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Contracts and Poker: Some Rules For Noobs

by Scott J. Burnham |  Published: Jun 16, 2021


What are the most important tournament rules for a new player to know?

The Tournament Director’s Association (TDA) advises players to know the rules, but most of us don’t have the appetite for that kind of reading. Even if they read the rules, however, new players are not likely to get much out of them because the rules are not meaningful without the context gained from experience.

Gaining that experience often means learning from your mistakes. So I am offering this advice that follows in the hopes that it will minimize some of those mistakes.

The TDA begins the rules with a summary of “Player Responsibilities:” Players should verify registration data and seat assignments, protect their hands, make their intentions clear, follow the action, act in turn with proper terminology and gestures, defend their right to act, keep cards visible and chips correctly stacked, remain at the table with a live hand, table all cards properly when competing at showdown, speak up if they see a mistake, call for a clock when warranted, transfer tables promptly, follow one player to a hand, know and comply with the rules, practice proper etiquette, and generally contribute to an orderly event.

Here are the ones I would emphasize.

1. Nothing identifies you as a new player as quickly as your inability to find your seat. Seats are numbered clockwise around the table, starting with seat one to the left of the dealer.

2. Don’t lift your cards off the table. Before playing in a casino, practice cupping your hands around your cards so they can’t be seen by other players while turning up the corners to read them.

3. Learn what the “big blind ante” is. It is supposed to save time to have only one player ante, but a lot of time is spent trying to explain this to a new player and getting the player to act on it. The big blind ante means just that – only the big blind antes, usually in the amount of the big blind. Once the ante starts, it will continue for the whole tournament, so get used to putting it out. Since the dealer has to keep the pot right, and initially the only chips in the pot come from the ante, try to put out exact change for the ante.

4. Speaking of exact change, don’t try to make it easier for the dealer to make change for you by putting out extra chips without saying anything. If the bet to you is 600, don’t put out a 1,000 chip and a 100 chip. While the TD might cut you some slack, the rules say this is a raise. If you insist on doing this, make sure you say “call” as you do it. Better yet, don’t do it. It isn’t that much harder for the dealer to give you four 100 chips instead of one 500 chip.

5. Use the words “call” and “raise” to express what you are doing, and use those words properly. You can also use “fold,” but it is easier to just muck your hand without saying anything. You might want to make your action clear when you raise by announcing the size of the raise. But know what you are doing. If the bet to you is 200 and you put out a 1,000 chip saying, “Raise. 500,” that is a raise to 500, not a raise of 500. In other words, you are announcing the total amount of the bet, not the amount of the raise.

6. Learn to check. Saying “check” is an option, but most players prefer to tap the table. This can range from an obvious knock-on-wood gesture to a subtle finger drum. When you aren’t sure whether the player to your right checked or not, you shouldn’t hesitate to ask. However, it’s usually better etiquette to ask the dealer, whose job it is to keep track of the action, rather than to ask the player directly. Simply ask “Checked to me?” or “Is it on me?”

7. Learn the oversized chip rule. If you push out a single chip that is larger than the amount of the bet, it will be held to be a call rather than a raise unless you say otherwise before the chip hits the felt. So if the blinds are 100-200 and you silently push out a 500 chip before the flop, that is a call of 200. This is probably the mistake most frequently made by beginning players, but even experienced players sometimes forget the rule when they are in the small blind. If the blinds are 100-200 and in the small blind you add a 500 chip to the 100 chip you already have out, it will be held to be a call. You can argue that you could have put a 100 chip out but put a 500 chip out instead and it won’t make any difference. It is a call. If you intend to raise, say so.

8. Don’t make string bets. Chips must be pushed out in one motion, without going back to your stack for more. In your home game, you can say, “I’ll see your 200 and raise you 300 more,” but in a casino, your first action or your first words will govern and this would be interpreted to be a call.

9. Act in turn. The rule itself applies when you push out chips before it is your turn. Unless the action changes in front of you, that is, unless a player who was skipped raises, your action is binding. New players tend to do this when they are excited about a hand, so it is also a tell – information you are giving the other players. While there is no rule against it, it is also a tell to telegraph what you are going to do before it is your turn to act; e.g., getting ready to muck your hand or assembling the chips for a raise. If you can learn to read a situation quickly, it might be best not to look at your cards until it is your turn to act.

10. Don’t fold the big blind in an unraised pot. This shouldn’t need to be said, but when there is an unraised pot and the dealer looks at the big blind and says, “It’s your option,” I have seen the big blind respond by throwing away his hand. I have no idea why players do this. “Your option” means your option to check or raise, not your option to continue in the hand or not.

If you have other suggestions on rules you would like noobs to know, please let me know at the email address below. ♠

Scott J. Burnham is Professor Emeritus at Gonzaga University School of Law in Spokane, Washington. He can be reached at