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

by Card Player News Team |  Published: Jan 07, 2015

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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.


Dear The Rules Guy:

I recently played a smallish tournament here in Northern California and wondered about this situation: An aggressive player—a real table captain-type—would ask for a count as soon as someone said “all in,” even when there were several players still to act in front of him. Is this okay? It felt wrong to me, but I wasn’t confident enough to say anything (and it never affected me personally).

—Not a Troublemaker

Dear Not a Troublemaker:

The Rules Guy has never wanted to be a “table captain.” Money captain? Yes. Chip captain? Yes. But table captain? No way. Table captains are alpha wannabes displaying a deep insecurity about their poker skills and knowledge and are hellbent on convincing nine people around the table that they know a lot about poker. God only knows why.

Few people are fooled, of course, and for the most part, table captains are something to be endured, like humidity, say, or light beer. Sure, they might engender some fear in inexperienced players, but a veteran recognizes the chatter of the “table captain” as mere hot air.

Except in this case. Your table captain is affecting the play of hands. Which is a huge no-no.

There’s no explicit rule about this in any of the usual sources (The Rules of Poker, Krieger and Bykofsky; the Tournament Directors Association rules; “Robert’s Rules of Poker”). There are, of course, rules about “action out of turn” (see, for example, TDA Rule 38). But the fact that there’s no rule about it doesn’t make it right.

This should be obvious. For example, at a ten-handed table, Player A under the gun (UTG) opens with a raise. Player B (UTG+1) reraises all-in. Before Players C, D, E, F, G, H, the small blind, and the big blind can act, Player A asks for a count of Player B’s chips. This gives information, or possibly misinformation, to several players and can potentially impact Player B’s action. Perhaps one of the other players was planning to call or reraise, but changes his mind on the belief, misguided or not, that Player A is planning to call. Maybe Player A wants everyone to fold through a preemptive quasi-declaration or thinks, “If a player still wants to be in this hand after my request for a count, he must have an awfully good hand.” Maybe Player A wants his buddy in seat F to fold and his asking for a count is a signal, “I have a monster; don’t risk your tournament life.”

At best, the questioner is clueless, seeing another opportunity to demonstrate that he’s watched poker on TV and that players in big tournaments ask for counts. But, at worst, he’s angle-shooting and possibly colluding. Regardless of his motivations, the out-of-turn question is wrong and should not be permitted.

It’s up to other players to protect their interests. Note that the “action out of turn” rule (TDA Rule 38-B) stipulates that, “a player skipped by out of turn action must defend his right to act.” So, in the case of Mr. Table Captain (in TRG’s hypothetical example), it falls onto all players to protect their interest and speak up. This is one breach of etiquette where it would be appropriate and welcome for someone not in the hand to speak up: “Captain—I mean sir—you must wait until it’s your turn to act before asking for a chip count.” The all-in bettor can, of course, say something as well.

TRG doubts it would be necessary to mention this violation more than once at a given table. And props to the player who does so for helping to ensure the integrity of the game, a responsibility that we all share.

On a more general note, players must always be careful about what they say or do to ensure the “one player per hand rule.” For example, never count or estimate a count for anyone (only the dealer can count a stack, and only when the stack is committed to the pot). And never give advice on action at all, but particularly when a player—any player—is all-in. The last thing the shover wants to hear is some version of, “It’s just another $3,000—you have to call, dude!”

It is reasonable to ask an opponent, “How much are you playing?” But no player is compelled to respond. Your responsibility is clear: “Players are entitled to a reasonable estimation of an opponent’s chip count; thus chips should be kept in countable stacks” (TDA Rule 24-A).

TRG thinks a useful rule might be crafted about this topic, and will give rulemakers the following language free of charge: “Any player may request a count of an all-in player’s chips, but must do so in turn.”

You’re welcome!


Dear TRG:

Any thoughts on the etiquette of the hit-and-run? Recently, I tripled up in about 20 minutes of play, and decided I was going to not do what I usually do (donk the money back into the game). Not one, but two players shared their disgust at my behavior while I was racking up. Was I wrong?

—Virgil Starkwell

Dear Virgil:

The Rules Guy noticed you chose as your alias the name of Woody Allen’s character in his 1969 comedy classic, Take the Money and Run. Starkwell is, without question, the world’s worst thief, but the reference isn’t apt. You’re not a thief. You won that money, and you owe no one anything.

TRG realizes people differ on this one, and TRG has himself, on those rare occasions when he played well (i.e., ran well), generally tried not to leave just after a big rush or a huge pot, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking the money and going home.

There are no explicit rules about session lengths; in fact, some rooms, including TRG’s local one, remind people that, “A player is entitled to quit a game at any time without being subject to criticism from another player.” Needless to say, this rule is never cited or enforced (how could it be? What would be the penalty for its violation?).

It’s always great when people behave graciously to every player, winner or loser. But when they don’t, just do what you did: take the money and run. It’s your decision (and yours only). ♠