Updated: Jun 6
Poker can be an ultra-competitive battle, but it is also a gentleman’s game. There are a series of unwritten rules that every player should know to follow. One might initially enter the poker ecosystem with a “win at any cost” mentality, only to realize that ignoring important rules of etiquette is short-sighted at best and unethical at worst. The reality is that in most poker rooms, one will be seeing the same players over and over again, and reputation matters. Once your reputation is tarnished, you’ll no longer enjoy the vibrant social atmosphere that live poker offers, and it likely won’t be possible to be invited to private games. I recently surveyed a group of poker players on the worst forms of poker behavior that they frequently see. Here are the top five behaviors to avoid:
5. Delaying turning over cards at showdown to gain extra information
We’ve all seen this one before: A player gets caught bluffing and does not want to show their hand. The rule is that you can either muck your cards or table them if you’d like to see your opponent’s hand. What trickier players like to do is announce “I missed” or “You’re probably good” and wait for the other player to show them what they called with. Very often, the player who called is just happy to take down the pot so they table their hand. But it’s also common for there to be a stand-off where neither player turns over their cards and the game is slowed to a halt. The reality is that the player that was called does not deserve free information about their opponent’s hand without tabling their own hand. They should either muck their cards or table their bluff quickly to avoid slowing down the game. If the player who made the call refuses to show their cards until the other player shows, this is not bad etiquette. It’s just a form of adhering tightly to the rules. The delays get out of control the most in multiway pots when players simply won’t turn over their cards when it is their turn to do so, either because they are embarrassed to show trashy hands or because they want to gain information for nothing.
4. Slow-rolling: Misleading another player to think they won at showdown
For some players, there is nothing more tilting than being slow-rolled. This is another form of an opponent delaying turning over their cards once the betting is complete at showdown. But this one has a more malicious twist than #5, because this time, the player that is delaying knows they have the best hand. They are essentially trying to get the other player’s hopes up about winning the pot, only to reveal the bad news to them on delay. It’s possible that no form of poker etiquette has led to more fights than slow-rolling. With that said, it’s hard to put slow-rolling in the top three, because it doesn’t unfairly impact the outcome of the hand (it just adds a layer of hostility after the hand is over). Nobody really minds when a player slow-rolls the same hand as them because this results in a chopped pot and can be a source of humor at the table. But against all but the most care-free of poker opponents, the slow-roll of a winning hand is definitely ill-advised.
3. Going north: Buying in for an amount significantly greater than the table maximum
This one is hard to enforce because dealers are often preoccupied with other things, and they don’t have the bandwidth to count each player’s stack every time new chips are added. This creates a loophole where some players think they can ignore the table maximum when it serves them. For example, if a bad player has a big stack at the table, it can be unfortunately common for players to add on chips to their stacks above the maximum buy-in which they haven’t earned through the game. This will allow them to make more money in the event that they play a big pot against the bad player. Incredibly, there have even been players who did this and then had the audacity to call the floor against themselves while in the middle of the hand when it was no longer advantageous to have this many chips (for example if they were facing a big bet with a bluff-catcher and preferred a shorter stack to limit their downside exposure). There are certainly degrees to going north, and some games are more relaxed about this than others. But everyone knows when a player has clearly crossed the line.
2. Hiding chips
Have you ever seen a player go all-in and hide a big chip at the bottom of their stack? Or lump a $500 purple chip in the midst of a few black $100 chips so the colors blend together? It is the dealer’s job to spot this, and technically the other player can always ask for a count just to be sure. But everyone knows it shouldn’t have to come to this. Players should be transparent about how much they are betting so their opponent has a fair opportunity to make an informed decision. A related problem to this is when players cover their chip stacks with their hands so their opponent has no idea what they are up against. Some players even get offended when a player asks, “How much are you playing?” as if they are being sized up as an intimidation tactic. The reality is that it is within their rights to know how much they are up against because stack size is such an important variable in planning out your hand and choosing the most profitable line. Thankfully, online poker players don’t have to deal with this (they have enough etiquette problems on their plates already).
1. Discussing poker hands before the hand is over and influencing action
Imagine you are faced with a significant all-in bet on the river. As you are agonizing over this tough decision, two players to your right who are not involved in the hand begin whispering loudly to each other things like “I folded quads” or “I don’t think my flush is any good here”. All of a sudden, this extra information can swing the decision, but it was not yours to rightfully have. Every serious poker player knows the cardinal rule of not talking about the hand while there is still action occurring. The offense can be as egregious as turning over your cards as you’re folding and other players are still involved in the hand. Or it may be a more subtle form of this, like folding out of turn in a multi-way pot (which can also influence the action because now the remaining players know what you will be doing ahead of time which can be unfair to the player who bet with everybody still involved). While it’s fine to be social at the poker table, no matter how you cut it, discussing poker hands while there is still action is a clear violation of poker etiquette and comes in as our #1 breach.
There were a few honorable mentions that didn’t quite crack the top five but are still worth noting:
Hitting and running, or winning a big pot and leaving immediately after, is often viewed as bad etiquette because the player is not giving their opponent an opportunity to win the money back. Typically waiting at least a couple orbits before leaving is a standard courtesy. A hit and run often leaves a bad taste in any competitive person’s mouth, but it is unfortunately well within the rules for players to leave at any time during cash game poker. It is better to view poker as one long session and to recognize that players who hit and run to preserve a fleeting momentary victory will often be back later that week to continue the long session.
Berating another player after a hand is also unfortunately still too common in live poker. This typically happens when the player who lost the hand thinks the winning player played poorly and lets them know about it. As every experienced player knows, nothing good ever comes from this. Either the losing player reveals their own ignorance about poker strategy, or even if they were correct, they educate the winning player for free. This type of behavior can even drive players away from wanting to play again. After all, they showed up for a fun night of socializing only to be yelled at, sometimes by a total stranger. The only reason this did not make the top five is because it usually hurts the player who is doing the berating more than it hurts the player that is being berated in the long-run as it exposes their thought-process and potentially provides poker tips for free.
Also, asking another player what they mucked immediately after beating them in a big pot is a good way to get on somebody’s nerves. It’s usually best to give the other player some space after a big hand, and certainly not to pry for additional information after you’ve already won the pot. It goes without saying that excessive celebrations after winning a big pot are violating the same principle. It’s important to recognize that if you are in poker for the long haul, you’ll be at both ends of winning and losing big pots quite often, so you should have some empathy for your opponent’s experience (you’ll be in the same shoes soon enough).
Lastly, checking out of turn nearly made the list, as some players knowingly like to do this to feign weakness and induce their opponent’s aggression. But ultimately, this doesn’t even come close to making the cut because it’s an exploitable tell. On average, when a player is a repeat offender of this, you can save money and recognize that their hand range is stronger than average when they check out of turn. As long as the dealer keeps their wits about them and follows proper procedure, the player doing this is really only costing themselves money in the long-run.
More severe forms of outright rule-breaking like collusion, marking cards, angle shooting, and other forms of cheating were not covered in this article because you won’t see them nearly as often in live poker as the previously mentioned behaviors (unless you are running bad with game selection).
And that’s all for now! By avoiding these forms of bad poker behavior, you can enjoy the unique social environment that live poker has to offer. This will create a much more fulfilling, long-term poker experience than a "win at any cost" mentality.
Want to continue the discussion? Contact Joel Wald today at firstname.lastname@example.org or book a free 30-minute Zoom call to discuss how PTO Poker can help you achieve your poker goals!