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

by Card Player News Team |  Published: Apr 12, 2017


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.

Props to Walter Matthau

The late, great actor Walter Matthau is reputed to have said, “Poker exemplifies the worst aspects of capitalism that have made our country so great.” It’s quoted in almost every book that deals with the historical or cultural aspects of poker, and with good reason: It’s a delicious, trenchant, and very quotable soundbite on the game. One could write a dissertation on that quote, but there’s no need. It encapsulates something amazing—and insightful.

Play Nice and Be Helpful (To This Earnest Newbie)

Dear The Rules Guy,

I’m a beginner at poker and I feel extremely nervous when I sit at the table to play. Poker gives me the feeling in my gut like when you are getting on a roller coaster.
When I play at the table, I also feel like I don’t know what I’m doing sometimes and it gets confusing. I’m not sure if this is how poker feels at the beginning, but this is a horrible feeling.

I want to be relaxed and confident like other players when I play at the table. I don’t know how to conduct myself at the poker table and I most certainly would like tips.

— Not Ashamed To Seek Guidance

Dear Not Ashamed to Seek Guidance:

Your question took TRG back to the very first time he played live poker, at Casino San Pablo in San Pablo, California, just a short drive from TRG’s home in Berkeley. To say that TRG was inexperienced would be an understatement. The sum of TRG’s poker experience was a once-a-month home game, dominated by variations that, well, are not commonly spread in legitimate card rooms. (Ever played El Loco Coyote Turbo? It’s an awesome, action-packed game.)

TRG was beyond clueless. How do you get into a game? How do you buy chips and how many do you need? What the hell is up with these blinds? What does “buy the button” mean? What do you mean it’s not right to say, “I see your three dollars…and raise you three more”? TRG had questions, and TRG had no obvious sources for answers.

But TRG discovered a couple of aces in the hole: Chuck and Edgar, floor men extraordinaire, who helped orient The Rules Guy. They got TRG into a game, and slowly set a course for him to play real, live poker. They were, and remain, awesome.

You should have such luck, Not Ashamed, to be welcomed and have your newbie-ness acknowledged in a nonthreatening, non-disheartening way. And you should also have tablemates who will recognize your unfamiliarity and offer a helping hand or give you some gentle guidance.

You mention that poker for you is akin to riding a roller coaster – that strikes TRG as appropriate to the experience of playing. The ups and downs, the unexpected twists and turns, the sheer mixture of fear and exhilaration (that, and the possibility of having your money shaken out of your pockets in short order).

But sitting down to play should not be so vertigo-inducing and nausea-creating. And absent a really friendly card room with really helpful staff, you must suck it up and ask for help (as you have done by writing TRG).

Enlist the help of your floor people: “I’m new here; can I ask you a few questions?” Ask your dealer about the mechanics of betting or who shows first. Your fellow players should all be glad to assist you with anything except, of course the actual play of hands (you should know the cardinal rule of poker, its prime directive: “one player per hand”). Do not be afraid to ask questions like these:

What’s the small blind?
What’s the buy-in for this game?
How many bets/raises are allowed?

To experienced players, these may seem like stupid questions, but they are demonstrably not (unless you’ve been playing in the same game at the same room with the same stakes for years).

TRG expects dealers and floor people to be helpful; indeed, they should go out of their way to be helpful to every player and especially new ones because this is their job. (And they should be rewarded for their work, both by their employers and by players: tip often, tip generously.) But TRG also expects your fellow players to be equally helpful. When someone sees an inexperienced player, he or she should smile and feel free to proffer guidance:

“Hey boss, you’re the small blind. That’s always two chips in this game.”
“It helps if you announce your action – bet, raise, or fold – before making any gestures or moving any chips.”
“Just table your hand when the betting is all over because the cards speak.”
“The action’s on you…”

The proper tone is essential in these situations: Be helpful and friendly, not petulant or brusque; strive to be genuine, never condescending.

After all, we were all, every one of us, new to poker once. Except for Phil Ivey; his first words as a toddler were “I raise.”

So what TRG is saying is that you should not bear the entire onus of being the new guy or the clueless one; the staff and players around you (good dealers can be particularly helpful) should cut you some slack and give you the lay of the land.

But you must be ready to play as well. There are lots of books that will describe the mechanics of whatever game you like (and you can google Robert’s Rules of Poker for a good introduction to same from Bob Ciaffone). Or watch recorded live games on YouTube to get a feel for how a hand unfolds.

And the next time you play, look for the best-natured player at the table — the one who greets dealers by name, tips waitresses, and is generally a friendly, happy Buddha at the table. The game flows smoothly and efficiently when players like Buddha are playing, and you will learn a lot through careful observation. (You’ll probably pick up some strategy pointers as well.)

If you can sit next to a dealer, do so; a good one will be very helpful in a very subtle way — he or she can’t help you make decisions, of course, but will help you do the right thing. A helpful dealer is worth tipping whether you win a pot or not.

Finally, TRG suggests you simply announce to the table that you’re new to the game: “I haven’t played much live poker, so please forgive me if I make any procedural errors.” Will this mark you as a mark? Of course it will. But so will playing like a newbie. And it doesn’t take long until the mechanics of the game are as straightforward as driving a car or riding a bicycle. Then you can focus on strategy and execution. Then you can thrill to the roller coaster ride that is poker. With some confidence, skill, and luck, the cookies will be tossed to you — and you won’t feel like tossing your own.
Good luck. ♠