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

by Card Player News Team |  Published: Mar 16, 2016


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. What’s wrong? What’s right? What’s an angle? Got a question about how to behave at the poker table (or a comment about a column)? Email TRG at

Gratuities Are Always Welcome (Almost Always)

Dear The Rules Guy:

We all know that there are people looking for any improper edge they can get at the poker table. My question concerns a player and his interaction with a tournament director.

I live in Northern California and my poker buddy lives in Southern California. While traveling together to play a WSOP Circuit in Lake Tahoe, he begins to brag how he always tips the TD at his local LA card room 10 percent of his winnings. For that, he says, he always gets his favorite seat and always gets seated at the table which will be the final table. He also tells me if it is his turn to move to another table, the TD will purposely hold back so he does not have to move if he is the next big blind.

When I state, “Hey, that doesn’t sound kosher!”, he replies: “Of course not, that’s why I do it!”

I am not at all against tipping staff for good performance. But this, in my opinion, is going too far. The TD should not accept any amount that would influence his decision in running the tournament.

My question: Should I tell the casino upper management? I sure can’t complain to the TD. My wife tells me that since the casino is 350 miles from my home and one I seldom play at, I should not do anything and should keep my mouth shut.

What says The Rules Guy?

— Thomas in Thunder Valley

Dear Thomas in Thunder Valley:

The Rules Guy is on record about the importance of tipping those underpaid folks who make playing in card rooms possible, from the servers who bring you food and drink to the dealers and floor people who make games run and run smoothly. If you play tournaments, tournament directors also deserve gratuities (it’s not just for themselves; they generally redistribute a decent proportion of their tips to the dealers and chip runners who do the heavy lifting that makes the tournament possible).

Of course, service providers have to earn those gratuities. By being courteous and responsive to players. By maintaining an orderly and cordial atmosphere where players can have a fun, positive experience. By settling disputes promptly and equitably.

Oh, and one more thing: They have to earn their gratuities by not freaking cheating.
Your friend’s TD is cheating. And so is your friend.

Giving your friend a “good seat” is harmless enough. But it is also incredibly stupid, since seating should be random and this is anything but, thereby calling into question the fairness of the entire endeavor. (Note: making accommodations for players in wheelchairs and so on is completely reasonable, even if isn’t reasonably random.)

Giving your friend a seat the “final table” is completely and utterly meaningless (except for the important caveat in point one above about random seating). Conceivably, he has to change tables less often, which might be an advantage, but even so, it’s a trivial one.

However: Delaying a table change so your friend can avoid the big blind is cheating, plain and simple, and erodes the expected value (EV) of every remaining player in the tournament.

Let’s be fair to the situation however. This column is called “The Rules Guy,” not “The Math Guy,” but it seems intuitively obvious that your friend is taking way the worst of it by tipping 10 percent for such a paltry return. He’s way overpaying for the marginal edge he’s receiving.

Even from the other perspective (that of the TD), the situation is insane: Sure, he makes a few extra hundred dollars whenever his partner-in-crime finishes in the money, but he’s jeopardizing his job and his career if he ever gets caught.

But even if this is inane on every level, and fairly trivial in terms of actual impact on any given tournament, it is still cheating. They are undermining the integrity of the game.

And so we finally come to your question: What do you do? A) Don’t play at the casino in LA should you ever find yourself down there. B) Tell your friend to reconsider his unethical actions. He should not have this agreement; if he wants to tip 10 percent, more power to him, but it must never be with any kind of reciprocal expectation.

You might find the right opportunity to tell someone at the card room (someone above the TD’s rank in the hierarchy), but it will be hard to prove that it’s happening or has happened, and it seems unlikely that anything will be done about it. (If by some bizarre chance you could prove it, the TD would be fired and your friend could be banned for life.)

This may sound overly dramatic, but you might want to reconsider this friendship. TRG doesn’t think he could remain on friendly terms with someone who showed such disregard for the integrity of the game.

An Ace Is Always Welcome; A Helping Hand, Not So Much

Dear The Rules Guy:

Settle a bet: I say being a good customer of a card room means helping the dealer out by moving the button or making change. One of my fellow players says, “stay the hell out of the dealer’s way.” What’s your opinion?

— Helpful in Helena

Dear Helpful:

Helping the dealer—also known as “slowing things down” and “confusing everyone at the table”—well, TRG guesses he has given his opinion away on this matter. No doubt, there are dealers out there who appreciate a little help, and there are many more who are good-natured about it, but TRG believes a little help is way, way more trouble than it’s worth to everyone concerned.

Watch a good dealer at your next session. He or she is in control. Verbalizing the action. Counting the stub. Making change for the drop. Pulling in the bets. Answering queries about where they’re from, or what time the tournament starts, has Fatso Slim been playing much, or have they ever seen Rounders?

Dealers can multi-task.

And the reason they can multi-task is because they have mastered the procedural rigor to such a degree that they can use more of their cognitive capacity to answer questions and make small talk. And the second you interrupt them by saying, “Button moved, dealer” or something similar, you throw off their rhythm and, by extension, the hand’s rhythm, the game’s rhythm, and though it sounds far-fetched to say it, your own rhythm.

If the dealer asks for help, help. If your actions can clearly help the dealer (without interrupting the flow) – say, you can use a T25 chip for the ante instead of forcing the dealer to make change or you can place your bet within easy reach – by all means do them. But let the dealer do his or her job and get hell out of the way.

The Rules Guy very much appreciates your desire to help, however. ♠



over 5 years ago

I was in a $500 tournament, was facing a bet for 70% of my stack at about the tourney's midpoint, and was trying to garner information by asking what hands my opponent might have. The dealer said "no talking" and thinking maybe he was referring to someone else, I told him I was in the hand. He just shook his head in reply. I wish I had called for the floor and regret that I did not, because it still bothers me. In Oklahoma, as perhaps other places, they seem to protect their regular locals when they can. When I spoke with other dealers about the incident, they usually just say something like rules are sometimes subjective.