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

by Card Player News Team |  Published: Jun 11, 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

Dear The Rules Guy:

OK, OK, OK! I get it.

I get how we’re not supposed to “tap the aquarium” or call players “donkeys.” I get how it’s not cool to point out to the fish that they made a horrible play. I even get how it’s not kosher to smirk when they say ridiculous things like “That dealer never gives me good hands” or “I want that seat…I always run good in Seat 6.”

I know I should refrain from correcting their misconceptions about poker, like when they say “I had to call…pot odds!” with an unjustified air of expertise. Seriously, I get it!
But OMG they are so bad. The other day I actually heard a player to my left muttering to himself: “I have deuce-five…gotta play tight so I better not raise. Wait, it’s OK…I’m under the gun!”

He was actually in the hijack seat, but whatever. Then he proceeded to raise 22 times the big blind — won like $5 bucks — and showed the deuce, saying “I didn’t want any callers.”
I get it, TRG, but sometimes I just can’t take it.

So here’s my question (make that questions): What do you say when you come across this type of player? What do you say when a guy sits down in a $1-$2 no-limit game with Beats headphones, sunglasses, and a white hoodie, then orders a Patron — and buys in for $40, giving the chip-runner forty singles that look like they were crumpled from years in his piggy bank? What do you say when the button announces “Raise…make it $25 to go” and methodically counts out five $5 chips and then the fish in the small blind says “How much is the bet?” Or worse, the player with $40 behind facing a raise from a monster stack who says “How much are you playing?” What do you say when you’re playing $6-$12 limit and a newbie asks every single time how much he can raise or much is the bet? What do you say to the player who sits down, decides to wait for the button, then lobbies for 27 minutes?

Let’s hear it, TRG. What do you say to these amateurs who are making my life so miserable?

What do you say?

— Frustrated in Fresno

Dear Frustrated,

Your question is complex, FinF, but the answer is simplicity itself. You say “Deal. Me. In!”

Because the opponent you describe (and we’re all familiar with him, and, in the interests of political correctness, it’s always a him) is not someone you can afford to irritate, antagonize, or berate no matter how much you want to.

Yes, he is annoying, exasperating, and frustrating. But he also possesses a quality that you and every real poker player should find immensely, compellingly, and wonderfully attractive: He is profitable.

This idea is hardly new, but it always bears repeating. You may want to tap the aquarium, but you’ll only be hurting your chance at profits when you do.

Pointing out someone’s stupidity, or ignorance, or lack of experience risks driving them away or inciting them to play better (note that “better” is a relative term, but even a little better will reduce your edge against a truly bad player).

Perhaps equally important, but less talked about, is that when your mind starts seeing the aquarium as needing to be tapped — when you’re noticing the fish and their piscine behavior — you risk tilting yourself.

Frustration and exasperation give way to anxiety (“what the hell is this guy going to do next?”) and anger. And even if you’re a winning player, anxiety and anger can lead to bad decisions.

So be welcoming. Be encouraging. Be nice. Of course, you should never need a rationale for being welcoming, encouraging, or nice; these are elements of human decency. But as an added incentive, consider the profits to be had.

Finally, remember that you don’t need to say anything at all. You can keep your thoughts about your opponents to yourself (though you are always welcome to write to The Rules Guy; TRG is here for you, FinF). If this kind of fishy, newbie behavior really eats at you, find a different game or table. But otherwise, read that behavior for what it is: a giant neon sign that says “A profitable game!”

Deal me in!

P.S. Note that it’s always reasonable to take steps when players are crossing a line by breaking the rules or delaying the game (and remember, the most effective way to take such a step is by asking for a floor person).

Dear TRG:

I finished fourth in a tournament for $15,000. When I was picking up my payment from the cage, I felt pressure to leave a tip. Now, the tournament already had a certain percentage removed from the prize pool for staff. And I paid an entry fee to the casino. I did not leave a tip, the floor staff that walked me to the cage basically called me cheap, and I went on my way. Overall, it was an awkward experience. What is standard protocol here? 

— I Am So “Not Cheap”

Dear I Am So “Not Cheap”:

Somehow, restaurants have created the impression (and it’s not an unreasonable one) that 15–to-20 percent of the bill is a good tip. Actually, they’ve created the impression that 15–to-20 percent is a standard tip. That’s good public relations, creating a cultural norm. But card room tipping is a whole lot murkier, and tournament tipping is almost completely opaque.

Two observations: First, in the situation you describe, you have indeed already paid a gratuity in the form of the “percentage removed from the prize pool for staff.” These automatic gratuities (typically three percent) function as a sort of guaranteed gratuity for the tournament directors, chip runners, and dealers. But three percent is on the low side, if you think about it: For a $100,000 prize pool, that’s $3,000 to be divided among quite a few people who make that tournament happen, most of whom would be earning tokes from cash games if they weren’t working in the tournament room. Three percent is a compromise; it ensures the tournament staff get something, but it’s a floor, not a ceiling.

TRG would never tip less than five percent (in other words, two percent of the win plus the three percent automatically taken out) — but everyone has to decide the amount for himself. Tipping is always discretionary in the sense you always have the option about whether to tip and how much to tip.

It’s not unreasonable for a tournament director to encourage tipping because many players don’t know the protocol. Tournament tipping is not nearly as automatic and well-understood as restaurant tipping; almost no one stiffs a waiter or waitress, but poker players stiff dealers and TDs all the time. However, it’s unacceptable to make a player (also known as a “customer”) feel bad about not tipping.

In short: To players, be generous to those who make your game possible. To TDs, don’t be greedy. ♠