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

by Card Player News Team |  Published: Feb 05, 2014


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

What’s Bad About Bad Beat Stories

Dear The Rules Guy,

I’m not one of those players who tell a lot of bad beat stories. However, just the other day, at the poker room at the Royal Desert Inn Resort, Spa, Casino and Conference Center, I picked up aces in the cut- …

Dear Readers:

News flash: Normally the epitome of gentlemanly behavior and civility at the poker table, The Rules Guy can be rude — as this non-answer to this non-question illustrates. TRG didn’t bother to finish reading this missive. In fact, TRG is so rude that he cut off this correspondent precisely in the middle of the word “cutoff.”

And here’s why The Rules Guy is being rude: Because TRG can tell that this correspondent is not seeking advice. He doesn’t have a real question at all. He wants to tell TRG and you, dear readers, how he played A-A perfectly and lost a big pot to a ridiculous call.
In other words, he’s writing to tell a bad beat story.

Uh-uh. No way. Not gonna happen.This is a column about issues of rules and etiquette, about how to be a decent human at the table in your quest to be a winning player. No bad beat stories requested, desired, or published.

But the correspondent inadvertently raises an interesting question: Why are bad beat stories so bad? And why do they seem to predominate the chatter around the poker table, around the poker room, and around any location where the game is discussed? In the interest of full disclosure, TRG admits to telling a few bad beat stories himself. Like the time when he flopped tens full of….

No. I won’t tell you what happened, and for two reasons.

Reason No. 1: Bad beat stories are boring to any disinterested or uninterested listener, which means any stranger you might encounter at the table, in the poker room, and any non-poker-playing friend. When you bust out of the main event and head over to Aria and start venting about how your aces were cracked to anyone within earshot, the typical response is more one-upsmanship than genuine sympathy or compassion. (“You think that’s a bad beat? I’ll tell you a bad beat…”) As for non-poker-playing friends, most will have no idea what you’re talking about and most won’t care.

It is different, of course, when talking to poker-playing friends. Real friends will be sympathetic and compassionate. They might even affirm your strategy in the hand (“You played it well, dude! The fish sucked out on you!”) or give you some gentle, helpful advice on how you might have played it better (“Ouch! Maybe if you’d check-raised the turn…?”) (Of course, your friends might look at you with speechless incredulity, and you should know what that means.)

Reason No. 2: Bad beat stories are boring, but the best rationale for not telling them is that doing so hurts your ability to compete. TRG takes as the doctrinal text here “The Path of Least Resistance” (No. 129 of the Elements of Poker), by the inestimable Tommy Angelo: “There’s good resistance and bad resistance. When we resist harming ourselves and others, that’s the good kind. When we resist reality, that’s the bad kind…What does it mean to resist reality? It means to wish things are different than they are.”

That’s a great articulation of the kind of Buddhist thought that permeates Elements. And while it doesn’t mention the bad beat topic explicitly, it does offer an explanation of the personal downside of bad beat stories.

What is a bad beat story, after all, but a way of wishing things are different than they are? Angelo: “I am seeing my opponent’s hole cards because we are at the showdown and he just turned them over. I see that his hand beats my hand. I do not like what I see. I wish the cards were different than they are. I resist. And it hurts. Resisting always hurts. Resisting is hurt.”

When you tell a bad beat story, you are resisting reality. When you tell a bad beat story, you are not just courting pain, you are extending it. And pain is not conducive to good poker, today or in the long run.

Let’s apply some of Angelo’s verbiage to TRG’s correspondent. He is resisting the reality of what happened, and because “resisting is hurt,” he is hurting himself and reliving his pain. One might even say he is transforming a minor scrape, which would quickly heal itself, into a serious and lasting injury, which could hurt and ache for months to come, affecting his outlook and his ability to compete. He is, in effect, sidelining himself, at least mentally.

Why further the pain and the hurt by reliving it? Especially when the answer is so obvious: Let…it…go.

Take a deep breath…let it go…gone!

The hand is over. The pot is pushed. The players post their blinds, and the dealer shuffles the cards and starts to pitch. The game goes on — in spite of your pain, in spite of your loss, in spite of your suffering. The game goes on.

So suck it up and move on, which can mean several things: You can actually get up and leave (because you’re so tilted you cannot possibly play well in the near term). Or you can take a break until the tilt is gone and your equilibrium restored. Or you can commit yourself to playing the next hand as if the previous hand did not exist. All are viable; each is harder than it sounds.

Channel Peter O’Toole: Don’t mind that it hurts. Letting go of the pain of poker, a masochistic game if there ever was one, will allow you to disengage your ego and focus on the task in front of you: maximizing your expectation on the hand you’re playing now. (You can’t maximize the expectation of a hand that’s over.)

The beautiful game of poker is punctuated by pain and suffering — pain is an existential form of rake. And to overcome that rake, you must let that pain and suffering go. Resisting the urge to tell bad beat stories is a great place to start. You’ll benefit — and so will those around you. ♠