What You Can and Cannot Do at the Poker Table

Join us as we take a detailed look at what constitutes crossing the invisible line in poker.

poker game

In a game of psychological warfare like poker, it seems almost laughable that we can stand around discussing the concept of etiquette with a straight face.

This is, after all, a pastime where deception is key. Where every little trap that we set and every tall tale that we spin can have a significant impact on the money that ultimately goes back into our wallet.

With that in mind, shouldn’t we be looking for every little edge that presents itself to us at the table?

Rules v Etiquette

To answer that question, we first have to make the distinction between the hard and fast rules of poker and the somewhat more abstract subject of etiquette.

While rules are clear, non-negotiable and can incur strict penalties when broken, bad etiquette is a bit more nuanced. It can mean different things to different people and has no fixed consequences per se.

However, just because you won’t be punished for breaches of etiquette, it doesn’t mean you can just do whatever you like. To keep your reputation intact, there are certain lines that shouldn’t be crossed.

Key Point: Rules in poker are clearly defined and will result in penalties when broken. Etiquette is more vague and “breaches” of it are more likely to damage your reputation than be penalised.

Bad Etiquette In Action

“Of course I lied! It’s poker, Phil…”Tony G

The quote above comes from a famous hand between Tony G and Phil Hellmuth on the PokerStars Big Game, which saw the former deliberately mislead the latter by saying he hadn’t looked at his cards.

Facing what he thought was a blind raise, Hellmuth decided his Ace-Jack was easily good enough to move all-in with, but the moment he did, he realised he’d been conned as he was called by Ace-King.

“Let’s bet $100k that if we pooled the top 20 players [they’d say it was bad etiquette],” fumed Hellmuth, but Tony G saw nothing wrong in his actions. “We’re talking about the strength of our hands and I’m selling you [a story]. If you were a professional, you’d pay attention to me looking at my hand.”

Was Tony G In The Wrong?

This situation perfectly illustrates the difficulties we face when defining the concept of bad etiquette. To some, Tony G’s antics constitute angle shooting. To others, they’re merely clever advantage play.

Poker Glossary

Angle Shooting – Using underhanded or unethical tactics to gain an unfair advantage.

Is Hellmuth correct in his assertion that fellow poker pros would call Tony G’s actions bad etiquette? Absolutely. It’s a dirty trick designed to get his opponent to enter the pot under false pretences.

However, did Tony G actually break any of the rules of poker? No, not at all. He merely pushed the boundaries of good taste to a level that only he was comfortable with in order to gain an advantage.

Key Point: Although few would argue against Tony G’s actions in this hand constituting bad etiquette, it’s important to note that he didn’t actually say or do anything that was against the rules.

Slow Rolling The Nut Hand

It is, of course, this issue of good taste that makes the subject of poker etiquette so complex. With no clear-cut rules as to what constitutes too much, it’s down to the discretion of each individual player.

Let’s take the concept of slow rolling for instance. Although widely considered to be bad poker etiquette, it does play a function in the overall meta game and can have a big impact on future pots.

Poker Glossary

Slow Rolling – Intentionally taking an age to call with (or show down) an unbeatable hand.

Sure, it’s an ugly move, but who knows how a well-timed slow roll will affect your opponent? Will they now be gunning for you and enter pots they shouldn’t? Will they go on tilt and play sub-optimally?

Example 1 – Slow-Rolling For Future Gains

It’s for this reason that poker players occasionally slow roll their opponents, particularly in cash games where a sudden rush of blood to the head could potentially wind up costing them vast sums of money.

Shaun Deeb is one poker pro who’s turned the slow-roll into something of an art form. Although a supremely talented player in all facets of the game, Deeb knows the psychological advantage putting his opponent on tilt can have and isn’t afraid to overstep the mark if he thinks it will gain him an edge.

In one hand on Poker Night In America, Deeb asked an all-in Mike Matusow for a count before eventually making his call with quad fives. While the rest of the table erupted with laughter, Matusow certainly didn’t see the funny side as he dejectedly muttered “That’s not fun. Take the f**king pot.”

Were Deeb’s actions out of line? Probably. But he made his move knowing he would sit down with Matusow again on the show and their history could play a key part in future hands between the pair.

Key Point: For many players – Matusow included – slow rolling is considered the lowest of the low and should be avoided like the plague unless you have a very specific reason for doing it.

Example 2 – Slow-Rolling For The Cameras

Of course, slow rolling is just barely on the margins of what is and isn’t acceptable when it serves a clear and obvious purpose. When it’s done purely out of malice, it becomes a different story entirely.

In the 2010 World Cup of Poker, Canadian Darus Suharto thought he was sitting pretty with pocket Kings after he moved all-in over a raise from Sascha Cornils and the German player called a time-out.

Unbeknownst to Suharto, Cornils actually held pocket Aces and his confab with his international teammates was merely showmanship – playing for the cameras before he made the mandatory call.

One man who was distinctly unimpressed with the German player’s actions was British commentator, Nick Wealthall. “He’s just spent his team’s only time-out in order to have a hilarious joke, which is actually pretty pitiful,” was his damning verdict as the huge pot was shovelled in Cornils’ direction.

Is Talking In A Pot Bad Etiquette?

While slow rolling is a level that not all poker players are willing to stoop, one of the more commonly contested areas of poker etiquette is speech play.

Poker Glossary

Speech Play – The art of engaging a opponent in conversation to influence the outcome of a pot

With the things we say during a hand playing a key role in our opponent’s decision-making process, speech play can either talk a player into a bad call when used correctly or give away information when inadvisably deployed. This is one of the key distinctions between great live players and top online pros.

If you’ve ever played live poker in any form, the chances are that for good or for ill, you’ve said things during a hand that have influenced the course of the action. While this is all fine and above board, there are certain things that you should remember before you go running your mouth off at the table.

Speech Play Do’s:
• Feel free to engage your opponent in conversation in a heads-up pot.
• If they’re responsive, ask questions to try and elicit information about their hand.
• When on the receiving end, try to mislead your opponent without getting into specifics.
• Be respectful – if your opponent is not willing to engage, move on and make your decision.

Speech Play Don’t’s:
• If there are other people in the pot, don’t say anything that could influence the action.
• When you’re not involved in the pot, don’t offer your opinion on things until the hand is over.
• Avoid mentioning your specific hole cards as this can break certain casinos’ rules on collusion.
• If you don’t feel comfortable talking about your hand, it’s usually safer to say nothing at all.

When Not To Speak In A Hand

An example of when not to speak during a hand can be found in an encounter between Andrew Black and Matthias Eriksson at the 2006 EPT Baden.

With Eriksson exclaiming “this time I have a good hand,” after Black moved all-in, a third player who wasn’t even involved in the action thought it was a good time to offer his two cents: “Andy doesn’t”.

Although Eriksson did ultimately muck his hand, an incensed Black reprimanded the other player, exclaiming: “You’ve made a comment that could influence the pot. You should know better than that.”

Can You Be Penalised For Talking In A Hand?

In short, yes. While the other areas we’ve looked at in this article are mainly down to personal ethics and won’t result in sanctions, speech play is a topic that straddles the line between rules and etiquette.

A player who repeatedly comments on the action while they’re not involved in a pot may find that they have the floor called on them, with the most likely penalty being that they’ll miss a few hands.

While a player is certainly permitted to talk to their opponent in a heads-up pot, as mentioned above certain casinos have pretty strict rules about mentioning their exact hole cards to prevent collusion.

Should they fall foul of these, the tournament director may elect to check their cards to determine whether they’re telling the truth. If they are, the hand can be declared dead; while if they’re not, the action will be allowed to continue, meaning their opponent will know for sure that they were lying.

Key Point: Getting involved in speech play is only advisable if you’re sure you stand to gain more information than you’ll give away and that you know you won’t be breaking any rules by doing so.

Acting Out Of Turn

Lastly, while we all make mistakes from time to time, you should always endeavour to follow the action and only make a move when it’s your turn to act.

Certain angle shooters will gesture to put chips into the pot before it’s their turn in an attempt to dissuade the betting action in front of them. If done intentionally, this is a highly sketchy move and definitely crosses the line between merely being poor etiquette and intentionally breaking the rules.

As a rule of thumb, if you’re not confident in a live poker environment, it’s usually best to look to the dealer for your cue, as they’ll always announce the betting and indicate the player who’s next to act.

Key Point: Always do your best to follow the betting action in a hand. If you’re unsure whether or not it’s your turn to act, take your cue from the dealer.

How Much Is Too Much?

While every player will have their own threshold for how far they’re willing to overstep the invisible lines of etiquette and how much wrath they’re willing to incur from their opponents, occasionally a hand comes along that’s so rotten it unites the poker community in near universal condemnation.

One of the most notable examples of this came at the EPT Madrid in 2011, where Venezuelan player Ivan Freitez, pulled off what was undoubtedly one of the worst angle shoots in televised poker history.

Facing a river bet from Eugene Yanayt while holding a full house, Freitez announced “Raise… Sorry, call. I don’t speak English.” Tournament director Thomas Kremser was called to the table and advised that while Freitez’s raise had to stand, the last time he made such a move, he did so holding the nuts.

In the end, Yanayt made the call to discover what he already knew – Freitez held a monster and had engineered the “mistake” to deceive him. “I’ve never seen Kremser look so disgusted,” said commentator James Hartigan, with Joe Stapleton adding: “That move was so dirty I need a shower.”

Poker Etiquette – Final Thoughts

Having considered all these examples, hopefully you’ll now have a better understanding of what constitutes bad poker etiquette.

While all of the hands mentioned here are definitely at the margins of what is and isn’t acceptable, the only one that technically broke any rules was the player who spoke during the pot with Andy Black.

Such are the fine lines in this incredibly complex game that we love to play, so be sure to keep them in mind when you next decide how far you want to push your luck – and your opponents – at the table.