Poker Etiquette

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Poker used to be a dangerous game—even life-threatening—if one bent the rules. Cheating in America’s Wild West was so prevalent that players such as Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, and “Wild Bill” Hickok carried handguns to the table. Many a game ended in bloodshed.

Gambler and gunfighter John Henry “Doc” Holliday (1851~1887) was one of the more colorful poker players of his day, and he did not abide rule-breakers. In one game, a reputed bully named Ed Bailey picked up the discards and looked through them, which is strictly forbidden and subject to forfeit of the pot. Holliday warned Bailey once, and when he did it again, the “Doc” warned him a second and final time.

Bailey was spoiling for trouble, so on the very next hand, he picked up the discards once more. Without saying a word Holliday reached across the table and raked in the pot, not even bothering to show his hand. Bailey pulled a pistol out from under the table. Holliday drew a long knife. Before the trigger could be pulled, Doc demonstrated how he earned his nickname, disemboweling the bully.

Today, many old-school Poker players still think anything short of outright cheating should be allowed at the table. However, the card rooms of modern casinos have evolved standards that even novice players need to follow.

For example, modern Poker rooms do not allow players to just walk in, sit down, and play. Signing in with the room manager is required, followed by waiting to be called to an open seat. Once seated, changing seats is not permitted without leaving the game. Even when playing Poker online, it may be possible to join a table only between deals, and moving to a different seat will require leaving the game.

Each Poker table has its own posted minimums and maximums for buy-ins and well as for betting. Some games are “limit” games that restrict how much may be bet; others are “pot limit,” meaning no more than what is already in the pot can be bet. Many tables have “no limit” wagering, but even those games are played as “table stakes,” meaning only the chips on the table can be bet, unlike Blackjack, which allows the purchase of additional chips mid-hand.

Players are responsible for knowing when it is their turn to bet, and betting out of turn is poor Poker etiquette. When checking, folding, or wagering, clear gestures must be accompanied by verbal declarations. Raises must be made in one motion. “String betting,” i.e. going back to the stack for more chips to increase a raise, is not permitted.

For bets, calls or raises, chips should be neatly stacked and pushed toward the pot. The dealer can be trusted to see that the amount is correct before pulling the chips into the pot. Tossing chips into the pot is a breach of etiquette in a Poker room, called “splashing.” Of course, chips may never be removed from the table during play, a prohibited practice known as “ratholing” or “going south.”

Peeking at another player’s cards, or trying to, may be annoying, but it is not forbidden. It is every player’s responsibility to protect her/his cards at all times. Once hole cards have been looked at, they should be placed on the table face down, not held in one’s hands.

Of course, creasing or bending the cards is not permitted. When folding a hand, it should be pushed toward the dealer face down, not turned over. And during the final showdown of a hand, “the cards speak for themselves.” The dealer declares the winner. A player who announces a straight or a flush when holding a straight flush, or jokingly says “I have two pair” when showing four-of-a-kind, is held to the devalued hand.

There is never a bad time for good manners at the card table. Because Poker is a social occasion, talking politely at the table is not only allowed, it is part of the game, as players try to gain knowledge about their opponents. One should speak, however, in the primary language of the table, not a second language. And taunting, gloating, foul language, or outward displays of anger may result in ejection, but probably not disembowelment. Guns and knives are no longer allowed at the tables.

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