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

by Card Player News Team |  Published: Mar 30, 2016

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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. 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 editor@cardplayer.com.

On Man Buns, Hammy Acting & A “Six on the River” (Plus: The Difference Between A Nit Roll & A Slow Roll)

Dear The Rules Guy:

What do you think of “man buns” at the poker table?

—Top Knot in Toms River, New Jersey

Dear Top Knot:

The Rules Guy doesn’t provide counsel on sartorial issues – or tonsorial ones, for that matter – but if he did, he would say, unequivocally, that the man bun is one of the most pretentious, unattractive, and unfortunate trends he has ever seen. Do what you like, wear what you like, but for the love of all that’s holy and good, lose the man bun.

Since poker is a microcosm of real life, and man buns should be banned in real life, TRG believes they are unacceptable at the poker table. This belief was strengthened by research for the next question. Case in point: Mikel Habb.


Dear The Rules Guy:

What’s your take on Mikel Habb’s acting skills in the play involving Samantha Abernathy at the Aussie Millions?

—Laurence Olivier, Heaven

Dear Sir Laurence,

Bardolaters everywhere miss your brilliant acting and your great interpretations of Shakespeare!

But we’re not talking about Shakespeare here, are we Sir Laurence? For those who may have missed this particular performance: Earlier this year, in Melbourne at the Crown Casino’s Aussie Millions, deep in the main event, the following hand played out between a known “man bun” (see previous question) aficianado named Mikel Habb and up-and-coming player Samantha Abernathy.

Dylan Honeyman opened to 50,000 in early position with blinds at 12,000-24,000 and a 4,000 ante. After Honeyman opens, the action folds around to “Man Bun” Habb in the small blind, who made it 112,000 to go, a clear raise. Let the acting begin:
Habb (with an “aw shucks, I’m an idiot” grimace):

“That was, er, just a call.”

Dealer: “It’s a raise, sir.”

Habb shakes his head with resignation and leaves the chips in the middle, as he is required to do by the rules of poker—and as he must have wanted to do. He has pocket kings.

Abernathy, with pocket sixes in the big blind, failed to read Habb’s clumsy effort at feigning weakness. Holding sixes, she moves in quickly, thinking, no doubt, that she can pick up the pot without a flop. Honeyman folds and the action is back on Habb, whom she has covered.

TRG cannot say with certainty what is going on in Habb’s mind, but it looks as if he got exactly what he wanted: the chance to double up.

So the proper thing to do is call immediately and table his cards. But no! Habb kicks up the performance a notch. He placed his brow in the palm of his hand, as if to say, “I’m an idiot, what have I got myself into here?” An alternative reading, equally possible and equally damning: “I have jacks. Idiot! Never play jacks.” And than he chewed his way into the most ham-fisted and elaborate false tell that TRG has seen in a long time: He stood up and paced.

A student of poker (or acting, Sir Laurence) here pauses to say, “Why?”

Is this his first time at a big poker rodeo? Can he conceivably fold kings? Can he be worried that Abernathy has aces? Of course, that’s possible. But if he is so nitty that he’s worried that the big blind or the original raiser has aces, wouldn’t he have raised preflop to see if that action generated a bit more information?

There’s only one conclusion, Sir Laurence: It was a performance, and not a convincing one. And to a poker player, the damning thing was that it served no conceivable purpose. A good acting job might lead an opponent to make a desired action, but here the action is on Habb.

Of course he calls. And then poor Habb’s stage presence declines even further: With four cards in the widow (no help to Abernathy), he kisses his fingers and points to the sky – a salute? A “thank you” to his mother? Or a crude way of saying, “I’m going to win this hand! Thank you poker gods!”

TRG doesn’t need to remind you, Sir L, about the notion of hubris. The ancient Greeks articulated it best. Shakespeare made tremendous use of it. And poker teaches it to every player on an almost daily basis. Man Bun Habb’s hubris clearly offended the poker firmament: Even the TV announcer was calling for a six on the river.

Which, of course, arrived as scheduled (in drama, that’s called “foreshadowing”). Abernathy sucked out and went on to make the final table, finishing third. Habb busted out in 15th place, which was good for AU$85,000. Now he can afford a haircut.

To act in a way that induces action, of course, is always acceptable as long as it is well within the bounds of the rules. But be warned: most people are lousy actors who give off a lot more information than they think. Ham-fistedness is clumsy—and it shows.


Dear The Rules Guy:

A follow-up question: Did Habb commit a nit roll or a slow roll?

—Laurence Olivier, Heaven

Dear Sir Larry,

It’s ok if TRG calls you Larry, right? You can’t smite TRG from heaven can you?

Kudos for being up on your poker lingo. A nit roll is when you take too long to make a standard or obvious call. A slow roll is when you wait so long to show a winning hand that your opponent thinks, “I’ve got the best hand! This pot is mine! Baby’s going to get new shoes tonight!”—and then you turn over the real winner.

Nit rolls are quite a bit less egregious than slow rolls. A nit roll can be pretty genuine. We’ve all seen players who take forever to call with pocket queens in a standard situation and we may have encountered the really risk-averse players who could conceivably fold kings. Slow rolls, on the other hand, are deliberately cruel – sins of commission – designed to inflict maximum psychological pain. They are unforgiveable.

Habb’s action was more of a nit roll than a slow roll; he took too long to make an obvious call, and he compounded the damage by acting so pained by the decision.
Card Player’s Brian Pempus profiled Abernathy after her score and asked her about the hand:

“There has been some debate about whether or not this hand was a slow-roll,” Abernathy said. “It very well could have been a nit-roll. I was a little bit confused in the moment, and I remember thinking, ‘Did I just get slow-rolled?’ Either way, I felt that his actions and attitude that unfolded were what truly surprised me. I can’t speak to his intentions, but I feel that it was a poor demonstration of good etiquette and sportsmanship, and that part didn’t feel great on my end in the moment.”

What did Shakespeare ultimately teach us, Sir Laurence? Humility. Empathy. Compassion. Three worthwhile ideas for the felt, for every player. ♠