Poker Etiquette – Good Manners at the Table

Posted by Robert Woolley.

poker etiquette


Rules and etiquette

In talking about poker etiquette, we immediately run into difficulties. Emily Post, Letitia Baldrige, Amy Vanderbilt and others wrote famous, bestselling books laying down “the rules indicating the proper and polite way to behave.” But there is no comparable source for how one should act at the poker table. The rules, if there are any, are largely unwritten.

In fact, I think that even the use of the word “rules” in that dictionary definition is misleading, because it invites confusion with the actual poker rules—which are published in various books.

So let’s start out this consideration of poker etiquette by distinguishing it from poker rules, in two ways:


Poker rules govern what you must do; poker etiquette governs what you should do.


Poker rules protect the integrity of the game; poker etiquette protects the sociability of the game.


An example

Let’s consider a simple example. You’re playing no-limit hold’em poker game and flop a set of, say, nines in position against the pre-flop raiser. He bets the flop and turn, and you just call, letting him hang himself. Finally the river gives you the fourth nine—quads! With no other pairs on the board and no straight flush possibilities, you are 100% certain to have the winner. Your opponent moves all-in. You call, of course.

The rules of poker specify that he must show his cards first, because he made the last aggressive action with his bet. But the polite thing to do, when you know you have an unbeatable hand, is to show first; you say “I call” and flip over your cards at the same time.

To be sure, there may be sound strategic reasons for not following this course, particularly if the opponent is a skilled one on whose playing style you have little information. It is legitimate to exercise your right to keep your cards hidden until he has shown first, in order to gain some insight into what kind of hand he played so aggressively.

But even if you take this alternative route, poker manners have a part to play. The rules don’t state how long you can wait to show your cards after the aggressor has shown his. Etiquette, though, says that you must show them immediately after he has done so. To delay even a few seconds is to keep your opponent in unpleasant, unnecessary suspense about whether he has won or lost the pot. To keep him waiting on the verdict is cruel and disrespectful of his feelings. This particular offense against poker etiquette is called “slow-rolling.” It is rightly considered extremely rude, and will earn you scorn not just from that opponent, but from the other players and the dealer.



Live versus online play

A side note: As I think will be self-evident, the topic of poker etiquette has much more to do with live play than with online play. On the Internet, the ways in which you can be impolite and thus annoy other players are quite limited: you can stall play unnecessarily, and you can be an ass via the chat box. That’s about it—and even the latter is limited by moderators and the ability of the other players to mute you.

By contrast, in live play, the number of ways that you can irritate or anger the people around you is limited only by your imagination. Sadly, some players are very, very imaginative in this regard.


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Why should you care?

poker etiquetteI can imagine some readers at this point thinking, “Why should I care about being polite, about keeping poker decorum? As long as I’m not violating any of the actual rules of the game, I should be able to say and do whatever I want.”

Well, you can—up to some undefinable limit of obnoxiousness, after which the casino staff will decide to have you removed. But do you really want to spend your precious poker hours testing the outer bounds of what bad behavior you can get away with?

Let me give you three good reasons that you should adhere to the norms of poker etiquette.

1. It makes the game more enjoyable for other people. Except for a few pros, they are there to have fun. Let them! One surly, rude player can spoil the mood of everybody at the table, and even at adjacent tables.

2. Even if you’re such a misanthrope that you don’t care about whether anybody else is having a good time, you presumably care about yourself—and you will have a better time if you are playing nicely with others.

Sure, the rules allow you to pull your hoodie tight around your face, hide behind mirrored sunglasses, crank up the tunes in your earbuds, and speak only when you have something offensive to say. But that’s no way to live, dude. It’s a miserable existence. If you don’t think so, it’s because either (A) there’s something seriously wrong with you, or (B) you haven’t given the alternative a fair chance.

3. So in case you’re one of those people, I’ll deploy my ultimate reason that you should be actively polite to the other players at your table: because you’ll make more money.

Now, you may not believe that, but it’s a rock-solid fact. If you want to make more money at poker, but you’re not able or willing to put in the time and effort to learn more advanced strategy, you have a simple alternative: just be nicer to people, and your profits will notch upward.

Why? Because human beings are social animals. It’s hard-wired deep in our DNA to reward people who are good to us and punish those who offend us, or who violate social norms.

In the business world, those who are kind and sociable are financially rewarded with more sales, bigger year-end bonuses, easier time talking the boss into a raise, and richer networks of friends and colleagues leading to higher-paying jobs. In poker, similar behaviors are financially rewarded by more action, and specifically by more calls when you have the best hand.



A thought experiment

You can prove to yourself that this is true just by thinking about your own tendencies. Imagine that somebody has been the table jackass, insulting everyone, throwing his cards, berating the dealer over a bad beat, criticizing the play of less experienced players, making sexual remarks to female players, swearing—just generally making life miserable for everybody.

Now imagine the opposite: a guy who is friendly, polite, jovial, fun, telling jokes, taking his bad luck in stride, wishing others well, making the poker table an enjoyable place to spend a few hours.

You have a difficult decision for all your chips on the river. Do you call that final, large bet or do you fold? It’s a close call; you think it’s about 50/50 whether you hold the winning or losing hand. You have to consider how painful it will be if you call and are wrong. How will it feel to lose that last, say, $100 to the obnoxious jerk—the guy who has insulted you at every opportunity, and said those ugly things about your mother? The thought of giving him more of your money stings like hell, doesn’t it? How about losing it to the affable gentleman? Well, it sucks to lose another hundred, but imagining the loss doesn’t hurt nearly as much. Right?

And in that difference lies your extra profit when you are the one making the bet with the winning hand. It hurts less to lose money to somebody who has been kind and fun and pleasant than to somebody who has been smug, offensive, and irritating. So the nice guy gets more calls when he wants them, and takes home more money at the end of the session.


poker etiquette


Lose less

There’s another way that adhering to poker protocol—being nice to the other players—makes poker more profitable: you’ll lose less. This is because sometimes the other players will choose to take it easy on you when you’re in a tough spot instead of wringing every last dollar out of you.

A story: Several years ago, I was playing a $1-$2 no-limit hold’em game at the Venetian in Las Vegas. A new player came in, two seats to my right. He was under the gun for his first hand. Before he even looked at his cards, he put in the $2 for a limp, and started asking the dealer how he could get some Advil (ibuprofen). Could he get them from the desk? the cocktail waitress? food service, perhaps?

I looked at my cards to find Ad-Qd. Since I knew I was going to play this hand, I would rather not be distracted by becoming involved in New Guy’s quest for medication. But the fact is that I always carry with me a pill case with some allergy medicine, plus ibuprofen and acetaminophen to take if I get a headache. So after I put in my $10 raise, I turned and offered him some. He called the raise, while thanking me for helping him.

The flop was Kh-Jd-3d. New Guy said, “Just for that, I'm going to check, even though I'm ahead."

This gave me pause. After all, he must know that I could easily have A-K in this situation, and he was saying—in apparent sincerity—that he could beat that. So I checked behind, where I normally would have bet.

He said, "In fact, you're so nice I'm going to check this all the way for you." Turn card was a blank. I checked, too. True to his word, he checked the river in the dark. It missed me, so I checked again. He showed K-J for top two pair.

lose lessIt’s impossible to know exactly how the hand would have played out if he had decided to be more aggressive, but there’s no doubt that I would have lost more money to him than I did; it’s only a question of how much more I would have lost.

Most people aren’t used to being ruthlessly aggressively in their daily lives, and have some difficulty taking on the role of predator when they sit down at a poker table. Their urge to win money can therefore be selectively softened. Such players will tend to have the hardest time going into assassin mode against the people who have been nicest to them. So be nice to everyone, and make it harder for them to pull the trigger when the gun is to your head.

This holds especially true for the player on your immediate left. His positional advantage means that that’s where most of your losses will tend to occur, all else being equal. So chat him up. Buy him a drink or a cup of coffee, or tip the cocktail waitress for him. Introduce yourself. Learn his name. Find out what sports teams he likes. Praise him when he makes a good play. You may well discover that he sometimes lets you off the hook easy—for example, just calling instead of raising with the nuts after you bet the second nuts.



Specific actions

Articles on poker etiquette are usually framed in terms of what not to do: Don’t raise your voice, don’t berate others for bad play, don’t blame the dealer for your bad luck, don’t “tap the glass” (i.e., give advice on poker strategy, thus teaching the fish how not to be fish), don’t slow-roll, don’t gloat when you win, don’t sulk or complain when you lose, don’t say anything racist/sexist/bigoted, stay away from politics and religion, and so on.

Please don’t let anything I say here diminish the value of such advice. Lord knows those bad behaviors are so revoltingly common in live poker games that we should take every opportunity to denounce them anew.

But I’d like to try to direct your attention instead to the kind of positive actions you can take:

  • Offer to make change when another player doesn’t have enough small-denomination chips for the antes or blinds. This is especially important in tournaments, where the dealer doesn’t have a full rack of chips for making change.
  • Come to the poker game freshly showered, with teeth brushed, deodorant on, and clean clothes. You might even make it a practice to bring breath mints with you. It’s miserable to be stuck next to somebody smelly.
  • Pay attention! One sure way to earn the ire of everybody at the table is to be that player who has to be reminded that it’s his turn every damn time because he’s so busy with texting, Twitter, Facebook, and the football game on the big-screen TV that he isn’t aware of the poker. “Is it my turn?” “What’s the bet?” “Who raised?” Watch the action, and you should never have to ask these questions. Besides, surely you know that you can’t make good poker decisions when you’re that distracted.
  • Find the sweet spot in which to put the chips you’re betting: close enough to you so that it’s clear they’re yours rather than your neighbor’s or in the pot, but far enough out so that the dealer doesn’t have to break his back to reach them.
  • quick tipsSmile, dammit! It’s not that hard. You should be having fun and therefore not have to force this. If that is not so, at least remember that pretending to have fun is better than sincere surliness.
  • When there’s some sort of issue to be sorted out, let the dealer handle it whenever possible, rather than becoming confrontational with another player. For example, if you’re being crowded from both sides, don’t tell your neighbors to move; people don’t like being told what to do, and you may engender resentment. Instead, address the dealer: “Could you please square up the table when you get a chance?” If somebody has large-denomination chips or bills hidden from clear view, don’t accuse him of angle-shooting (even if he is). Instead, just ask the dealer, “Could you please check to be sure everybody’s largest chips are out in front?”
  • When you’re all-in and waiting for the hand to play out, root for the other guy. No, really! Mike Caro has long recommended this. He points out that if you cheer for your opponent and lose, you can celebrate with him. If it doesn’t go that way, you get the pot as your consolation prize! Phrases such as, “Oh, I like your hand better here,” or “I think you deserve to win this one” make it almost impossible for you to be personally resented if you win—as long as you can be (or at least sound) genuine about it.
  • When you win, be humble, even if you won because of your killer ninja poker skills. I’ve found that I can defuse tense situations by saying things like, “I just got super-lucky on you there,” or “Nobody could get away from your hand in that spot.” I think it matters not one bit whether those things are actually true.
  • If somebody starts criticizing your play, I recommend the advice I picked up from Barry Greenstein’s book, Ace on the River: Respond with something humorously self-deprecating, like, “Stick around and you’ll see me make way worse plays than that.” Said with a smile, this leaves no room for further attacks, and de-escalates a potential confrontation.
  • Be respectful of players’ need to concentrate. When you can see that there is a big pot brewing, or somebody is “in the tank” contemplating a difficult decision, avoid doing anything distracting. Try to put conversations on hold for a minute to give the players involved some relative quiet.
  • If an adjacent player keeps holding his hole cards in such a way that you can see them, tell him so, rather than taking silent advantage.
  • More generally, if you can tell that somebody at the table is new to the rules and procedures of casino poker, go out of your way to make him feel at ease. The poker economy depends on a constant influx of new players. The surest way to get somebody never to come back is to make him feel like he doesn’t know enough about the game or play well enough to be there.
  • Stand up against people who are being obnoxious. If somebody is being flagrantly offensive to another player on the basis of sex, race, physical handicap, appearance, playing ability, etc., say something. You don’t want to get angry or holier-than-thou, but a simple, calm, direct statement like, “That’s really not a cool/funny thing to say” may put a stop to it. If instead the harasser escalates his attack, or redirects it at you, don’t engage; just politely ask the dealer to call the floor, explain what has been happening, and let the poker room staff handle the jerk. The offender may resent you, but any socially well-adjusted players will see you as an ally.




These are just a few examples of the myriad ways in which you have the power to help make the poker table a pleasant, fun, sociable place to be.

Call it “etiquette,” or call it proper rules of contact while just being a decent human being. Either way, the short-term effect will be to put more money in your pocket, while simultaneously having a more enjoyable time. The long-term effect will be to keep your poker customers coming back again and again to give you their money.


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Robert WoolleyRobert Woolley is a consultant on personal injuries lawsuits, living in Asheville, North Carolina. He has been writing about poker since 2006, first on his own “Poker Grump” blog, and then as a strategy columnist for PokerNews.


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