Poker rules should be simple

This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.

I’ve had the opportunity to create or contribute to at least six poker rulebooks in the last 20 years. Sometimes the job is to merely accept what a casino has already stubbornly decided on, to make minor changes, and to express the rules clearly.

Fine. In CARO’S OFFICIAL RULES OF POKER — a book that I’ve been promising for a long time — I will include sections covering the current rules from major casinos who endorse the book (thus, the “official” in the title), and I’ll try hard to get several casinos to agree on standardized rules. But the main part of the book will be my personally recommended rules, which can be freely adopted by smaller clubs and used in home poker games.

One thing that makes me proud is to see the quest for standardized poker rules taken seriously. Poker will benefit greatly when newcomers can skip from casino to casino without fearing that some little-known rule or some oversight will steal their pot away. Major voices — including Linda Johnson and Bob Ciaffone — have added import to the standardization crusade.

This is not a new effort. Somewhere around 17 years ago, the legendary Eric Drache — who was then running Binion’s World Series of Poker — and I summoned poker industry leaders from across Nevada to a conference at the Bingo Palace (now the Palace Station) in Las Vegas. We didn’t follow through, and not much came of the meeting, except a universal acknowledgment that standard poker rules were the right way to go.

Just a few months ago, three Los Angeles area casinos put their heads together and created standardized poker rulebooks. Which ones? The Bicycle Club Casino, Commerce Casino, and Hollywood Park Casino. Although I wasn’t among the illustrious brain trust that worked on this — a brain trust that included Bob Ciaffone, Bruce Migdal, Sandie Selzer, Randy Kim, Hashem Minary, Phyllis Caro, Steve IIno, Tracy Edwards, Frank VonArx, Jerry Stensrud, and other notables — I was given the honor of checking the final computer draft. You know me, I took that draft and typed in two rules to the tournament section, without even telling anyone. They stayed there in the published version. (The moral is that it’s very dangerous to give Mike Caro a computer draft to proof.)

What two rules did I add? Rule 19 says, “The management does not participate in and cannot rule on any private deals, side bets, or redistribution of the prize pool among finalists.” This simply means that management will not be held responsible for verbal agreements between players, and the reason should be obvious. But far more important to players is rule 20. It says, “Private deals or redistribution of the prize pool that works to the disadvantage of other participants is prohibited.”

That’s an important rule, because it puts on record the notion that tournament poker is an individual endeavor, not a team sport. Prohibited are deals where, say, two of three players decide to spit whatever they win, leaving them free to gang up on the third player who isn’t part of the deal. The rule also serves notice that you can’t make a money deal with someone who is in contention for an overall points championship in a series of events, and then take a dive.

The main thing I want to say about rules is that they should be simple. This will be the guiding force behind my OFFICIAL RULES book. My theory is that elaborate rules that attempt to iron away poker’s wrinkles rarely help more than they harm.

For instance, most players accept as gospel the fact that you shouldn’t be able to re-raise a small all-in raise. They complain that allowing this gives an advantage to a player who has already raised. He may get another chance to raise, rather than being restricted to just calling the trivial amount.

I say, so what?

The few times that this irritation arises isn’t worth having the rule. What newcomers to poker understand and feel comfortable with is: ANY BET OR RAISE CAN BE CALLED FOR THAT AMOUNT OR RAISED A FULL BET. So, in a $10 fixed-limit game, if Allan bets $10, Bob calls, Carl puts in his last $12 (raising $2), then Allan (when the action gets back to him) can call $2 or call $2 AND raise $10, making it $22 total.

Shocking, you say? Sure, that’s the worst case, and you can argue that it’s unfair to let Allan re-raise, but the special rule isn’t worth the confusion it causes. You can bet me that in amateur home games across the country, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Allan could make that raise. Let’s keep rules simple and live with the anomalies. The breaks will even out over time, and they tend to favor no one.

The point is, if something occurs in poker that seems inequitable during a given hand, but puts no one at an advantage or disadvantage over the long run, then we might not need a rule to correct it.

What about miscalling a hand in a showdown? Many players think we need the rule that says that if you overcall the strength of your hand, causing an opponent to pass, then you should forfeit the pot.

I say, why?

Personally, I’m very careful not to overcall a hand, because I think it’s bad sportsmanship. But what are we really accomplishing with this rule? Isn’t it better if players come to the table with the understanding that in poker ANYTHING might be said, but it’s only a hand turned up at the showdown that matters? With this easy-to-understand cards-speak rule, we’re eliminating arguments about who said what, or what you THINK was uttered by your opponent. Hold your hand, look at the showdown, and remember that poker players lie. Simple rule. Why do we need anything more complicated?

And another thing. Half the poker population seems to dwell under the delusion that a forward motion constitutes a bet. Worse, some casinos have an imaginary betting line. If you cross it, your chips are in the pot. You can’t fake a bet. Some casinos even have a REAL HONEST-TO-GOD LINE painted on their table. This way, you and I can argue about whether the player crossed the line or didn’t cross it.

Gosh, why not just a simple rule that CHIPS IN THE POT CONSTITUTE A BET and make an exception for clearly announced “all-in” bets in no-limit games. Most home-game players understand that “chips speak” perfectly well. They’re used starting a bet, hesitating, and reconsidering. They don’t think they’ve bet until the chips hit the pot. And, you know what, their simple, unsophisticated habits make a lot of sense.

Let’s keep poker as simple as possible. In most cases, the easier it is for us to explain the rules to newcomers, the better for poker. — MC

Published by

Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.


3 thoughts on “Poker rules should be simple”

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  1. Mr. Caro,

    Thanks for the quick response. I knew this was bit out of left field, and completely NOT any type of official rule consideration, but was only curious if it had ever been a consideration.

    BTW, recently added your classic Tells book to my collection. Along with the video examples, it’s an even greater weapon.

  2. Mr. Caro,

    Let me begin by saying that your site is a godsend. I’ve been playing fairly seriously for about 10 years, am headed to Vegas in June for you know what and am trying to work on my tourney chops as much as possible in the next couple of months. Your publications are definitely helping me focus.

    Wasn’t sure where else to post this theoretical rules-related query, so figured here was as good a thread as any. Obviously, poker rules have constantly evolved. For example, I know that at one time straights were deemed higher hands than flushes. (right??)

    So what about this?

    Has there ever been a time when what I’ll call a “natural” or “held” hand was deemed superior to the “board playing?” For example in Hold’em, let’s assume it’s heads up. The board is a straight, 5-6-7-8-9. Let’s say player turns up A-J and the other A-9 (no flushes). As opposed to being a split pot, has there ever been a consideration for the fact that the player with A-9 (or A- 5,6,7 or 8)actually has a “higher” hand, as a card he HOLDS is part of the straight? Obviously the best five cards play, but just curious if this has ever been pondered.

    1. Hi, Bill —

      Thanks for joining our Poker1 family and for the compliment.

      As far as I know, the higher private cards (pocket) have never been used to break a hold ’em tie in any major public cardroom.

      You can bet this has been tried in some home games, because there are so many that various rules that occur to us have probably all been experimented with.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

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