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

by Card Player News Team |  Published: May 19, 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.


While We’re Young

Dear The Rules Guy:

Do you have an opinion on the shot clock in poker? This stalling business is out of hand.
—Slowed Down in Slovenia

Dear SDS:

The Rules Guy has nothing but opinions about stalling, a horrible “tactic,” and is pleased to share them with you.

First, playing slow is bad. Period. Full stop. Exclamation point. Make that two exclamation points. You’ve no doubt heard the adage: “You’ve got give action to get action.” That refers to betting, but it applies equally well to playing quickly. When people stall, the action grinds to a halt. Everyone gets testy. Voices can be raised and tempers flare. Some players may quit in slow cash games. If you’re a good player, slowness cuts into your earn; if you’re there to have fun, slowness cuts into your fun.

Of course, if your strategy is to put people on tilt, you’ve hit a gold mine when you discover how to stall. But if you come to the card room to play poker, stallers are the enemy.

TRG knows why they do it: First and foremost, they do it in order to try to cash in tournaments. Full disclosure: TRG has stalled, a bit, on the bubble, when he was short-stacked and had a decent chance to cash. No, TRG is not proud of this moment, not one bit. But it’s understandable (lamentable, but understandable). Stalling to prolong one’s life in a tournament is at the top of the list of motivations for stallers. But there are two additional reasons people grind the game down to a pace that makes “glacial” seem quick.

The first is actually somewhat reasonable: People worry about timing tells. If you snap call when you have a made monster and deliberate when you have a draw or a bluff-catcher, you’re going to be eaten alive (assuming you’re playing with observant players). Good players are consistent in their timing, though they rarely need more than 10 or 15 seconds to complete their action. Anything longer is, typically, cosmetic.

That’s right: stalling for appearance—the second reason for slowing down the game. They stall because they’ve seen it on TV. Because Doc Sands does it. Because Jesse Sylvia does it (though he was roundly, and rightly, criticized for it). Because Tom “Where Is He Now?” Dwan does it.

TRG understands hero worship, but even if you worship these characters, why would you emulate their worst characteristics?

The reasoning, and that’s giving this hideous practice much too much credit, goes something like, “When I play slowly, I look like a thoughtful player, calculating ranges in my head, factoring the odds of making my hand, figuring out if I’m getting the right price to call, determining how I’m going to play the next street as I try to pick up a visual tell on this guy by staring blankly at his face.”

Tom Dwan might be doing exactly that. But your average player in a $1-$3 no-limit hold’em game or a $120 tournament is almost assuredly not. They are just wasting time—everyone’s time.

It must be acknowledged that stalling seems to be on the downswing. Rumor has it that even Doc Sands has accelerated his game. And more and more players are aware that they have the power to end this scourge of poker:

Call for the clock.

Don’t be shy. If someone hasn’t acted in a minute or so, ask the dealer for the clock. Depending on house rules, he or she will get the floor and give the slow player one minute (sometimes, it’s one minute plus 10 seconds) to act. Often, the act of calling the clock is enough to spur a player to action; if not, he’s got some real motivation to do so in a timely way.

In other words, we don’t need no stinking shot clocks, we just need floor people with watches. That said, be mindful of the circumstances. If someone goes into the tank in a small pot in level one of a tournament, call the damn clock. If someone goes into the tank on the money bubble, or the final table bubble, of a major tournament, cut that player some slack (but just some). If the pot is enormous in a cash game, cut that player some slack.

And if you’re the staller, you can head off the specter of the shot clock by saying “time” and, depending on circumstances, apologizing for taking your time. Nothing elicits forbearance like preemptive apologizing.

Don’t talk to TRG about using stalling and other tactics to get under someone’s skin and make that player tilt. It may work, but it won’t wash, and there are plenty of other forms of acceptable gamesmanship.

When people sit down to play poker, they operative word is “play”—not “wait.” While we’re young, please. Now shuffle the damn cards. ♠