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

by Card Player News Team |  Published: Aug 31, 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.


Props to Bryan Devonshire, professional poker player, for this excellent advice he offered in the Sept. 16, 2015, issue of Card Player:

Whether you are amateur or professional, if you play poker then you are a member of the poker community. It is beneficial to you to be nice to people. Make friends. Pursue opportunities. Poker is a social game. Engage with your fellow humans. If you are professional, then other professional poker players are your colleagues. Granted, you compete against them, but there is competition in any workplace. Keep it friendly. Staff and media are also your colleagues. That means you should be nice to dealers, floormen, and the media.

This month, The Rules Guy addresses an example of humanity on the felt.


Dear The Rules Guy:

Was Lee Jones right to let an opponent “off the hook” who (allegedly) said “all in”?

— Worried About Being the Nice Guy Who Finishes Last

Dear WABTNGWFL:

That adage, about “nice guys finish last,” has always struck The Rules Guy as ridiculous – but he understands the impulse behind it and why poker players loathe to be nice at the table. But Lee Jones genuinely is a nice guy, and what a story this is.

For those not in this particular loop: Jones was playing live poker in a short-handed $1-$2 no-limit game when he flopped the nut flush (for the full write-up, check out the PokerStars Blog entry dated June 7, 2016). He bets and gets called. The turn doesn’t change the nuts; Jones bets, gets raised, he reraises, and then hears the sweetest phrase possible when you’re holding the nuts: All in.

That’s what the dealer heard – and threw an all-in button in front of the villain. That’s what Jones heard, and as he recounts the story: “Among my multitude of failings at the poker table, slow-rolling is not one of them. I immediately said, ‘I call – I have the nuts.’ And turned up my hand.”

This should be the point where the villain should be reluctantly moving his stack into the middle. Only he doesn’t do any such thing. In fact, he says, “I didn’t say ‘all in.’” He is adamant, refusing to put another penny into the pot, even after the floor is summoned and tells him he must.

And that’s when Jones released his inner nice guy and took the high road with a move that earns him praise and karma points: “It’s all just chips,” he said. “Push me what’s there now and let’s get on with the game.” In his post, Jones added that “I honestly don’t think [he] was angling me….This wasn’t the time or place to bring things to a crashing halt over $300.”

There’s a lot to be admired here: Jones gives another player the benefit of the doubt. Jones recognizes that $300 isn’t life-changing money (at least to anyone who can afford to sit down in a $1-$2 game). Jones keeps the peace in a situation that could have gotten a lot more rancorous and ugly.

Lee Jones has a great reputation in poker, and it’s that kind of thoughtfulness and generosity that is no doubt part of the reason for that reputation.

And yet: This is treacherous territory. Civility is a wonderful thing, but rules are rules and rules are there (most of the time) for a reason.

One of poker’s cardinal rules is that “verbal declarations are binding.” The reason behind this one is crystal-clear: If players could announce “raise” (or “call” or “all in”), obtain a reaction, and then renege, the game would quickly devolve into chaos. Here, if the villain in fact said “all in” and gets a call, then he is on the hook for all his chips (Jones had him covered). End of story. Poker doesn’t allow give-backs, and rules are intended (in part) to reduce ambiguity.

This is not even a particularly ambiguous situation. The dealer heard the player say “all in” and tossed the all-in button in front of the player. No lucid player in a heads-up pot could possibly fail to notice a plastic disk emblazoned “ALL IN” somewhere in his general vicinity. No lucid player in would hesitate to speak up immediately: “Hold on! I never said ‘all in.’” Had he done so, he almost surely would have been given the benefit of the doubt.

It should be clear that The Rules Guy is generally supportive of Jones’s decision to move on. TRG admires the fact that Jones behaved like a human being instead of an EV machine, that he allowed the villain to save face and kept the game going. But should he have done so?

Clearly, if this had been a tournament, there’s no way he can let the guy off the hook because it’s not just Jones losing the pot. Everyone else would lose equity in a tournament situation. But even in cash games, this sets a bad precedent.

Moreover, Jones could have protected his interest in this hand – indeed, should have done so by making sure the pot was right before turning his cards over. (In fact, Jones has made it clear he will do this in future all-in situations.) He might have asked the dealer to ask the villain to push chips into the middle. Or Jones could have asked, “Are you all-in?” Heck, he could ask the dealer: “Is he all-in?” The villain would respond, and the dealer should prompt him, if the answer is yes, to move a meaningful amount of chips into the middle.

Jones also could have said, “I call” and kept his cards face down until the raiser/villain acted. No one enjoys being a spectator in the game of “who shows first?” but if the pot isn’t right or the action is ambiguous, it’s simply foolish to show your cards until you’re certain of both. (But note well: If the pot is right, turn your cards over or fold quickly. On the grounds of etiquette, Jones is to be commended for his quick reveal, even if it cost him the other player’s stack.)

So what can we learn from this situation as poker players? Four lessons:

First, as good, ethical players – i.e., not angle-shooters – we should make our actions unambiguous, and be quick to speak up if our actions are misinterpreted (to protect ourselves and be good citizens of the game).

Second, if we are unsure of another player’s action, we should ask for clarification – a verbal acknowledgement, a stack of big chips in the middle, whatever it takes to ensure the action is correct and committed.

Third, if we make a mistake – when we bet into the nuts or run a hopeless bluff that is – we must own the ramifications of that mistake. We “pay that man his money.” We won’t like it, but we do it without rancor, bitterness, or grumbling.

Fourth – frankly, this feels somewhat contradictory – when you get a chance to be human, take it. The never-ending fight for EV doesn’t have to be a pact with the devil. ♠