in every other instance, he folded in disgust as soon as he looked at his cards. Finally, someone at the table asked him to knock it off and play in turn, to which he responded by telling his critic to stuff it, that it was no big deal, and that it wasn't hurting him. The objector, who was seated to the offender's right, pointed out that of course it wasn't hurting him; it was, in fact, helping him – which was precisely the problem, since this obviously wasn't fair to the other players. But impervious to both reason and reasonableness, the offender fell to posturing and chest-thumping, and the scene degenerated from there. Within minutes, the game was broken, with a cloud of antagonism lingering over an empty table.

A half-hour later, I was in another game in which the player in seat No. 1 was chatting the dealer's ear off. You know the type – the garden-variety narcissist who presumes that the dealer is interested in all the bad cards he can't play, and all the good ones that miss. Hardly a hand went by that he didn't flash the dealer his cards before folding, and since he wasn't the least bit careful about it, seat No. 9 was getting an eyeful, and seats No. 8 and 7 got some pretty good peeks, too. Before long, a hand played out involving seats No. 1, 9, and 5, and when seat No. 1 exited on the turn with his usual flash routine, seat No. 5 objected to being compromised. Another dissent-filled discussion ensued, sending the two loosest players out of their comfort zone and, soon thereafter, out of the cardroom.

Later that evening, I was in a no-limit hold'em game when a husband and wife sat down at the table, cheerfully announcing that it was their first time playing live – and asking the dealer to please help them out and let them know if they did anything wrong. Although the dealer nodded in agreement, it was a promise upon which he failed to deliver, for not a word was forthcoming when the couple, unaware of proper etiquette, soon began speculating aloud during hands in which they weren't involved as to the holdings of the players who were. The warning signs for trouble couldn't have been more clear, and sure enough, a half-hour later, with a new dealer in the box and several new players at the table, a hand developed during which the husband, who was out of the hand, started coaching his wife regarding her opponent's possible holdings, reminding her of how the action had developed in the earlier rounds. This brought a furious protest from several players who were unaware of the couple's tenderfoot status, and the husband, sensing (incorrectly) that his wife was under attack, lashed out in kind. Once again, hard feelings resulted, both from the player who was compromised and the couple whose first trip to the cardroom quickly degenerated from a fun experience to an unpleasant one.

These incidents were not merely avoidable, they were easily avoidable; all that was needed was a few words from the dealer at the moment of the initial transgressions. Even if those words were met with resistance, a floorperson then could have been summoned to address the situation, a far better alternative than letting unresolved situations fester until the players, fed up, take matters into their own hands and end up going at each other. Unfortunately, too many dealers wait until trouble explodes before addressing transgressions that all but telegraph the coming eruption. What's worse, this hands-off approach of "not running the game" is sometimes the result of direction from floorpeople who've advised them to ignore such breaches "unless/until players object."

My first job in the poker world was as a dealer, and an incident early in my dealing career made a profound impression on me. It was the first time that a kibitzer at a table of mine stole a pot from another player, by alerting his wife to a hand she'd overlooked and was in the process of folding. I'll never forget the plaintive look on the face of the victim. "Do something," her look said, although there was nothing to be done – at least not about that hand. What soon became apparent, however, was how often such incidents are preceded by warning signs, "tells" that provide an opportunity to head trouble off before it develops.

If a player starts folding out of turn simply because he's in a snit from running bad, the countdown for a table clash has already begun – so nip it in the bud before it happens! If a chatty Cathy in seat No. 1 flashes her cards so the dealer can see them, it's clear that the player right next to the dealer may see them, as well, which is something the flasher needs to be told by the dealer in a polite and friendly way – before a player who's been compromised lets her know it in a far angrier manner. And which is a better moment to educate a neophyte couple ignorant in the ways of table etiquette – the first moment, when they demonstrate that ignorance by kibitzing about hands in which they're not involved, or the second moment, made predictable by the first, when they start "putting their heads together" in a hand in which one of them is involved?

Such opportunities, of course, are hardly limited to dealers. Recently, I overheard a floorman seize the chance to stave off a potential problem before it had a chance to occur. A young couple, who both had been called for a game of the same limit, were directed to the appropriate area, where they informed the floorman that they were newcomers, and asked if they could play together for a while until they got their feet wet. "Well, you can play together," the floorman said with a chuckle as he led them to the table, "but you can't play together." Noting their looks of confusion, he flashed them a friendly smile and continued: "What I mean by that is that while you can discuss a hand after the fact, and between deals, you can't help each other during the course of play. One of poker's cardinal rules is that it's one player to a hand; nobody can help you, nor can you help anyone else." The couple, listening intently, nodded gratefully in understanding, and as they arrived at the table, the floorman added: "Forgive me if I'm telling you something you already know; it's just that we get so many first-time players these days … well, it's better to be safe than sorry. Here are your seats. Feel free to ask if you have any more questions, and good luck to you both."

Compare the scenario of a newcomer getting information in that pleasant fashion to one in which he's confronted by an angry player, not unjustified in his ire, whom he has unwittingly compromised because he simply didn't know any better. spades