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

by Card Player News Team |  Published: Feb 04, 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.


Your Eyes Aren’t the Window To Your Soul

Dear The Rules Guy,

I wear my sunglasses at night, when I play poker, I mean, because I don’t want Phil Galfond or anyone else to make a soul read on me when I’m not wearing the shades. You got a problem with that?

— C. Hart in Canada

Dear Mr. Hart:

Here’s a dime. Call your mother. Tell her you no longer wish to be a lawyer—er, poker player. Okay, you can forget the dime, that’s a reference to another Mr. Hart in The Paper Chase, the fantastic 1973 movie about Harvard Law School. TRG strongly urges you to watch that movie because it’s great, but also strongly urges you to ditch the shades and build your game face out of effort, not camouflage.

Poker, like every other activity, has an evolving set of cultural mores and fashions. Take, for example, the infantile habit of turning the hood of one’s hoodie into a pacifier. Or putting out a raise with an oh-so-gentle drop so that the stack of chips turns into a little cascade. Sunglasses are yet another fad, one whose roots probably lie with the Oakleys sported by 2003 World Series of Poker main event champion Chris Moneymaker.

For Moneymaker, playing at a level incommensurate with his own experience and on anything but a level playing field, sunglasses were probably practical, offering a form of psychological armor and protection. Now, if you actually play live against Phil Galfond or Phil Ivey or even Phil Hellmuth—in fact, if you play live against anyone whose first name is Phil, you may wear your sunglasses at the poker table. But if you do not play with the aforementioned giants, leave the sunglasses in your pocket.

At most stakes, sunglasses can’t help you in any meaningful way, and they can definitely hurt you in several ways: Nothing says “newbie” like sunglasses at a poker table. At best, they demonstrate faddishness; at worst, they connote a striking lack of confidence or presence. More practically, they make it possible to misread your cards or the board.

Note that pros, for the most part, do not wear them: “It’s like little kids wearing sunglasses to act like they’re cool,” said Barry Greenstein in an ESPN.com article. “It’s for people who are afraid of their own shadow, so they wear sunglasses because they think people will see right through them. I’ve never seen a good player wear sunglasses, ever. Only in tournaments will you see that. If you watch our [cash] games, no one would ever wear sunglasses.”

Instead, learn to control where and how your eyes move (along with hands and body as well; physical tells emerge everywhere). Let your unimpeded vision help you decipher the clues around you at the table. And revel in your newfound confidence at the table when you don’t need the comfort of a pair of sunglasses.

If you need still another reason to reconsider the use of shades, realize that some players (Daniel Negreanu has opined on this subject on his blog) believe that shades are antithetical to poker, particularly televised poker (they are extremely viewer-unfriendly).

There’s another, very old-school reason to ditch the shades: It’s rude to wear sunglasses indoors when you’re interacting with people. But TRG also thinks it’s rude to wear hats of any kind indoors, particularly baseball-style hats with the manufacturer’s sticker on the brim. That’s a battle TRG has zero hope of winning.


Play Hard (Against Your Friends)

Dear TRG,

At my card room, it’s mostly regulars, to the point where the game often feels like a social event more than a competition. It’s friendly and good-natured, and we end up checking hands down a lot. Is that ethical? Is it good etiquette?

— Will Rogers

Dear Will:

TRG never met a man named Will Rogers he didn’t like. TRG also likes the idea of a genial game, and TRG will even admit to checking it down. But checking it down is a form of soft play—and soft play is a form of cheating.

Cheating. Admittedly, that’s a very dramatic word, and soft play hardly seems like cheating in the way of, say, marking cards or rigging the deck. But the experts are clear on this one: The Tournament Directors Association Rule 61 states that, “poker is an individual game. Soft play will result in penalties, which may include chip forfeiture and/or disqualification.” Now it’s obvious that soft play in a tournament is cheating, but what about in a friendly cash game like one you’re describing?

Well, Mike Caro says that soft playing is “evil,” noting that, “when players make it easy on each other, invariably there is less money in the pots than there would be otherwise.” He calls it a “tacit agreement” among the soft-playing friends. Substitute the word “collusion” for “tacit agreement” and the true nature of soft play starts to become clear.

Soft play is fine (if a bit pointless) in a home game, but it is completely wrong in a public game where there is a chance that someone at the table doesn’t know the “rules” of the game. It might not matter to you in this particular game, but one day you’ll be at another table, where six or eight players are playing each other one way and against you in a completely different way. It won’t be nice. It won’t be fun. And it won’t be profitable.

Besides, where is the fun in soft play? Poker is a competition, and most people, even bad recreational players, play for that aspect of it—they want to win. Indeed, you should play even harder against your friends. There can and should be a real sense of camaraderie that arises from friendly-but-cutthroat competition. So, for the good of the game, don’t soft play your opponents, even when they’re your friends. ♠