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Random Poker Protocol Thoughts

Situations and observations to consider

by Lee H. Jones |  Published: Jan 02, 2008


I don't usually write about poker protocol here. There are other people who care a lot more about it than I do, and mostly I think it's pretty boring. But I've had a handful of occasions recently to think about how we play poker (rather than how to beat the game, per se), so here goes …

• What rocket scientist came up with the idea of pulling in blinds and bets as the players put them in the pot (generally in pot-limit games)? If you're in the U.S. or continental Europe, you're probably wondering what I'm talking about. But UK players will recognize this bizarre, obtuse, error-prone, and generally unconscionable procedure. If you're a dealer or poker room manger in the UK and you're reading this, please change your practice to leave all bets in front of players until the pot is right on each betting round. I promise that it will save you trouble and incorrect pots.

• You're in a cash limit hold'em game. Two players are involved in a pot. They get to the river and there's a showdown. Player A turns up a pocket pair of nines. Player B shows and tables a single 10 and tosses his other card into the muck. There's a 10 on the board, so Player B has a pair of tens. Where do you push the pot? We all know the official rule, the TDA (Tournament Director's Association) rule, and so on: Player A has a complete hand, Player B's hand is dead, Player A wins the pot. But we also know that Player B has the best hand. We could let Player A go through the deck and pick another card for Player B, and he (Player A) still couldn't win the pot. Now, let's suppose it's obvious to everybody within a 10-meter radius that Player B is a novice and doesn't know this rule - that he comes from a home-game environment and/or has never encountered this situation in casino game before.

Well, years ago, I was a table captain and a rules lawyer. I can produce a dozen sober witnesses (and scores of non-sober ones) to verify this fact. But I've changed my tune. I think you give the pot (and a warning) to Player B and his pair of tens. You don't want to create an upset novice who's likely to walk out and never come back. By the way, I saw this exact scene in a European casino recently. The dealer, correctly, called the floorman, who did what I thought was a very wise thing: He said to Player A, "Look, he's got the best hand, so give him the pot." Player A hemmed and hawed, but ultimately did the right thing and told Player B to take the pot. Then, the floorman explained to Player B very clearly that he was being given a gift. That, in my opinion, is good for the game.

• I was in a cash limit hold'em game in a European casino. I got involved in a pot with another guy, on whom I had position. On the river, he checked. I turned up my hand. My opponent misread my hand, thinking I had a straight. He tossed his hand facedown in front of him, and it passed over the betting line that you see on many poker tables in Europe. His cards were, however, a couple of feet from the muck (we were in the No. 2 and No. 3 seats). Then he looked again and realized that I had only a pair and a missed gutshot. He turned up and tabled his hand - trips. The dealer reached out and mucked his hand. In her opinion (and this may have been house policy, I don't know), his hand was dead - as it had gone facedown across the betting line. I said, "Give the man the pot - he's got the best hand." The dealer looked at me quizzically and glared at my opponent. "Really - he's got trips, and I've got one pair; he gets the pot." She looked askance at us both and pushed him the pot.

This and the previous ruling are no-brainers. You have to have a really good reason to give the pot to anything except the best hand. I think that means that you must suspect fraud, foul play, or, at the least, severe angle shooting to do otherwise.

• When did it stop being cool to cap (protect) your cards? I see virtually nobody doing it now, and I just don't get it. With these other things I've discussed, there's no doubt of who has which hand, what the best hand is, and so on. But suppose that you're sitting there with unprotected cards, and somebody's hand headed toward the muck hits your hand. I mean, such that there's legitimate doubt as to which cards are yours. I think any floorman would have to rule that your hand is dead; I don't see a reasonable alternative. But of course there will be massive consternation, arguments, recriminations, and so on. Not only is somebody going to lose a monster pot because he didn't protect his cards, but it will put a bad vibe on what was previously a happy, enjoyable poker game or tournament.

Please, let's make it cool again to cap your cards.

• On a similar note, I'm seeing a very disturbing trend among players - and most of them are young members of the Internet sunglasses and iPod crowd. Our hero makes a bet, and the opponent folds. Now, the bettor fires his cards into the muck. But let's suppose the opponent just tossed his cards three inches in front of him in a universal indication of surrender. Now let's suppose the opponent says, "I didn't fold; I was just thinking about what to do." Or, now an opponent who had his hands over his cards says, "Um, I've got cards here." Again, the bettor is out of a pot and no floorman in the world is going to rule otherwise. I know that it must feel very cool to disdainfully shoot those cards away; you've shown 'em who's boss. But one of these days, you're going to lose a big pot, either to an innocent misunderstanding or a thieving rat of an angle shooter.

Don't let it happen. When you think you've won the hand (in a tournament or live game - it doesn't matter), wait for the dealer to push you the chips. Sometimes the dealer will suggest or otherwise indicate that you should give him your cards first. Don't do it! The correct procedure for a dealer handling an unshown pot is this:

1. Muck the folded hand(s).
2. Push the pot to the winner.
3. Collect the winner's cards.

Note that step No. 2 uncovers any innocent or sneaky hands that are still out there, because once the pot is pushed, it's all over. Therefore, when the dealer asks for your cards, say very politely, with a smile on your face, "I'll trade you; you give me the pot and then I'll give you my cards."

That's it - I probably won't go on about protocol for another year or so. Thanks for tolerating it.

Lee Jones is the executive host of the European Poker Tour, and the author of the best-selling book Winning Low Limit Hold'em.