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The Rules Guy

How To Conduct Yourself at the Poker Table

by Card Player News Team |  Published: Nov 28, 2012


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

On Acting Like You’ve Been There Before

Dear Rules Guy:

We were on the bubble at my cardroom’s weekly tournament, and the action folded around to me on the button. I moved in with pocket fours. Small blind folded, the big blind, an older rock, snap-called and tabled A-K. I had him covered, my fours held up, and I locked up bottom money! I was so pumped that I knocked my chair backwards, yelled “that’s how we do it!” and high-fived the dealer, the chip runner, and some railer drinking a Corona. Bubble Boy walked away, and everyone stared at me like I was an idiot. Shouldn’t I be excited at my first cash? Did I do something wrong?

—Baller in Baltimore

Dear BinB,

Yes and yes.

Yes, you should be excited. Few things are more gratifying than cashing in a tournament, and your first cash is doubly thrilling. And yes, you definitely did something wrong. Your over-the-top, in-your-face victory celebration was wildly disproportionate to the occasion — bottom money in a trivial tournament — and worse, it was an insult to your opponent, a thoughtlessly callous display of self-congratulation when none was called for.

Do not forget that there’s a human being on the other side of that bubble, a player who is, precisely at your moment of triumph, feeling a sickening and toxic mixture of anger and disappointment. Every player knows that poker is a zero-sum game in terms of money. It’s also a zero-sum game in terms of pleasure and pain. Your joy is equal and opposite to his disappointment. So do not rub salt in that wound. Enjoy your victory, but don’t add to your opponent’s pain.

How might you do that? As the dealer is pushing you the pot, just say something benign like “good game,” (sincerely!) or self-deprecating (“I was lucky to be on the right side of that race”), then sit back down to stack your newly acquired chips and play the next hand.

The Rules Guy is not saying you can’t celebrate internally. A discreet fist pump is hardly “in your face” behavior. But before you channel your inner Hevad Khan, think, please, of your opponent first and yourself last. Which is not bad advice for life in general.

Stoicism and Poker

This is not simply a plea for more niceness and civility at the poker table, much as more of both would be welcome at any game. TRG also believes that empathic behavior and a healthy dose of stoicism can be a strategic ace in the hole. Behave, in other words, with an understanding of the reality of poker.

Your bubble-busting hand is a case in point. You were racing for a spot in the winners’ circle, and your edge was razor thin. This is hardly a rare occurrence, particularly on the bubble and at the final table, and when both players are all-in preflop, it’s luck, not skill, that determines whose tournament life continues. And when you’ve outplayed someone, your brilliance can be undermined with the turn of a card.

Good players understand how yin can turn to yang, how pleasure can turn to pain. Good players behave accordingly, with a stoicism that helps them to accept the bad result with equanimity, the good result with gracious humility.

When you truly understand the role of luck — when you accept it as a vital element of poker — the tempestuous ocean of your own emotions will turn into a gently undulating sea of tranquility. Less emotion leads to less tilt, which leads to better decisions, which leads to better results. Good behavior is ethically right and strategically good.

A final note: In TRG’s view, excessive celebration is a violation of the implicit code of conduct at any poker table, but it’s an explicit violation of the rules at WSOP events and probably others; check out the WSOP’s Rule 46 (Section IV: Player Conduct and Tournament Integrity), also known, with good reason, as “the Hevad Khan rule.”

Slowrolling & The Futility of Retaliation

Dear The Rules Guy,

What recourse do you have when you get slowrolled? In my Omaha eight-or-better game, it seems like a lot of players delight in waiting until everyone else has shown down, sometimes taking as long as 20 seconds to reveal the nuts both ways. I just fume to myself about their rudeness, but is there anything I can do? I don’t feel like it’s offensive enough to warrant involving floor staff, but at the same time I would like to put an end to this kind of behavior. 

—Fuming in Ft. Worth

Dear Fuming,

TRG feels your pain, and is still fuming from the time his king-high flush was beaten by a slowrolled ace-high flush in a tournament — beaten and busted. Slowrolling is rude to the point of cruelty, it’s time-consuming, and it’s pointless. OK, it’s not entirely pointless; habitual slowrollers enjoy putting people on tilt and may even profit from doing so. But to TRG, that’s among the weakest ways of gaining an edge.

Slowrolling is categorically wrong. But you cannot retaliate, and you must not. In fact, you must rise above the ill manners of your opponent, for two reasons.
First, the slowroller thrives on your reaction, so you must not give him the satisfaction of your anger or even the slightest of dismissive smirks. As Tommy Angelo points out in his excellent 2007 book, Elements of Poker, “the most important thing is not to look at the person who slowrolled you or say anything to him or reply to anything he says. If you talk to the slowroller, or about the slowroller, or about the slowroll, then you have lost the battle” (“Element 74”).

Second, and more important, bad behavior never justifies additional bad behavior — not on the felt and not in the more civilized world either. The ethical, thoughtful player transcends the pettiness of the slowroller; it may not be gratifying, but you can feel good about your demeanor and, with luck, your example will be noted by others you play with.

This is not to say you must constantly turn the other cheek. The situation you describe has negative implications for the game, which means the house will want to know about it. Speak to a floor person away from the table (if only to avoid provoking the slowroller), who can remind the entire table of the necessity of turning over their cards in a timely fashion, and, if necessary, can speak to the repeat offender directly. ♠

Comments? Questions? Behavioral issues? Email The Rules Guy at