“Shhh! Poker Game in Progress”: Table Talk Do’s and Don’ts

Table Talk Do's and Dont's

Some things are unequivocally bad for poker. Cheating. Tanking for routine, inconsequential decisions. And slow rolling.

Some things are unequivocally good for poker, like loads of new players coming into the game or, at some point, the availability of online poker throughout the United States.

And some things are more mixed. Take, for example, talking at the table in a brick-and-mortar card room.

Live poker is social, which means conversations will be (and should be) taking place. And in an era where most people are transfixed by their smart phones, face-to-face human interaction — also known by the formal term of “chatting” — must surely be a good thing, for poker and for humanity.

And it is. But not unequivocally so.

Discussing the weather, the movie you saw last night, the basketball game that’s going on right this minute while you’re playing $1/2 no-limit hold’em, even politics (within reason)... all of these subjects are perfectly fine to talk about and a great way to enjoy the game while you’re not in the middle of a hand.

But other kinds of talking are bad, ranging from that which is explicitly forbidden by the rules of the game to that which is (merely) bad poker table manners to that which is bad for the game in a more far-reaching sense.

Sitting atop the list of table talk “don’ts,” talking about a hand in progress is completely taboo. Whether you are in the hand or out of it, do not speculate about your opponents’ holdings in a way that gives anyone information. Do not provide a play-by-play on the community cards or the action.

I know a guy who routinely says cringe-worthy things like “Uh-oh, three spades. I smell Mr. Flushy!” Yes, you’re right to be embarrassed for him.

When you talk about the flop, you give players information to which they’re not entitled, thereby violating the one player per hand rule. You could easily “lose” a hand for another player — not cool!

Asking legitimate questions out of turn is also a no-no. Asking “How much do you have behind?” when there are three active players to your right is also not cool. At best, it’s bad etiquette; at worst, it’s shooting an angle. Even saying “Dealer, how much is the bet?” is crossing the line when there are players yet to act in front of you.

These concepts definitely apply to multi-way situations. In heads-up pots, the rules are relaxed, but some card rooms and tournaments do not allow chatting about the contents of your hand even then.

Criticizing players before, during, or after a hand is also off-limits. Most rooms have rules about abusive behavior, but it’s “legal” to say snide or smarmy comments like “Keep playing that hand, buddy” or “How on earth did you call four bets with 8-5 suited?” And plenty of players are much more venomous than that when it comes to their opponents (“you freakin’ donkey!”).

Isn’t it obvious by now that berating players is not just rude but also unprofitable? In fact, it is unprofitable in two ways. For one, it might encourage your opponents to start playing better right then. And secondly, it certainly discourages recreational players from coming back to the card room at all. No one likes to be berated, and it will never add to their enjoyment of the game.

Castigating a player or his play is simply indefensible.

In the same vein, talking poker strategy at the table is also a bad idea. Obviously, talking strategy is not against the rules (except, of course, during a hand). But why would you advertise to your opponents (1) how much you know about the game or (2) how you play?

I’ll tell you why players do it: Because they want to be seen as smart. Trust me, if that’s important to you, try to start a conversation about Martin Heidegger or Winston Churchill or string theory. But don’t talk poker in a way that shows you know what you’re doing.

Talking strategy is one of the great pleasures of poker life, but do it away from the table.

Along the same lines, justifying your action post-river is poor form. “But I was in the big blind!” “Pot odds!” You’ll hear pleas like that from time to time when someone sucks out and is stacking a big pot with a chagrined-but-happy smile on his face. There’s no need to explain anything at the poker table. You want chips, not a shiny star for effort.

And finally, if you do talk poker — strategy, tactics, theory — know it well enough to learn the lingo and sound convincing. I still think talking about strategy at the table is a foolish idea, but some of you will want to engage on the subject with your opponents. So take Robert Woolley’s advice from earlier this week in his article “Why the Words We Use Matter in Poker” and learn the buzzwords, the jargon, and the concepts well enough to be coherent.

As the old adage puts it (generally attributed to Mark Twain), “Better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.”

Poker — live poker at any rate — is fundamentally a social game, and if you spend much time at the table, you will engage in conversations all the time, some of them surprisingly interesting and entertaining (and some, sadly, mind-numbingly boring and distracting).

But keep the poker talk to a minimum, in keeping with the rules of the game and everyone’s shared mission of bringing more people into the game.

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