The most fun that I ever had playing poker was day one of the WSOP Main Event in 2012. As I blogged about, my first table was a side feature with my poker-author hero Dan Harrington. When I was learning the basics of how to play poker tournaments, I remember lying on the couch in my sorority house between writing classes reading the Harrington on Hold ‘em trilogy. Then, in 2012, I got to check-raise Harrington, who told my husband with a smile on a break (they’d met before through their mutual publisher) “Tell your wife to stop beating me up!”
Besides the fact that I was making big hands, what really made that day so much fun was the social aspect of the table, and the total lack of pretention. I’d guess that every person at that table besides Harrington was playing in the biggest buy-in of their life, and yet we were talking between hands and sharing quirky stories. When Harrington was announced to the whole room and received applause for being a Main Event Champion, he was in the middle of raising. When he got no callers, he flipped over Aces and we all shared a laugh.
No one was hiding behind neon-orange reflective sunglasses, no one was taking two minutes to raise pre-flop. No one was talking about Nash Equilibrium, nor balanced 4-bet ranges. And my guess would be that the four self-professed first timers there have all played it again since.
Recently, I read an interesting interview of Joanne Bartley, marketing manager for PokerStars Women by Barry Carter on Pokerstrategy.com, which closed with this excellent paragraph:
More importantly, marketing the game to be more appealing to women seems to face almost exactly the same challenges as making the game more appealing to recreational players in general. It is about reasserting that poker is a fun social activity first and foremost, and that is something I believe benefits everyone in poker.
So how can we make poker more social? Here are the top five things I think pros can do to make the games more fun for new players:
1.) Ditch the costumes: Unless you’re suffering from the flu (in which case, please stay home!), don’t come to the table with a hoodie covering so much of your face that you could win a costume contest for dressing like a mummy. Don’t wear obnoxious sunglasses with a hat.
Phil Laak took this idea to the utmost the day that he was unrecognizable in full costume as an old man. People that do this might argue that they are pro players getting an edge by camouflaging themselves, but I disagree with this. When I play with someone trying to hide themselves, it actually makes me pay even more attention to the tells they are so desperate to hide.
Wearing sunglasses doesn’t hide stare-downs—if we are in a pot and you’re wearing sunglasses pointed in my general direction, then I assume you are staring at me. Therefore any reaction you think you get out of me is way more likely to be acting than if I felt more comfortable by your lack of a costume.
2.) Stop pretending to be in a bad movie: Of course, as poker players, acting is part of our job description, but there’s no reason to spend 5 minutes staring down your opponent to see if his blinking frequency can confirm that he holds the nuts and you can hero fold the 2nd nuts—because you won’t be folding.
The least fun I ever had playing live was in a $300 heads-up tournament. I have to assume that my opponent had no idea I was a pro, yet he put on sunglasses, routinely took over a minute to raise pre-flop, and would stare at me for over two minutes before deciding to c-bet with a smirk. Later I was told that this guy was a high-stakes heads-up SNG reg online. Wasn’t his perceived edge against me enough to make him feel comfortable, without pretending to audition for a sequel to that ill-fated ESPN show, Tilt? Had I been a recreational player, it could have been my last time playing live.
3.) Don’t take forever to act: This one goes hand-in-hand with the last point. Some players say they do this to avoid timing tells—but guess what—you’re just as balanced if you act quickly instead of slowly, with Rob Salaburu being a prime example of this. Plus, live poker is a very slow game as it is, and it’s difficult to think that every player hating you at your table could possibly be an advantage.
Some of the worst offenders of this are some of the biggest names in poker. It’s seems vicious to me when recreational players are heads-up in a pot versus one of the best players in the world, since they probably feel uncomfortable enough without having to wait 3 minutes for that player to puzzle out his optimal c-bet size.
4.) Never talk strategy at the table: As I discussed in a blog last year, this is one of my absolute biggest pet peeves in poker, and again, it’s a problem where some of the biggest offenders are huge poker names. Nothing makes me lose respect for a player faster than them throwing around mathematical poker jargon at the tables, and it often exposes leaks in their logic that I try to exploit.
An even darker side of talking strategy at the tables is the grotesque display of a pro berating a weaker opponent. I wish that players that do this were not so often exalted in the poker world, and that others will find strategic ways to squelch this awful bullying. If you find yourself wanting to do this at the tables, find a private outlet instead and redirect your wrath towards working on your mental game.
5.) Help your table to be fun: This doesn’t mean you should show up with a rainbow-striped clown wig and dole out animal-shaped balloons—though I would be pretty excited to be at your table if this were the case! Starting conversations as trivial as complementing someone’s witty t-shirt can put players at ease and give them entertainment value that will inspire them to keep playing. Daniel Negreanu is an excellent example of making poker fun, and it has to be a big part of why he is arguably the biggest name in poker.
Many of the above “don’ts” are things that players do to gain an imperceptible tiny edge while they are playing live. From my viewpoint, most of these perceived “edges” have as much chance of backfiring as of succeeding in the short-term that is a single poker tournament.
However, multiplied by the many offending players, these actions are stifling the game of poker, and continue to make the difficulty of the game increase. It’s time for pros to think about the meta-game, and assist in making fun memories for all poker players!