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

by Card Player News Team |  Published: Feb 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.


You’ve Got To Know When To… Shut Up

Dear Rules Guy,

Two related questions, both in multiway pots, arose the other day in a big limit game usually populated by regulars:

Situation A: Player A looks at another active player and asks some specific question. “Did you make two pair?” “Are you on a flush draw?” “Make your straight?” He says that there is no rule against these questions, while others at the table say that they violate a rule because there are others in the hand. Any questions or answers may affect other players’ actions, and may even point out hand possibilities not noticed by others in the hand. Player A responds,“That’s what I want, and I am allowed to because verbal interaction is an important part of the game!”

Situation B: The same scenario except player A talks about his own hand saying something like, “I’ll bet my two pair.” Or “well, that made my flush, bet it if you dare.” Most say that this is OK because he is talking about his own hand. But a few others say that this situation is the same as the previous scenario and it is against the rules in a multiway hand.

Almost everyone agrees that either situation is OK when the action is heads up.

Is this a matter of rules? Of etiquette? Or is it just poker?

— Troubled in Tucson

Dear Troubled,

Player A is wrong. In a multiway pot, asking questions about another’s hand or talking about your own is against the rules, and, to The Rules Guy, it’s excruciatingly bad etiquette. But TRG will admit that lots of players do it and, far worse, lots of players accept it, thinking it’s “just poker.” But it’s not good poker, and the rules against it should be enforced more than they are. And it takes people like you, Troubled, to ask about it and, more important, to bring it to the attention of the floor.

First, the rules. Table talk of the Player A variety violates the first of the two cardinal rules of poker: “One player per hand.” When you talk about your hand, you violate the spirit of that rule. (As you rightly point out, when the action is heads up, there’s a whole lot more leeway involved, at least in non-tournament cash games.)

But your chatterbox opponent is also transgressing more specific rules as well. “Discussing hands in play is forbidden,” note Lou Krieger and Sheree Bykofsky (emphasis on “forbidden” is theirs) in The Rules of Poker. “Revealing the contents of a live hand in a multi-handed pot before the betting is complete” is, according to Roberts Rules of Poker, “improper, and grounds for warning, suspending, or barring a violator.”

By definition, it’s poor etiquette to violate the rules — but this kind of semi-informative talk is also, well, poor etiquette. When The Rules Guy was a poker newbie, playing $3-$6 limit, he liked to make what he thought were idle observations about the flop, like “someone must have a spade, right?” But not after an older, much wiser player said, “there’s really no need for you to remind anyone that a four-flush is on the board now is there?” (As TRG recalls, he was somewhat less courteous than that remembered comment suggests. TRG doesn’t blame him.)

But the truly interesting issue in your question, Troubled, is this: Why do players put up with this form of coffeehousing? Why do players think this kind of talk is “just poker”?

Part of it is that most players see asking “probing” questions or providing “revealing” information as relatively harmless. Not even a poker dolt, unless secretly injected with sodium pentathol, is going to give a heartfelt and honest answer to a question like “Two pair?” (Of course, to do so would itself be a violation of the rules, about revealing the contents of one’s hand.) Even so, there are consequences to your opponent’s utterances, as your question reveals.

Moreover, in any decent game, and a big limit game dominated by regulars surely qualifies as decent, most players probably realize that the talkative player must be the fish in the game — so they are no doubt eager to keep him happy. In poker’s grand scheme of things, talking about hands in the way you describe is probably less egregious than, say, betting out of turn. Hardly worth calling the floor about; after all, he’s clearly good for the game.

Yet call the floor you must if you want this kind of behavior to stop. In fact, calling the floor is essential if you want any rule breaking or bad behavior to stop. The floor won’t, generally speaking, do it for you.

The role of the floor person in a poker room is quite a bit different from that of a referee at a football game. Both are charged with enforcing the rules; both embrace a responsibility to preserve the integrity of the game. But a football ref is actively looking for infractions, and required to take action if infractions are observed. In poker rooms, the “refs” need to be nudged on a huge variety of issues. Floor people aren’t observing every hand at every table; they’ll look into an issue when a player asks the dealer for the floor. And, generally speaking, only then.

This is not a knock on most floor people, by the way. Their job is to make sure games get started and games run smoothly, and they’re aggressive at doing both, at least in decently run rooms. Their job is also to make rulings when players ask for them — but the onus for seeking their ruling is on you. If you want action, or want to know if something’s amiss, you have to ask for the floor. And you always have the right to do so.

Player A is generating strife in your game, and repeated violations of the rules can’t be good for any game. So TRG thinks you should definitely let the floor know about his tendency to talk about hands in multiway pots. He should get a warning and the chance to shut the hell up. ♠