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

by Card Player News Team |  Published: Nov 26, 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:

How do you handle a situation where you are playing with players with such poor personal hygiene that the game is affected? In the last month, I’ve played poker with a guy who smelled like a dump truck, a player so sick he was constantly coughing and sneezing into his hands (without a handkerchief, naturally), and two players whose breath was so bad, I nearly lost my lunch. Whose job is it to tactfully say something to these players? 

—Am I Crazy?

Dear You’re Not Crazy In The Slightest:

Sadly, every live player has experienced some version of this situation. And, at the risk of sounding immodest, The Rules Guy says it’s his job to say something to these players (but not his sole responsibility; see below). So here’s is TRG’s Poker Service Announcement:

Poker is a very welcoming game. If you have money and the desire to play, we want you here. We want newbies. We want wannabes. And we may not want sharks, but we recognize they come with the territory. We want people in the game, including you.

But poker is a social game, and social activities come with a few responsibilities. We ask that you dress and behave like you’re in public (which you are). Wear cleanish clothes. Be clean yourself (bathe!). Wash your hair. Brush your teeth and freshen your breath (often).

We also ask that you be hygienic. If you’re contagious, don’t play. If you do play, cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze. Remember, your hands are touching chips and cards, which are passed around the table (Hand sanitizers or disposable towelettes are worth keeping in your pocket).

And finally, we ask that you eat with some level of decorum. It is beyond disgusting to see someone eat buffalo wings with bare fingers and then use said fingers to pick up cards or handle chips—not to mention unhealthy.

The ideal situation, of course, would be for people to behave in a reasonable way when they come to the card room. TRG realizes this is asking a lot, and his simple appeals to decency and common sense may not be sufficient.

But card room personnel can help; in fact, there is a rule about personal hygiene. Here’s what Lou Krieger and Sheree Bykofsky have to say on the subject in The Rules of Poker: Essentials for Every Game: “Management has the right to establish, modify, and maintain standards for appearance, grooming, and personal hygiene.” (Should TRG ever get the chance to write some rules himself, he’d change the word “right” to “responsibility.”)

It’s the rare floor person who is going to call someone out for inadequate standards of hygiene, but the floor should respond to a complaint from a player. It’s your responsibility (and as poker players, our collective responsibility) to say something to the floor if you find yourself seated next to a reeker, or someone unfamiliar with the effective use of soap, deodorant, or Altoids.

In a decent card room, the floor will investigate and can say something or, in the case of real grossness, send a player home. But the floor will never do either unless a player or two complains (or a dealer or two). So, if it’s bad enough to say something (and by “bad enough,” I mean it interferes with the game and your personal comfort), then speak up.

And for the offenders, one rhetorical question: If you can afford to play poker, can you not afford to bathe and do laundry?

Yup, You’re Being Penalized…

Dear The Rules Guy:

Here’s a question for you.

Three players in the hand—call them #1 (me), #2, and #3. Pot is $100. On the river, it is checked around. Player #2 and I show the same hand; #3 throws his hand face-down. Dealer announces a chop between #2 and me. The dealer divided the chips, and before they were pushed to us, player #2 says, “I want to see #3’s hand.” Dealer stops and turns over #3’s hand—and he shows the best hand!

Here is where the argument started: #3 says, “I have the best hand, so I win the whole pot.” I say, “Wait a minute; call the floor.” The floor comes over; the situation was explained. The floor says #3 has the best hand and should win the whole pot. This follows the rules.

I then state I shouldn’t be punished because of #2’s action. I should split with #3. Since there were two pots, it still follows the rules that the winner doesn’t get a free look thus #2 loses his share. The floor disagreed.

I tried one last time, and say, “Rules are meant to fair to all parties, so what you are saying is I sat there did nothing and I’m being punished by another player.” The floor still stood by his ruling.

—A Reader.

Dear Disgruntled Reader:

You didn’t sign your question with the word “disgruntled,” but you are, indeed, disgruntled. Who can blame you? Still, the floor was absolutely right, and your venom and bile should be directed at Player #2. It was his action that resulted in the pot going to its (sort of) rightful owner: the player (#3) with the best hand.

Yes, Player #3 should have tabled this hand (there would be no dispute had he done so). But Player #2 gave #3’s hand a second life by asking to see it. Note that, if he hadn’t been in the hand, the dealer would have (or should have) mucked the hand by tapping them on the muck before turning them over. But TRG quotes Krieger and Bykofsky again: “If the player who won the pot asks to see the mucked hand, and the mucked hand is actually the superior hand, then the caller’s hand is assumed to be live and the pot will be awarded to that player.”

You are, unfortunately, tarred by the same brush. Remember the cardinal rule of poker: Cards speak. Once Player #3’s cards were given a voice, it was impossible to rule in any other way. The best hand won—and you didn’t have it. ♠