Live Poker Etiquette

Poker was once a game of life or death. Nineteenth century card players such as Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and “Wild Bill” Hickok brought knives and handguns to the table. Those who bent the rules and got caught cheating might have risked paying for such indiscretions with their lives.

A Lesson from the Doc

One of the most colorful poker players of America’s Old West was a gambler, gunfighter and dentist named John Henry Holliday (1851~1887), better known as “Doc.” He did not suffer rule-breaking lightly. When a reputed bully named Ed Bailey rummaged through the discards after a certain hand, Holliday warned him that such actions were forbidden and the penalty was loss of the pot. When the bully did it again, Doc gave him a second and final warning.

Bailey figured the dentist was bluffing. On the very next hand, he again picked up the discards. Without saying a word or even bothering to show his hand, Holliday reached out and raked in all of the money in the pot.

From under the table Bailey drew his pistol. But before the troublemaker could pull the trigger, Holliday whipped out a razor-sharp long knife and disemboweled him—an apt demonstration of how the good doctor cured cheaters.

Card Room Basics

Today, there are many old-school card players who still believe anything other than outright rule-breaking should be permitted at the poker table, from sneaking a peek at other players’ hands to lying about their experience with the game. Fortunately, card rooms in modern casinos have developed standards that all players must follow, so that order can be maintained without fear of bloodshed.

To begin, most poker rooms no longer allow players to simply walk in, sit down and start playing. It is first necessary to sign in with the card room manager and then wait to be invited to an open seat. After being seated, players are not permitted to change their seats without leaving the game.

The minimums and maximums for buy-ins and betting are posted at each poker table. So-called “limit” games restrict how much may be bet; “pot limit” allows any wager up to the total already in the pot; and “no limit” games are played for “table stakes,” meaning that whatever amount of chips a player has on the table may be bet at any time. Note, however, that additional chips for betting cannot be purchased mid-hand.

Study the Game

It is the player’s responsibility to know when it is her/his turn to bet. Betting out of turn is considered to be very poor poker etiquette. Any action—including checking, folding, wagering or raising—should be made by using clearly understandable hand gestures as well as verbal declarations. All raises have to be made in a single motion. So-called “string betting” (taking more chips from the stack to increase a raise) is not allowed.

When betting, calling or raising, be sure to stack the chips neatly and push them smoothly in the direction of the pot. Rely on the dealer to ensure that the amount of the bet is correct before the chips are added to the pot. Throwing chips into the pot is bad manners, referred to as “splashing.” Also, no chips may be removed from the table during play. This banned practice is known as “going south” or “ratholing”

Oddly enough, sneaking a peek at an opponent’s cards (or trying to) is not forbidden, even though it may annoy other players. Each player is responsible for protecting her/his cards from others’ view at all times. After the hole cards have been seen, it is customary to place them face down on the table and not hold them in one’s hand(s).

More Modern Manners

Creasing, folding, bending, crumpling or otherwise damaging the playing cards is not allowed. When a hand is folded, the cards should be pushed face down toward the dealer, never turned over. Also, never toss the cards.

During each hand’s final showdown, “the cards speak for themselves.” The dealer will declare the values of the competing hands and the ultimate winner. Players who announce their own hand values must abide by whatever they call out. For example, a player who calls a straight or a flush when holding a straight flush cannot later claim the higher hand. Similarly, a player showing four-of-a-kind who jokingly declares “I have two pair” will be treated as holding the devalued hand.

Good manners are always in fashion at the poker table. Playing cards is a social occasion, so polite side talk is allowed. In fact, it is a typical aspect of the game, with players attempting to learn more about opponents (or deceive them regarding their own capabilities).

Always speak in the table’s primary language (usually English), not a second language. Taunts, foul language, gloating or displays of anger may bring about ejection from the game. Even though guns and knives are no longer allowed in poker rooms, it’s still best to avoid confrontations beyond the play of the cards.

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