A POKER ETIQUETTE GUIDE

Sunday, December 25, 2005

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While most people were out doing some last-minute Christmas shopping or getting some early sleep for an eventful tomorrow, I was watching The World Series of Poker: Tournament of Champions on ESPN2. Sport or no sport, poker is clearly a growing phenomena evidenced by the enormous participant totals: in the main event alone, participants grew from 839 in 2003, to 2,576 in 2004, to 5,619 in 2005, and 2006 is expected to house close to 8,000. Being that you have to be at least twenty-one years old to gamble, you'd think the maturity level at such a prestigious event would be high, but when you go up against players like Mike "The Mouth" Matusow or Phil "Poker Brat" Hellmuth, you are sadly mistaken. At points, these players look like they were brought up in pigpens by the way they act after a bad beat; they could take a lesson from my Poker Etiquette Guide, a Christmas gift to immature poker players everywhere. Keep in mind, these tips are aimed more at the serious poker playing demographic - they may not apply at your average home game.

Shake Hands: You'll find yourself in a sad situation if you choose not to at least offer a handshake after handing someone a bad beat, or even worse, knocking someone out. A handshake is used to demonstrate good will towards the other person; if you don't offer a handshake, you send the exact opposite message (not to mention you'd look pretentious to the neutral parties). A handshake is proper etiquette in poker in several situations: the aforementioned bad beat and knockout (whether or not you're on the giving or receiving end of it), and during a showdown (also known as heads-up when someone is all in). If you enter into a war of words with someone and wish to reconcile, a handshake is usually given. When you get up to leave the table after losing all your chips, you should always shake the hand of the person who knocked you out, and in most cases, the hands of the other participants at the table, as well as the tournament director.

Chip Stack
This is how chips should
be stacked.

Stack Your Chips: While it is not a rule written in stone, it is common poker etiquette to adequately stack your chips (the style is up to you) so that you don't waste time sorting them out when you need to put chips into the pot. They will end up being stacked anyway, so you may as well be one step ahead of the curve and organize them in a fashion that suits you. Your opponent may want to know how many chips you have and is entitled to this information; you don't have to count them yourself as you can call the tournament director over to give an official chip count.

Don't Touch Your Opponent's Chips: If your opponent makes an ambiguous bet, such as just throwing chips into the pile in an unorganized fashion, don't reach out and stack them for him. Ask him to give you the precise amount of his bet or call the tournament director over. Touching an opponent's chips is an infringement of his or her "personal space" just as touching your neighbor's expensive fine China collection is.

If You Don't Have Anything Nice to Say, Don't Say Anything At All: Taunting is certainly legal in poker, as is evidenced by such poker professionals as Phil Hellmuth and Mike Matusow, but it is looked down upon the same as it is in every other aspect of life. It's bad etiquette to gloat after a win and to complain after you lose; if you have to say something when you lose a hand, just say "nice hand" and retreat to your own little world. It is possible to put someone on tilt (their play is contingent more on their current emotions) by taunting them, but it usually only works on powder kegs and it can blow up in your face very easily.

Keep Your Word: Another inherent rule of poker is to keep your word. If you tell your opponent that you'll show him your hand if he folds, then live up to it. You'll lose a lot of respect at the table if you consistently trick people, and that usually ends up coming back to haunt you. As a result, you may get called more often, which raises the possibility of losing big hands. Poker is, in part, a game that rewards the best liars, but there are necessary lies, and unncessary lies. You need to decide which is which.

Don't Hold Up the Game: If you're a meticulous thinker, you've probably been on the receiving end of comments telling you to speed up your decision-making process. You slow down the pace of the game if you take your time on every hand and you're not doing yourself any favors by doing so. Most games implement a "clock system" whereby a player can call "clock" on you if you're taking too long, and a player should never have to call this on another player. It's one thing to Hollywood (put on a facade to mislead your opponents), but it is another to hold up the game. You may call "time" for extra time to make a decision, but don't abuse this privilege.

Howard Lederer
Notice where Howard's cards are.

Don't Talk During A Live Hand If You're Not Involved: The poker table is not your dining room table; it is not used to socialize. Let everyone involved in the hand play it out, and then talk when the hand is finished. You cause unnecessary distraction to the active players by blathering in your state of inactivity.

Make It Obvious That You're Still in the Hand: Keep your hole cards out in front of, or to the side of your chip stack, that way the play doesn't skip over you because your opponents can't see your hand. On a related note, make your hand gestures unambiguous: tap the felt (not your chips, your arm, or the table railing) at least twice to indicate that you wish to check. On another related note, if you put chips into the middle of the table, but don't announce the value, you are still committed to the value of those chips.

Properly Maintain the Cards: Refrain from eating messy foods that leave residue on your fingers, such as potato chips and fried chicken. If you must eat food at the table, wipe your fingers before touching the cards again. Also, don't bend the cards when looking at them, and don't violently throw them into the muck (the area for folded cards).

Keep Up With the Blinds: You should be aware of your surroundings, including when you are a blind. When a hand is finished, move the dealer button if you were the dealer (the dealer is the person who is last to act after the flop), and post your blinds, whether you are big or small. A player should never have to be reminded to post his or her blind.

Cheating: Cheating is wrong. With that said, don't accuse other players of cheating. If you are wrong (which is usually the case), you will make an unnecessary scene. If you're right, the cameras above you will likely catch the accused in the act for you (if you're in a casino).