Your first time in a poker room can be an intimidating experience. There are so many points of procedure and etiquette that you may not be accustomed to from your online or home game.
Rest easy knowing that everyone sitting in a poker room was just like you once — a mix of excited, nervous and confused. This episode of the podcast is dedicated to prepping you for the experience and getting you familiar with what will be expected of you when you sit down for the first time.
Welcome to Live Poker
Coach Doug Hull opens with a great story about encountering what was obviously a novice poker player wandering around the room confused. Hull offered to help and asked what game he wanted to play. “Poker,” he responded.
Hull asked how much money he had. “Twenty bucks,” was the reply!
Hull suggested he go buy a poker book and come back later.
You are hopefully not as green as this guy was, but make no mistake, there is a learning curve when transitioning to live poker. Thankfully, most people are there to help you out, so there’s no reason to fear live poker. It’s best to jump right in, and we’ll share some tips to make that jump more comfortable by knowing what to expect.
Locate the Action
The first thing you have to do is find the card room. Dedicated poker rooms are out there — most commonly in California. To find the poker room in a casino, there are usually plenty of signs, but you can bet it’s probably tucked away in some remote corner of the casino.
Next, you need to find the signup desk. It’s usually pretty obvious and looks like a hotel check-in desk. You might see the wait lists on monitors nearby, these list — unsurprisingly — the order in which players will be assigned seats at the tables as seats become available at the limits they signed up for (more on that in a minute).
If you’re having trouble finding the sign-up desk, approach any of the floor staff in a suit and they will point you in the right direction.
Once you approach the desk, you’ll want to sign up. Rookies say, “I want to play poker.”
What you want to say is something like, “Doug H, 1/2”. They will sign you up on the $1/$2 waiting list as Doug H. Many people use just their initials (DH).
If you notice there is no waiting list for 1/2, you will get a seat immediately. If you sign up and there is no waiting list, you will be seated immediately.
Doug also recommends calling in advance to put your name on the wait list, particularly for smaller poker rooms.
From List to Seat
You will usually be told how long your wait will likely be, and you can always ask. A typical wait is 5-15 minutes. Busier or smaller card rooms can have lists up to 45 minutes or longer. In any case, you are waiting for your name or initials to be called on the public address system, after which point you will typically re-approach the sign-in desk and get a table number assignment. If there is no PA, you’ll need to stay close to the sign-in desk to make sure you don’t miss your name.
Finding your table can be a harrowing experience if you’re new to the room. Ask the person at the sign-in desk or someone on the floor staff (usually wearing a suit) to point out your table. There will usually be a placard on the table with the number visible.
Once you sit down, you’ll need chips to start playing. Casinos have varying policies on this. Many of them prefer that you buy chips before even sitting down. If you are holding no chips when you sign up, you will often be asked to purchase chips before sitting down. In some rooms, such as in the Rio during the World Series of Poker, you will have chip runners to go buy you chips and bring them back. You can also buy chips from the dealer, but this can quickly empty their rack out and slow the game down. So it’s usually best to buy chips at the cage before sitting down.
Doug doesn’t get into the strategy of what to buy in for and why, but offers the guideline to bring what you’re comfortable losing and divide in by thirds, buying in for 1/3rd initially, and if necessary, each time you bust. This is known as having “3 bullets”. (Make sure it’s at least the table minimum.)
Playing your First Casino Hand
Many casinos will deal you into the next hand once you’ve sat at the table. Some will ask you to post the big blind, or offer the option to wait until you’re the big blind.
Next thing is to look at your cards. I know, it seems obvious, but Hull sees players screw even this up. Don’t pick your cards off the table, ever. Keep most of them touching the felt and lift up just enough to see. Other players will take peeks at your hole cards if you let them.
Don’t hide your cards — make sure they’re visible or you’ll cause confusion.
If you’re new to this, look at your hole cards right away. Coming from home games, the casino will seem fast, coming from online, it will seem really slow. Either way, looking at your cards right away will give you the most time to think ahead. Once you’re comfortable, it’s customary to wait until the player to your right acts before looking at your cards to avoid giving tells.
Getting in Action
This is where it can get complicated, but Hull has a way to cut through the weirdness.
Betting can get weird because different casinos have different rules on what constitutes a bet. In some casinos, for example, any forward motion across the bet line with chips in hand is considered a bet, even if you were just moving to count out chips. There are all sorts of arcane rules. Best thing to do is to count chips to the side of your cards, and then push it in with one fluid motion. This avoids almost any confusion.
Another thing you might see is the straddle. You might not be used to this in a home or online game, but a straddle is usually a blind bet by the player to the left of the big blind in the amount of double the blind. Think of it as an “even bigger blind.”
There’s also a button straddle, a Mississippi straddle and other more obscure types… Hull discusses them all so you’re not surprised if you see one.
Winning, Tipping, Taking Breaks, Cashing Out
Consider your cards your receipt for the pot. You want to hold on to them until chips are pushed your way. Hull recommends listening to the podcast he did that was specifically dedicated to showdown mechanics.
Remember also that dealers live on tips, just like waiters and waitresses. Hull’s advice: If you win a pot over $10, tip your dealer $1. For bigger pots, show a little love and toss an extra chip their way.
If you want to leave the table for a bathroom or food break, you don’t have to tell the dealer or anything. Just get up and go do your thing. Just remember the ideal time to leave is when you’re a few hands away from the big blind. Those are the least likely hands you’ll be playing.
When you’re ready to head out, rack up your chips. It makes cashing out quicker, the cage people appreciate it, and you won’t drop any on your way out.
These tips will help you sit down and play, but to win, you’ll need more that this. We highly recommend Ed Miller’s The Course, which is a complete guide to beating $1/$2 that you can find in book form in our store, and in video form under our PRO membership.
Good luck out there, happy grinding, and please introduce yourself in our forums to get even more support on your quest for poker greatness.