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

by Card Player News Team |  Published: Jan 01, 2014

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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.


For the Good of the Game

Dear The Rules Guy,

I’m playing $2-$5 no-limit in a big Vegas card room. Player sits down drunk out of his mind, and proceeds to dust off about $2,000, $200-$300 at a time. He is terrible: cussing, berating the dealer, throwing his cards. Any other player in the room behaving like this would have been tossed out. But he was losing money, and a regular player in the room told the floor something like “Hey, this fish is acting up, but let him stay so I can make some money.” So he was allowed to stay.

Then, a player next to the drunk fish starts instructing him. Telling him that he should not be playing, that he should leave and stop wasting his money. He actually racks up the drunk fish’s chips and says, “Come on buddy, you’re leaving with me.” The reg tells Mr. Instructor to leave the drunk guy alone. Mr. Instructor tells the regular to go f—- himself — that he has compassion and everyone else at the table should also.

Mr. Instructor gets kicked out of the room for his F-bomb. Drunk fish stays. Dealers continue to take abuse; cards continue to get chucked off the table. It was a bizarre situation.

Why was the drunk player allowed to play in the game? Was Mr. Instructor out of line? Were we out of line for licking our chops and waiting to take this sucker’s money? This is a casino, after all, and adults should be able to do whatever the hell they want at the table, right? Is it common for the floor to bend the rules in order to cater to regular players? Look, I wanted the guy in the game as much as the grinders who make their living in the room, but this was borderline insanity.

—Dusted off $1,000 to a Donk

Dear Dusted,

This is such a good question, or set of questions, that The Rules Guy has barely shortened a word of it. The situation you describe is an extreme case, but you can be assured that some version of it happens at least once a day in any sizable card room.
Categorically: It should not happen. The drunk should have been warned the first time he cussed at a dealer, or perhaps the second time he threw cards. Then he should have been cut off from drinks. And if he continued to disrupt the game (which is central to the issue: he was clearly disrupting the game), he should have been ejected. End of story.

That said, TRG’s first observation is this: Would you have written your letter if you hadn’t lost $1,000 to the drunk? And say you’d been the big beneficiary of the drunk’s foolishness? Would you be so upset in the cold light of day (or while you’re counting your cold, hard cash)?

TRG does not mean to cast aspersions on your character. TRG admires your character: the fact that you wrote suggests you are a reflective and thoughtful player. But TRG admits to being human, and wonders if he had been in your shoes, and been able to capitalize on that player’s unwitting largesse, he might have been more indulgent. And by the same token, TRG would have felt bitter, miserable, and frustrated at being loser in a game that was so unpleasant to begin with.

No need to answer; TRG is merely posing a rhetorical question. Or in today’s youthful parlance: “TRG is just sayin’.”

For now, TRG will assume your motives are pure. And TRG assures you that your instincts are spot on:

The drunk was out of line. Big-time! Drinking at the table is fine, but being drunk at the table almost never is. At a minimum, drunks slow down the game (and seriously, can the game of poker, driven by the televised ridiculousness of players like Doc Sands, afford to be any slower?). Drunks (and other misbehavers) cause all sorts of procedural problems, like the aggressive muck that fouls someone’s hand. And at worst, drunks get abusive, to dealers (verboten!) and to players (also verboten, but less so: a player can leave anytime, the dealer is stuck for the length of his or her down, which can feel like an eternity).

The reg was out of line. TRG realizes that super-positive expected value (EV) situations are rare enough (TRG is hoping to find one soon), but if a drunk is clearly a disruption, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” (thank you, Mr. Spock; Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). Players who pay the rake and abide the explicit rules of the room and the implicit rules of being a decent human being should not have to put up with the antics of an extreme minority.

Mr. Instructor was trying to do the right thing. It is rarely easy to be a decent guy; it is very difficult to be a decent guy at a poker table. Yes, he dropped an F-bomb, but in that situation, his expletive in no way was cause for ejection. It’s rare to hear “F— you!” in the same breath as the word “compassion,” but that part of the story is credible, and his motives were purer than not.

It is not wrong to “lick your chops” in anticipation of someone losing — but it’s wrong to encourage someone to lose. You are happy if a calling station sits in your game; you are ecstatic if a rich and bad player sits in your game. But what if a solid player sits in who is clearly suffering from a medication mistake, and starts playing crazily? Any decent human would try to set him straight. In the case you describe, your drunk is obnoxious; that’s reason to ban him, but he’s still impaired.

The floor was out of line. TRG believes the floor people in this situation bear the brunt of the blame. They should have stopped this madness long before it became a sore point with you or any of the other players at the table or players in the room. A single loud, obnoxious player can disrupt the vibe of a card room, just as a single loud, obnoxious diner can ruin the vibe of an entire restaurant. The restaurateur wouldn’t tolerate it; why should a floor person?

TRG takes pains to point out that there are probably many scenarios when a drunk player would be an asset: a jovial, good-natured drinker who stays friendly would be a very welcome addition to any game. But when an impaired player starts to throw the game out of whack, frustrating players, dealers, and floor people, that person should be tossed. It’s for the good of the game. ♠