Playing for the First Time In a Legal Cardroom

With very few exceptions, poker players take their first poker “baby steps” not in the legal cardrooms of California, Nevada, and an ever-growing number of other states (and countries), but in private games, often held in someone’s kitchen or basement, or perhaps a dorm room at college.

These private games can be a lot of fun. They’re informal, you’re playing with friends or acquaintances, the games themselves are frequently unusual (“the game is 7-card stud, low hole card is wild, you can buy an extra card at the end for $10,” etc.), and “fun with your pals” is usually the priority, not poker (at least until the stakes start getting pretty high).

Eventually, though, many players decide that they’re tired of their game breaking up at 11:30, or of having to clean up afterwards, or only being able to play on Wednesdays, or of the low stakes, or of all the bizarre wild card variations. Or perhaps they haven’t tired of their home game at all, but know they’re going to Las Vegas or Atlantic City and want to play poker during their vacation.

Poker in a legal cardroom is a very different experience from home game poker, and I’ve been getting enough reader questions about this for it to warrant it’s own article. First I’ll describe some of the major differences, and then offer you some tips to make your own first cardroom experience easier.

Difference #1: Strict Rules and Etiquette

In home games, what few rules that do exist usually aren’t enforced. Everyone might know that you’re supposed to wait until your turn before you fold (because folding out of turn gives information to other players that can affect whether they want to play or not), but your friends aren’t going to get on you because you folded early so you could go to the bathroom or make a sandwich.

In a cardroom, the rules are THE RULES. The players expect everyone to know them and to respect them, and it’s easy to become the focus of player disdain and/or dealer warnings if you violate them. It’s no fun to be criticized or laughed at, and such criticism can easily put some players “on tilt” (throw them off and make them play worse).

What makes this even trickier is that many rules vary dramatically from one cardroom to another. For example, in some casinos it’s perfectly ok to take chips in your hand and then rap the table with them, indicating that you’re checking, while in others, that’s considered illegal and you must bet (because you moved towards the pot with chips in your hand).

Another rule that varies a lot is what happens when you put an insufficient number of chips into the pot. Suppose, for example, that in a 15-30 game, when you could either call for $15 or raise for $30, you push $25 into the pot. In some cardrooms, you’re forced to take the extra $10 back and just call. In others, you’re required to add the extra $5 to make it a legal raise. In still others, it would be ruled a call if you put $20 in but a raise if you put $25 in.

These matters aren’t “right” or “wrong,” just whatever the house wants them to be. So it becomes important to learn the local rules.

Difference #2: The Games Played

In home games, it’s very common to play Dealer’s Choice, and the dealer often selects some odd game that he made up. In cardrooms, you’ll only find a few different games, and with the occasional exception of a “rotation” style game where you alternate rounds (that is, a full round of hold ’em, followed by a round of Omaha, followed by a round of 7-stud), usually when you sit down to play in a cardroom, you’re sitting down to play only one game, e.g., “10-20 hold ’em.”

Difference #3: The Stakes and Betting Structure

In your home game, the stakes are set at the start of the night, and they don’t change (except sometimes late at night when the losers want to double the stakes so they can get even).

If the cardroom is moderately large, you’ll probably have an option you don’t have in your home game: how large a stake you want to play for. You’ll see games offered at many different stakes: 2-4 hold ’em, 4-8 hold ’em, 10-20 hold ’em, etc.

This difference can give you some nice flexibility. If the cards aren’t running your way, it isn’t hard to switch to a lower-stake game (although leaving is an even better option, and unlike your home game, where your friends might object to an early departure, in a cardroom you can come and go as you please, winner or loser, and no one will object). If you feel like you’re really “on,” you can go find a higher stake game.

The danger, of course, is that you start losing, and in a desperate and foolish effort to win it all back, you lose much more. In your home game, probably the most you’ll be able to talk your friends into is doubling the stakes. In a legal cardroom, there’s nothing (other than good sense) to stop you from switching from the 5-10 game to the 30-60 game.

Difference #4: Your Opponents Are Better

Unless you play in an unusual or high stakes home game, you probably aren’t used to playing against a table full of tough players. In a cardroom, if you go to one of the higher stake tables, that’s a very real possibility.

If you’re playing at the low stake levels, the players in a cardroom won’t necessarily be very good… although they’ll still probably be better than your home opponents.

Difference #5: The Game Never Ends

The first time my friend Phil Hellmuth played poker in Las Vegas, he played for 70 hours straight before quitting. “I wasn’t used to a game that never ended,” he said. “At home, we either quit at a set hour, or we quit when I busted everyone.” (Phil has won six bracelets at the World Series of Poker so this last claim is very easy to believe.)

If a World Champion like Phil Hellmuth can fall prey to this trap, so can you. Most home players aren’t used to extremely long sessions, and they are used to games that end at a reasonable hour. When suddenly confronted with a game that goes on endlessly (the players change, but the game goes on), they have to find the will to get up and leave.

For some people, getting up and leaving when losing is very hard. For others, getting up and leaving when winning is very hard (although this is less common than a problem leaving while losing). Without the artificial safety net of a predetermined game ending time, you can get yourself into trouble playing too long, getting too tired, and losing too much.

How to Handle the Differences

There are a few things you can do to give yourself a chance to have more fun and experience less stress in your first cardroom experience:

  1. Tell the club manager or floorman it’s your first time, and ask him if there are any unusual local rules. If he has the time (sometimes they are VERY busy and sometimes they have all the time in the world), he’ll be glad to walk you through some of the things that “regulars” take for granted.
  2. Try to watch whatever game you want to play from “the rail” (there may be an actual physical rail, or you may just be able to watch from a few feet away) for a while. Don’t get too close to the players or try to see their hole cards; make it clear you’re just trying to get a feel for the game. If you see something you don’t understand (e.g., why someone had to make a forced bet, why a raise was disallowed, etc.), try to get someone to explain it to you.
  3. If something happens in the game that you don’t understand, ask the dealer to explain it. Don’t worry about looking like a novice; the other players will figure out you’re a novice anyway. Better you should look like a complete novice for half an hour than to make mistakes for 5 hours.
  4. Recognize ahead of time that you’re probably going to make some rookie mistakes, and prepare yourself for the almost inevitable criticism that will accompany it. One thing that will help is recognizing that if the criticizers really were any good at all, they’d keep their mouths shut, because they would recognize that as a new player, you’re probably going to lose. The people who criticize most tend to be the mediocre players who can’t beat the regulars in their game, and so they rather pitifully try to lord it over the newcomers. If you remind yourself of this, you may find yourself laughing at them (silently at least) instead of getting upset.
  5. Set a quitting time and stick to it, unless you find that you’re in a game full of hopelessly bad players who have been losing to you and will almost certainly continue losing to you. You can always come back for more later.
  6. Set a loss limit and stick to it. In home games, you may be used to social pressure to stay to the end of the night, and on occasion that might mean losing more than you’re comfortable with. If you do happen to sit down at a tough table, you might lose pretty quickly. There’s nothing wrong with getting out of there, either by leaving the casino entirely, or by asking to switch to another table.
  7. BE KIND TO YOURSELF. One of my favorite teachers, John Soper, used to snap me out of my self-critical moods, when I’d be castigating myself for not doing something perfectly, by saying “Well, Andy, you were doing that for the very first time. Most people don’t do things as well the first time as they do after they have some experience.” If you follow John’s advice, and don’t expect perfection from yourself the first time you walk into a cardroom, you’ll probably have more fun, and you’ll probably be back, and winning, in the not-too-distant future.