When I’m at the poker table, I don’t show my cards unless I have to. For instance, if I bet and my opponent calls, the rules say I’m obliged to turn them over first. Or if the reverse happens and she shows a hand I can beat, I expose my hand. But if I win because my opponent folds, I wait for the pot to be pushed towards me, then muck my cards face down. If the other player has to go first and shows a better hand than mine, I do the same thing.
This is not unusual — most players don’t expose their hands because it gives away information about how they play, and the better your opponents are, the less you want them to know about your strategy.
The other night, I was in a hand against a player in his early twenties who was fairly aggressive but not that difficult to read. I mostly stayed out of his way, but got tangled up with him in one hand. I called his bets on the flop and turn, but folded when he bet again on the river because I knew I didn’t have the best hand.
As he pulled in the chips, he asked me if I’d had a pair of tens. I told him I didn’t remember, a not-so-subtle way of saying I wasn’t going to divulge any details of my play. But he didn’t take the hint and kept asking, even telling me what his cards had been and why he’d bet so much on the river.
I nodded my head, then told him I have a don’t ask/don’t tell policy — I’ll never ask what you had, and I’ll never reveal what I had. He replied, “So, you didn’t have a pair of tens?” That’s when the guy sitting between us, a pro in his mid-thirties who’d been silent the entire evening, turned to my opponent and said, “He’s not going to tell you, and it’s very rude to keep asking. Let it go.”
The twenty-something player was taken aback. He’d never considered that he’d crossed an etiquette line. After letting it sink in for a few seconds, he looked over at me and said, “Sorry.” I replied, “No problem,” and we moved on. Lesson learned.
The whole thing reminded me of an encounter I had a decade or so ago while playing in a cash game in Las Vegas.
As I sat down in Seat 2, I looked around the table to size up my competition. Several of them looked like local grinders (bad), a couple of them looked like tourists (good), there was a drunk Englishman in Seat 8 who was clearly there to have a good time (excellent), and a guy who looked to have just turned twenty-one on my right in Seat 1.
I try to be sociable at the poker table, so I talked a little bit to this young guy who was very nice. It turned out he had moved to Vegas a month earlier to play poker for a living. As I watched him play, it was clear he knew what he was doing, so I made a mental note not to get involved in too many hands with him. There were weaker players to target instead, especially Drunk Englishman.
After an hour or so, Drunk Englishman, who was playing almost every hand, caught a miracle card on the river to beat Seat 1. Not only did Seat 1 lose the big pot, he also lost his temper, and started berating the Englishman for his poor play. Drunk Englishman responded with lines like, “Hey, I’m just trying to have some fun!” but Seat 1 would have none of it, and kept loudly explaining to Drunk Englishman how badly he’d played.
Under the table, I tapped Seat 1 on the leg a few times until he turned to me and barked, “What?!?” That’s when I advised him: “You have to learn not to do this.” Still pissed off, he asked what I meant.
I explained, “You’re right that Drunk Englishman played the hand very badly. Unfortunately for you, he got lucky. But you want him to go on having a good time and making bad decisions. Even when he beats you, you should encourage him and be as nice as possible. Otherwise, if you yell and call him names, he might get up and leave this table, taking that big stack of chips and cash with him. If that happens, you’ll never get a shot at winning it back. If this is your job, act professional at all times, especially towards tourists who are enjoying their free alcohol a little bit too much. In the long run, the more mistakes they make, the more money you make.”
I could see the light bulb going on over his head as I spoke. He calmed down, apologized to Drunk Englishman, who was happily ordering another drink, and we all went back to having a friendly game of poker.
By the way, I wasn’t just telling Seat 1 this so that he’d have another chance at Drunk Englishman’s stack. I may be just a recreational poker player, but I wanted those chips, too. Fortunately, I got my opportunity about a half-hour later when Drunk Englishman made another horrible play. This time he didn’t get lucky, and I won a massive pot.
Seat 1 turned to me and said, with a tinge of jealousy, “Nice hand.”