Mouths and Brats: Etiquette at the felt

Mike Matusow
Normally Mike Matusow isn't the voice of reason when it comes to proper etiquette.

Irony got quite a bit of a workout when Mike Matusow became the spokesperson for poker etiquette last week on Poker After Dark.

It's not a role Matusow usually embraces. However, after Dewey Tomko complained that he gets very irritated when players repeatedly ask for a chip count, Matusow weighed in that it was poor etiquette (indeed, bad manners) to make such a request.

He mentioned how he had recently been playing Phil Hellmuth, who asked him "every single hand, how much do you have?"

And flashing back to the 2008 Main Event, who can forget Tiffany Michelle responding to a chip count request by swirling her manicured finger over her chips, a move that struck some viewers as a tad snarky?

Was her gesturing an appropriate response or similarly tacky? Should she have just leaned back from the table and let everyone figure out for themselves how many chips she had? That seems to be the general view.

From the Hevad Khan celebrations of 2007 and the bratty Hellmuthian explosions of every year, to the french fry-eating of Michelle, there are a number of behaviors at a poker table that are not necessarily against the rules, but are nevertheless viewed as bad etiquette or poor sportsmanship.

Giving information about your folded hand

The right to remain silent becomes more of an obligation when you have folded your hand but there are other players still in the hand. In order to ensure the fairness of the game, the basic requirement is not to speak about a hand while it is in progress and definitely not to give away any information that could affect its outcome.

This bit of etiquette was broken, loudly, early in the 2005 WSOP Main Event. Then-chip leader Mike Matusow was heads-up to the flop against amateur Michael Kessler, after Shawn Sheikhan had folded on the button.

After the flop came, Sheikhan pounded the table and stood up angrily, signaling that the flop would have hit him. Matusow rightfully complained, and Sheikhan was given a well-deserved penalty.

The deke or pump fake

String betting is a very familiar maneuver, considered a misleading bet because it involves acting as if you are going to call and then raising, and against the rules in most poker rooms. It is often used to get a read on the other players, to see how they react to your initial action. Other times, it can be a simple mistake.

The rule is that all chips must be bet at once or the total amount verbally declared at once. But what about more nebulous betting conduct?

On Day 6 of the 2008 WSOP Main Event, Nicolai Losev was heads-up against Brandon Cantu. With more than $3 million in the pot, Cantu checked the river. Losev pushed out $3 million, then pulled the stack back and peeled off just $1.5 million.

Cantu and others at the table thought it was a string bet, a forward motion that committed Losev to the bet. The floor was called and it was ruled that he was allowed to do that - since his hands had stayed on the chips, he had not fully committed to bet.

So, it wasn't against the rules, but was it proper etiquette?

Not according to Cantu, who unsuccessfully argued to the floor that Losev had committed the entire $3 million. Cantu continued to refer to this new tactic as a "pump fake," a popular basketball term that is synonymous with a move that gets the opposing player to commit too soon.  In hockey, it is called a deke.

Noted hockey fan and poker pro Daniel Negreanu said in his blog after the event that the ruling was "a dangerous precedent to set."

Don't show your cards until the hand is over

In the 2008 WSOP H.O.R.S.E. championship, Scotty Nguyen notoriously exhibited behavior which, in the words of poker legend Doyle Brunson, was "a very bad display of poker etiquette." He berated players at the table, engaged in excessive celebrations, drank to excess, talked about hands as they were in progress and seemed to collude to help another player.

Scotty Nguyen
Poor form, baby!

Any one of these might have caused Nguyen to have failed his Cotillion class that day, but for purposes of this example, we focus on the one that he seemed take the most pleasure in - showing his hand to the crowd.

When the match was down to three players, Nguyen was up against Michael DeMichele in a Stud hand. After he bet on seventh street, Nguyen held his three down cards up for the audience to see, showing them he had a king-high straight.

While DeMichele continued to consider his bet, Nguyen then picked up each of his three down cards one at a time and showed them again to the audience, laughing and saying, "That's the joint, baby."

Calling the clock when you're not in the hand

Some people seem to deliberate forever, and during tournaments blinds and antes go up as time passes, so there is a natural tendency to want the action to move quickly. But actually calling the clock on a player, especially when you are not in the hand, takes a lot of chutzpah and very little regard for appropriate table conduct.

On Day 7 of the 2008 Main Event, Scott Montgomery re-reraised Paul Snead all-in on the flop. Snead, holding top pair with a weak kicker, tanked.

The TV airing of the hand showed a few minutes, but those at the scene claim he was pondering his decision - which was for 80% of his stack with 21 players left - for possibly as long as 15 minutes. Then Tiffany Michelle called the clock, saying, "Honey, I'm short and time's running, and you've been taking a long time."

With seconds to go, Snead made the call, and was then famously rivered by a two-outer which cost him nearly all his stack.

Although Michelle was within her rights, she was not technically short-stacked, and she was not in the hand.  Calling the clock on Snead was definitely, as Craig Marquis suggested at the time, "not cool."

Slow-rolling

Slow-rolling is when a player clearly has the best hand but takes an unusually long time revealing it when asked to declare. Often it is a judgment call as to how long is too long to act when you have the nuts. But one example occurred during the 2008 World Poker Open at Tunica, Miss.

Ten-handed, playing down to the final table of nine, Brett Faustman was up against Men "The Master" Nguyen. With the board reading J-T-3-2-Q, Faustman pushed all-in. Nguyen called and Faustman turned over ace-king for the nut straight.

Nguyen did not move, react or say anything, and the crowd started applauding, as they thought Faustman had won and the final table was set.

But Nguyen was not out. He said, "You don't think I've got a hand that can beat that hand?"

Only then did he turn over his cards to show his own ace-king. It was a chopped pot. But karma was kind to Faustman: he went on to win the tournament.

Refusing to show your called winning hand

In Season 3 of Poker After Dark, Phil Hellmuth was heads-up against Jean-Robert Bellande, 8-7 versus 9-8. After the river, the board read 6-Q-9-A-A. Hellmuth bet out $1,500 with just eight-high.

Jean Robert Bellande
Hindsight is 20/20.

After some thinking, Bellande called. Phil said, "You got it; good call," but Bellande refused to show his hand.  So did Hellmuth.

Bellande claimed he did not have to show his, that Phil should throw his cards in the muck and Bellande take the pot without showing his hand.

Hellmuth, while acknowledging that under the rules it was his duty to turn his cards over first, said it was not a question of the rules; it was "proper poker etiquette to show your hand."

Everyone else at the table agreed it was poor etiquette on Bellande's part to refuse to show his winning hand simply because he did not want the other players to know what he was playing. And in the director's cut of the show, Bellande admitted in retrospect he was probably wrong.

It is both the rule, and common courtesy: you want to take the pot on a called hand, you're going to have to show the winner.

Timing is everything

Poker etiquette is not intended to take all the fun and character out of poker. Indeed, boorish behavior is sometimes an effective strategy to put a player on tilt or to get under their skin. But there are some things that have come to be regarded as inappropriate, even in a game that relies so much on psychological warfare.

 

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