Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2008) in Poker Player newspaper.
I caution my students and those who follow my advice to be aware of how they present themselves at the poker table. Good ethics and proper decorum not only enhance the public image of poker but your profit, too.
Today, let’s continue this series of columns in which I get to interview myself, asking and answering my own questions. If you’re ready, I’m going to focus on how you should present yourself at the poker table. Today’s word is “decorum,” and it is an aspect of poker too often misunderstood and overlooked as a method for making money.
Question 64: What’s the wrong way to present yourself at the poker table?
The worst way to present yourself is as an unfriendly foe.
When you ridicule opponents or complain, you make the game less fun for opponents. You might be thinking, “who cares if my opponents have fun?”
Well, you should care. When opponents are having fun, they venture into more pots with weaker hands and you make a whole lot more money.
Question 65: But can’t you make money by intimidating opponents?
Absolutely. But you can be intimidating and friendly at the same time.
When opponents can’t figure out what you’re going to do next, but still enjoy the challenge, you’ve got psychology working your way. But when you intimidate through irritation, when you disparage opposing play, when you get mad if you suffer bad beats, or when you’re sarcastic, that makes opponents less likely to continue mailing you their chips.
They’re intimidated, but they’re determined to fight harder. That’s not what you want.
Question 66: How do you show that you’re looking out for your own best interests without irritating other players?
The fact that you’re looking out for your own best interests isn’t something to be shared with opponents. I tell opponents I’m cheering for them — and I really do it.
Rooting for your opponents won’t change the cards, but if they win, you’ll be on the right side. And if they lose, you get a consolation prize — the pot.
This mental gymnastic has the additional advantage of keeping you from being frustrated by bad beats and losing your composure. It’s a psychological poker decorum trick I’ve been teaching for decades. And it works.
Question 67: Should you always make it as hard on opponents as possible?
Yes and no. Yes, you should always strive to earn the most profit.
And you should never make it easier on your friends than you do on other opponents. I believe, “If you can’t bluff your friends, who can you bluff?” And it’s unethical to agree to “play soft” against certain opponents.
In the old days, proposition players in California cardrooms often made agreements to play soft — not to make it hard on each other. These players, called “props,” were first named such because the early pioneers of the trade approached the cardrooms, offering their services and making their own deals.
Props and shills
Props are somewhat related to what were known as “shills” in Nevada poker rooms. The job of shills was to fill seats at poker tables until actual customers came to play. They would be paid by the casino and compete with the house’s money, often with the understanding that they would play a predefined, very conservative strategy.
California’s props differed in that they played their own money and could choose any strategy they liked. They were paid by the casinos, too, but could keep their winnings and were responsible for their losses.
Fine. But being a prop turned out to be a tough job for some and they went broke by the hundreds. In order to reduce the pressure, many established soft-play agreements, believing this really didn’t hurt the customers who weren’t involved.
But it did hurt. Opponents got mistaken notions of how a prop played when watching the prop-versus-prop interaction. And sometimes a prop’s kindness toward coworkers at the table was transparent to other players, and that led to occasional resentment.
Of course, there are many other players besides props who do special favors for their friends at the poker tables. The point is, you need to go after all the money at the table, no matter who might provide it.
Poker is an individual activity, not a team sport. And treating it any other way hurts the game we are trying to make even more popular and acceptable.
So, why is my answer “yes and no” to this question? We’re addressing, “Should you always make it as hard on opponents as possible?”
Listen closely. There’s a meaningful difference between winning the most money and making it hard on opponents. If you’re at a tableful of loose callers who are giggling and having a great time losing, often it’s not in your best interest to sandbag or use deceptive tactics that might make these opponents uneasy.
While you might earn more money on the current hand, you’ll make your weak opponents less likely to provide profit in the long term. And, worse, they may leave the game or not play against you in the future.
So, it’s sometimes okay to soft play, as long as your intent is to eventually extract the most money possible, not to help an opponent save money.
Question 68: So, could you summarize your beliefs about poker decorum?
Sure. Be friendly, play happy, and bluff your friends. — MC