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Table Talk

To Speak or Forever Hold Your Tongue? Table Talk in Poker

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Will Kassouf was a lightning rod at the WSOP Main Event this year due to a variety of tactics he employed, including his often painful slow and deliberate play. But what really got under the skin of some players, and many viewers, was his habit of talking to opponents during hands. While some, like his countryman Andrew Christoforou, seemed to treat the exchanges as sport, others were incensed. Floors were called, lengthy side debates engaged, and players and commentators weighed in with varying perspectives on the legality, effectiveness, and morality of Kassouf’s tactics.

While the merits of Kassouf’s specific antics could be addressed ad nauseum, the more global issue is whether, and to what degree, table talk is appropriate or advisable at the poker table. Given the amount of air time that a player who did not even reach the final table received, one can anticipate there will be players in future televised tournaments latching onto Kassouf’s techniques for more self-aggrandizing, and less strategic, reasons. Anyone who has ever played in a cash game or tournament has encountered players in love with the sound of their own voices. Some are good-natured, others less so.

What are the Rules?

Casinos and card rooms vary in what they will allow in terms of talking during a hand. There are generally strict and understandable limitations of table talk when there are more than two people in a hand. Trying to goad another player into an action is not fair to others in the hand. Even if there are only two players in the hand, there can be explicit limits. At the card room I most frequent, the rules are liberal about what can be said during two-handed cash play, but in tournaments you are explicitly banned from discussing a live hand in any way.

Clearly at the WSOP that level of rigidity does not apply. Kassouf was allowed to openly speculate on other’s holdings and to try to extract information from his opponent. That is, until his talk crossed some seemingly subjective standard of “too much and too often.” Kassouf and Jack Effel’s televised interchange underscores another important tenet: tournament directors have to make judgement calls for the good of all players. And what they say goes.

Why are You Doing It?

When you engage in banter with players actively in hands, you should ask yourself: why am I doing this and what am I hoping to achieve? If you cannot answer those questions, you should probably stop speaking because you are likely talking due to some characterological need rather than an advanced poker strategy. If your goal is to get a read on a player, you should have a reasonably firm grasp of tells (peruse Mike Caro’s seminal works on tells at minimum) and have a decent sense of how this specific player would respond to your fishing mission. Without a game plan, engaging in chatter is likely more an exhibit of your own anxieties than it is helpful to your cause.

Perhaps your goal is to engage in a campaign to put a thin-skinned, volatile player on tilt. We’ll discuss the morality of this action later, but can likely agree that playing poker is not joining the Peace Corps. There is a measure of gamesmanship that is allowable and perhaps expected. A player who can stay cool and logical while someone else is slamming his hand on the table and swiftly retreating to a calming nicotine oasis clearly has an edge. There is a perverse delight in telling someone “I know you missed your draw” and then calling their bet with bottom pair, or to showing a bluff to their fold and uttering patronizingly “Ah, there’s no way you could call that, probably the right lay down most of the time.”

Are You Any Good at It?

It is hard enough to assess how good we are at poker in general, never mind how our verbal exchanges are enhancing or undermining our outcomes. However, if you have passed the threshold above and know why you are talking, you need to evaluate whether that talk is yielding positive results.

If you take notes on your play for later review (and if you don’t, you should), include descriptions of the nature of your table talk, your goals, the reactions of other players, and your outcomes. The outcomes should not only include the proximal – what happened in that hand (e.g., was your desired outcome achieved) – but also the potential ramifications of that action long-term (e.g., did this early action backfire later resulting in an unwanted call by a player who was irritated with you). If you frequent the same cardrooms and engage with a generally finite set of players, you also need to think about how your play on a given night might affect your long-term image and how that image will impact the future actions of others.

Even if Legal and Effective, Is It Right?

While we can fall back on the A League of Their Own quote and say “There is no crying in poker!” poker is still a game played in civilized settings that can only thrive if it does not become a hostile environment. Just last week Heather and I were playing in a tournament where a shoving match started between two large men. Floors jumped in to separate them, security and local police were summoned, and both men were escorted from the room. No one wants their poker game punctuated with “and then charges were filed.”

So there have to be standards, perhaps normative and unwritten, supported by the wide body of players at a venue, but existing nonetheless. Those accepted codes may vary from room to room, but it is clearly overstepping decency to engage in personal insults, racist or sexist remarks, or general disregard for the physical and mental space of other players.

 

So before you become a dyed-n-the-wool Kassoufite, have a game plan and a set of internal limits for your actions. Otherwise, you’ll likely gain more animosity than profit from your poker activities.

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Paul Gearan

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