In my last “Casino Poker for Beginners” article, “You Can Say These Words at the Table, But Be Careful When You Do,” I told you about how using certain words — “call,” “raise,” “all in,” and so forth — can commit you to actions that you neither intended nor wanted to make. But this is just one specific type of a common phenomenon, which is player errors.
The fact is, all humans make mistakes in everything they do, and poker is no exception.
Heck, even androids make mistakes at poker.
Commander Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation somehow managed to learn the rules of the game without grasping that players might bluff when holding nothing:
The closest thing our era has to a poker-playing android is Phil Ivey, and even he once famously misread his hand on the biggest stage poker has — a televised feature table at the World Series of Poker Main Event — back in 2009:
See... everyone makes mistakes.
The target readership for this series of articles are people who have played poker online or in home games, but not in a casino. Those venues are very different. In a home game, you probably know everybody pretty well, and there’s probably some good-natured ribbing and trash-talking when somebody screws up, but no serious humiliation. It’s even better online — often nobody will even know you made a mistake, and when they do, they don’t know who you are. You can blip off to another table instantly and pretend it never happened.
A casino poker room, however, is a public place filled with strangers. Nobody likes to be seen doing something stupid in such a setting. But it’s inevitable that you will. Sooner or later everybody makes some sort of bone-headed mistake that is obvious to all the other players. What should you do about it? I think it’s best to have thought about this in advance so that you have a plan ready for how to react.
Let’s consider three examples, each demonstrating a different way to handle making a mistake at the table.
Response #1: Feeling Shame
First, I’ll tell a story on myself. In a small tournament very early in my poker career I called off all of my chips with nothing — not even a pair. Note that I wasn’t making an aggressive but ill-timed bluff. No. I was calling an all-in bet. With nothing. I had misread my hand.
My opponent showed his cards, and I exuberantly turned mine over to show him that my straight had him beat. It was only then that I realized that my “straight” had a gap in the middle of it. All my chips went across the table, and I was out of the tournament.
My reaction? I stood up, turned, and walked toward the exit as quickly as I could, without saying a word to anybody. I was so embarrassed that I thought I could never show my face in that poker room again. I did, though, and if anybody remembered me and my gaffe, they were too polite to remind me about it.
So that’s one way to handle the situation. Not the best, I’ll admit, but not the worst, either.
Response #2: Casting Blame
The second example is a hand I witnessed but in which I was not involved. Player A had been betting, with Player B calling him down. The final board was . Player A bet $40 on the river. Player B thought for a while, with eight red ($5) chips already counted out in his hand, then finally put the small stack of chips down on the table well past the betting line — a clear call. (Not all poker rooms use betting lines to define the geography of a legal bet, but this one did.)
Player B then did something unusual, but perfectly legal: he showed his cards first, rather than waiting for his opponent to reveal his hand. He had , giving him two pair (aces and fours).
Player A had somehow missed Player B’s chips being put out, and mistakenly thought that Player B was folding and showing his cards in surrender, even though Player B’s cards were still lying face-up on the table. Player A then flashed one of his cards to the table — a — then slid both of his cards face-down to the dealer, who stuffed them into the muck. The dealer started pushing the pot to Player B.
At this point, Player A suddenly became agitated, saying that the pot was his. This was confusing to the rest of us, because it sure looked like he had quietly acknowledged having a losing hand and thrown it away. But he insisted that he had had pocket treys for a full house — I think he was probably being truthful about that — and that Player B had folded.
He tried to scoop the pot away from the dealer, who sharply rebuked him. Then he tried to fish his cards out of the muck pile. The dealer covered the pot with one hand and the muck with the other, and called desperately for the floor. The floor made the only ruling possible: the pot went to B, who had the only live hand and was the only player who had tabled his cards (i.e., put them face-up on the table for all to see).
Player A blamed everybody but himself. He said Player B was shooting an angle by not verbalizing his call. He said it was the dealer’s fault for not announcing the call. He accused the floor of favoring Player B, who was a regular in the room. He insisted that obviously he had the best hand, because why else would he make a big bet on the river? Apparently, like Mr. Data, he had never heard of this thing called “bluffing.”
In short, he compounded his mistake by being an ass, when the error was entirely, 100% his own damn fault.
Response #3: Getting On With the Game
The last story is an incident I saw in 2007. One player at the table had never played poker in a casino before. He was faced with an $80 raise. He wanted to see what his stack would look like if he called the bet and lost, so he counted out the $80 and set those chips down in front of his cards, then looked at what was left, and said, "Nope, I don't think I can call you."
But, of course, the act of putting the chips out constituted a call, and the dealer gently informed him that he had already called and couldn't take it back. It was obviously an honest mistake. The guy just said, "Okay, I'm sorry, I didn't know. My fault. Do what you have to do." He lost the hand, bought more chips, and said, "Well, that's one way to learn what the rules are," and laughed at himself.
I’m not particularly proud of the way I handled misreading my hand way back when. I wish I had had the humor and grace shown by the man in my last story. But at least I didn’t stoop to the level of the guy in the second story, making an even bigger fool of myself by lashing out at people who had done nothing wrong.
When you make your first public mistake at the poker table — and trust me, you will! — how are you going to handle the embarrassment? Get mad and make a big scene? Slink off in humiliation? Or acknowledge your error, laugh at yourself, learn the lesson, and move on to the next hand?
Do I really need to spell out which option I hope you’ll choose?
Robert Woolley lives in Asheville, NC. He spent several years in Las Vegas and chronicled his life in poker on the “Poker Grump” blog.