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The Rules Guy: How To Conduct Yourself at the Poker Table

by Card Player News Team |  Published: Dec 01, 2013

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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:

Recently, I was playing a $550 deep stack tournament when this hand came up at my table. A short stack shoved all in with AClub Suit 10Club Suit and was called by a guy with pocket sevens. The board runs out 9-2-2-5 with two clubs. The river was the 2Club Suit, making the nut flush for guy with AClub Suit 10Club Suit, who started to cheer. The dealer didn’t realize that the 2Club Suit gave the pocket sevens a full house. I wasn’t in the hand, and I waited to see if the player with sevens would say anything — he didn’t. Then I pointed out that he actually had the winning hand, at which point the guy who was all-in goes ballistic, yelling that I was totally out of line and should have kept my mouth shut. Your thoughts?

– A Card Player Reader

Dear Reader,

This one requires no real thought whatsoever: You weren’t out of line at all. Not only was it your right to speak up in this situation (which occurs with surprising frequency), it was your obligation, both to protect the integrity of the game and to protect your own interest in the tournament. In fact, the only thing you did “wrong” was that you should have spoken up the moment you realized that Mr. Pocket Sevens held the winning hand (but TRG understands your reluctance). You did the right thing because the pot went to the winning player.

The explicit rules are unambiguous here: As Bob Ciaffone puts it in Robert’s Rules of Poker, “Any player, dealer, or floorperson who sees … an error about to be made in awarding a pot has an ethical obligation to point out the error” (“The Showdown, Rule 2”). The Tournament Directors Association Rule 12 (“Declarations, Card Speak at Showdown”) notes that “any player, in the hand or not, should speak up if he thinks a mistake is being made in the reading of hands.” And in TRG’s favorite bedtime reading, The Rules of Poker, Lou Krieger and Sheree Bykofsky write: “when cards are turned over at showdown, it’s no longer one player per hand when it comes to reading and determining the best hand. Though it is always up to the dealer to determine the winning hand…, each player at the table has an ethical responsibility to speak up in order to ensure that the winning hand takes the money, even if the player holding that hand overlooks it” (emphasis added by TRG).

So there can be no ambiguity about your action whatsoever according to the letter of the poker law. You did the right thing. End of story.

End of story, but not end of column. The Rules Guy, after all, likes to cogitate about such matters. TRG understands Mr. Nut Flush’s frustration: he nearly got away with one (and it’s possible he didn’t even notice that a full house was in fact the winning hand) after the dealer and the ostensible winner failed to acknowledge it. And it’s entirely possible that Mr. Nut Flush was reacting to the perceived injustice because he is familiar with one of poker’s cardinal rules: “one player per hand.”

But in this case, at showdown (and at no other time!), the “one player per hand” rule is trumped by the other cardinal rule of poker: “Cards speak.” When you “put your cards on the table” (one of those common poker phrases that has worked its way into the American idiom, meaning to be honest and truthful), your cards speak for themselves: They speak, and you don’t have to. The dealer awards the pot, and if the dealer doesn’t get it right, the other players should help the dealer get it right. This is one reason, by the way, for tabling your cards more often (in non-all in situations, obviously). If you don’t show and your hand is mucked, you cannot win the pot; if you do and you have a winner you might have overlooked, you can and should.

Note that this is not a case of being altruistic. Every player should want the best tabled hand to win. Someday, you’ll misread your hand and still win (example: a busted flush draw makes fourth pair on the river; you think you’ve got just a busted draw, but the pair is the best hand—table that sucker!). In a tournament a situation, every player who busts increases your equity. You may not relish the chance to speak up and bust someone, but you do have a responsibility to speak up when mistakes are made.
The Rules Guy reminds readers that the “exception” to the “one player per hand” rule only applies to the reading of hands at showdown. It would be completely wrong, for example, to assist a player in reading an untabled hand just as he was about to muck it (“Whoa, dude, you got a full house! Call!”). Obviously, in this tournament situation, with one player all in, all cards are tabled and all can be read. In the same vein, it would be unethical for a player to point out something that might cause a would-be mucker to call a bet and continue with the hand. This is why it should be taboo to utter things like, “Ace of hearts would look good here” when there’s action to come.

But in the situation you describe, both hands were tabled, meaning no one had the chance to muck a winner. It’s understandable that Mr. Nut Flush would be upset, but no rules were broken and, most important, the best hand won the pot. You didn’t help his opponent play the hand any differently; you simply helped the dealer with his duties, just as you might say (before the deal), “the button didn’t move” or “we’re missing an ante.”

“Poker is predicated on the assumption that the best hand wins the pot,” says Krieger/Bykofsky in The Rules of Poker. Obviously, if the best hand mucks in the unfortunate belief that he or she is beaten, well, that player will suffer the consequences.

It take a lot of courage to speak up in this situation, and TRG salutes the fact that you did. It would take even more courage, and more integrity, to point out a mistake that is not in your favor. Put yourself in Mr. Nut Flush’s shoes for a second; as that pile of chips is moved towards you, do you have the strength of character to say, “Hold on a sec, that gentleman has made a full house — he should get the pot.”

TRG would like to believe that poker is a gentleman’s (or gentlewoman’s) game, but it would take an extraordinary player, someone with a particularly refined sense of fair play and decency, to make that call. But that’s OK as long as there are players like you at the table. Good call, Reader! ♠