Casino Poker for Beginners: When to Keep Your Cards Covered

Casino Poker for Beginners: When to Keep Your Cards Covered

Ed. note: For those who might have missed it before, we're reprising Robert Woolley's series of articles for poker players who are new to live poker. The series is great for newcomers, and likely useful as well to those with experience playing in casinos and poker rooms.

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In the previous "Casino Poker for Beginners" article, I began a discussion of the important concept of "protect your hand." The phrase has several different meanings in poker, a few of which I covered there.

Let's finish up the subject of poker room cards with a three more examples of situations when it is important to protect your hand.

Don't Walk Away

Several pop music songs have used those words as a title, including ones by Jade and Michael Jackson, but what I have in mind is simpler — don't walk away from the table while in the middle of a hand of poker. That may seem like advice so obvious that it should go without saying, but I've seen it happen more times than you might believe.

Perhaps the most common situation is when a player is all in with one or two community cards yet to be revealed, he sees his opponent's cards, and the situation looks hopeless. He turns and leaves the table in disgust.

But then some miracle occurs — he catches the one card that gives him the winner, or the board plays out in such a way that the players split the pot. If the unexpected winner has left, nobody is going to feel an obligation to chase him down and invite him to claim his chips and keep playing.

I've also seen a few cases not involving showdowns in which a player steps away from the table in the middle of a hand, say, to take a phone call or throw something in the trash. He is gone only briefly and fully intends to return, but the dealer looks around, sees him gone, and mucks his cards.

Stick around until the hand is over, and you won't risk having this embarrassing situation occur.

Off the Table

Occasionally one or both of a player's cards will end up on the floor. Most frequently this is because the dealer's pitch catches an odd updraft and the card sails past the player. When that happens, it's treated in the same way as if the card had landed on the table face up. The standard card-replacement procedure is used.

But if a player's card(s) end up on the floor by any means other than the dealer's fault, his hand will be declared dead. This is a security measure to prevent any sleight-of-hand artists from making a card switcheroo while pretending just to be picking up a stray card.

The most common way I've seen a card get to the floor is by the player throwing his cards down forcefully onto the table. One or both of them take an odd bounce and go flying. Sometimes this happens because the player in question is angry — say, when all in before the flop and turning over kings only to see his opponent has aces. But it also happens when the player with the superior hand is so excited about the prospect of winning a big pot that he slams his cards down in his exuberance.

The preventive medicine here is both simple and obvious. If you don't pick your cards up off of the table, you can't be tempted to throw them back down. When it's time to reveal your hole cards, simply flip them over without picking them up.

Dealer Errors in Hand-Reading

The last aspect of "protect your hand" I'd like to cover refers to what happens at the end of a hand of poker. If the dealer is following the standard training, the sequence of events is…

  1. kill the losing hand(s)
  2. push the pot to the winner
  3. move the "dealer" button
  4. drop the rake
  5. muck the winning hand
  6. begin the scramble/shuffle for the next hand

Notice here that if the dealer is taking away your cards after the showdown, but before the pot has been awarded, that means that he sees your hand as a loser to be mucked. The vast majority of the time, this will be correct.

But once in a while, the dealer will have misread the situation, and will incorrectly kill the winning hand. You need to be vigilant about this. If you think you have the winner, and the dealer is taking your cards away, you must speak up quickly and forcefully to prevent it.

Fortunately, if you're a little slow to react, the situation is remediable. Unlike other situations we've been discussing, here the problem occurs after your cards have been properly placed face up on the table.

That means that you will have multiple witnesses to what your cards were even if the dealer mistakenly buries them in the muck pile. And in the worst-case scenario, even if nobody else was paying attention, the poker room management can resort to the ultimate witness to sort things out: the overhead security cameras.

But such remedies are potentially contentious and always time-consuming, so it's best to prevent the problem by quick reaction when you see it about to occur.

Dealer Errors in Awarding the Pot

Look again at that list of dealer procedures at the end of a hand. You'll notice that steps (3) and (4) put a few seconds of delay between steps (2) and (5). This is deliberate. If it's done right, only one player's cards will still be face up and in front of him at the end of step (1), so there is no dispute about where the pot must go.

Casino Poker for Beginners: When to Keep Your Cards Covered 101
Only the winner's hand should be face up before the pot is awarded

Unfortunately, not all dealers are properly trained in the standard order of doing things. I've seen dealers muck all the cards at once, then push the pot to the player he thought was the winner. But this method is fraught with potential for mistakes.

You can prevent problems at this stage of the procedure by the simple expedient of keeping a finger on your face-up cards until the dealer is pushing the pot your way.

I think of it as a trade: cards for the pot. My cards are my evidence that the pot rightly belongs to me, and I relinquish them to the dealer only in exchange for the pot. If I think I have the winning hand, I do not surrender my cards until the chips are being pushed in my direction.

Mistakes in awarding the pot are not common, but they happen often enough, and cause enough emotional strife to make it worth putting in place habits that will help prevent disaster when they occur.

And with that thought, we have concluded our examination of what every player needs to know about poker room cards and their associated rules and procedures.

Robert Woolley lives in Asheville, NC. He spent several years in Las Vegas and chronicled his life in poker on the "Poker Grump" blog.

  • For new players, more about handling the cards, including times when you should keep them covered.

  • Casino Poker for Beginners: Cards going off the table, errors in reading hands/awarding pots & more.

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