The Ten Commandments of Poker

Rules to Play By

by Oliver Butterick


Poker Commandments"And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was good."
-- Genesis 1:31

Those who know me know that I am not a religious man. My parents both wish that I was more religious, my father publicly, and my mother, I suspect, in private. Consider this article homage to them. They might look at it as blasphemy, so it’s a good thing that I don’t believe in eternal damnation.

1. Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.
If poker is a (or the) god, then games like roulette, craps, and (heaven forbid) Let It Ride are the various incarnations of the devil. In order to consistently win at poker, it takes hard work, dedication, and patience. In fact, though it’s a game, playing a winning game is not very much fun. You don’t play very many hands, you should continuously study both the game and your opponents, and you do encounter losing sessions. Many winning poker players display an inordinate amount of discipline at the poker table, but none away from it—they go to these other tables to have fun, eventually (or immediately) losing back their poker winnings. Winning poker is also about managing your bankroll, so develop inexpensive hobbies and stay away from the Pai Gow Poker or Pan 9 tables.

2. Thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain.
I’m not saying that you should never swear in a casino. It may be my church, but you couldn’t tell from hearing the way people talk. Rather, this commandment is twofold: 1) Don’t swear if the casino prohibits it. At the Bicycle Casino, for example, you will receive a ten-minute penalty if you use any form of the “F” word during tournament play. And they’re not talking about “Fold.” 2) The spirit of this commandment is not to lose your temper. Often, when an inferior player who made a bad call outdraws a good player, the good player will end up berating the bad player for making such a bad play. Yes, she knows that she has made a lot of money (and will make a lot more) from bad players, and that her berating the player helps to teach him (and others like him) to play better. Yet still the good player breaks this commandment. Remember, the amount of money made at the poker table is closely correlated to your skill level vs. your opponents’ skill levels. Put another way—love thy neighbor, especially if he is a bad player.

3. Thou shalt keep the Sabbath day holy.
Yes, you can play poker on Sundays, but you do need to take a break sometime. Playing poker for eight (or more) hours a day is mentally draining, and you need to make time to reset yourself—relax, spend time with family or friends, and get some physical activity once in a while. Furthermore, it is not uncommon to go on a losing streak that is so bad that, even before you get to the casino, you feel certain that you are going to lose. This is an excellent time to take a break, spend a day not thinking about poker at all, and then spend another day analyzing your game before heading back to the felt. Every day you play, you should feel confident that you are going to win. It’s that whole “power of positive thinking” thing.

4. Thou shalt honor thy father and thy mother.
In the casino, the dealer and the floorperson are your parents. In the larger casinos, they could have hundreds of children acting like whiny, spoiled brats. You don’t have to suck up to them or over-tip, but it doesn’t hurt to be nice to them, or even to learn their names. It can go a long way. Just the other day, I heard a casino host address one of the dealers as “Dealer.” They’re co-workers for Christ’s sake, and the host doesn’t even bother to learn their names? Even if you don’t learn their names and aren’t extra nice, at least learn to pick your battles. Don’t complain about anything and everything, else you’ll suffer the fate of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. One last note, food servers are your stepparents. Feel free to be extra nice, over-tip, and never complain about anything. You want the people who bring your food to like you as much as possible. Or perhaps more accurately, you never want to have your food server upset at you. Think about it.

5. Thou shalt not kill.
At most casinos, you can find a “kill” game, where a player who wins two hands in a row had to put in an extra blind bet that is twice the size of the big blind. This player is “killing” the hand. In many non-kill games, you have the option to kill the hand by putting in a “blind straddle,” or a “live” bet. Don’t do it. Yes, it helps to increase the action at the table, but only at your expense. In general, money that you have to bet before you see your cards is a bad bet, so you want to minimize the amount of blind bets you make. There is an exception to this commandment—if you need to make a play like this to improve your table image, then it might be a good idea. However, in lower limit games, your opponents don’t pay much attention to your table image and in higher limit games, your opponents are too smart to be tricked by an occasional straddle, so it’s best just to avoid it altogether.

6. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
I’m not talking about sleeping with your neighbor’s wife (we’ll get to that one later). Here, I’ll warn against “adulterating” your starting hands with weak cards. Volumes have been written on the topic of starting hands, and there are several good systems out there for the various types of poker. Pick one and stick to it. It is very tempting to start playing weak cards when you see pot after pot going to your opponents who are playing those types of hands and luckily making them work out. In situations like these, it is especially important to play strong starting hands. In fact, you should probably tighten up your starting requirements. The key is that you want to play the opposite of your opponents. If you are playing against a bunch of lunatics, you should play fewer hands, knowing that seeing the flop could get expensive. Conversely, if you are playing against a bunch of rocks, then (and only then) is it okay to start playing a wider variety of hands, but ONLY if you come in for a raise, attempting to steal the blinds.

7. Thou shalt not steal.
Did I just say that it was okay to steal the blinds??? Well, I guess this is one of the commandments that you actually need to break. You still shouldn’t take that which does not belong to you, but when it comes to stealing the blinds, then I encourage a moderate dose. Not to be overused, stealing the blinds is an especially important tool during the middle stages of tournament play. This is when the field usually tightens up, trying to last long enough to make it to the money. Like I stated in the last commandment, if you are playing against a tight field, stealing the blinds is very appropriate, but remember to let the hand go if you’re re-raised or are called and have to face a bet when you’ve missed the flop.

8. Thou shalt not bear false witness.
OK, here’s another commandment that you can break. Total honesty is not rewarded at the poker table. However, neither is lying all of the time. If you’re going to say anything at all about your hand (which you might not even want to do, and that’s okay), you need to mix the truth with dishonesty. If you lie all of the time, it will end up hurting you. Likewise, if you always tell your opponents what you have, you won’t make much money when you make your hand. You want to keep your opponents guessing. The same is true when it comes to bluffing. The best benefit of bluffing is showing your hand so that everyone knows that you bluffed. That way, the next time you have a big hand, you can play it the same way and get paid off.

9. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.
Stay away from other people’s spouses, especially if it’s a dealer’s floor person’s or food server’s spouse.

10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s possessions.
Poker is a game of evaluating situations and making decisions based on those evaluations. Though once in a while you can set up a play and trap a player, most of the time you should react, instead of trying to create situations. For example, when an opponent bluffs you out of a pot, you might feel the need to get those chips back from him as soon as possible. As a result, you make every attempt to engage that person in a pot. Here, you’re not reacting, but instead, you’re trying to create a situation where you can win chips back from someone who beat you—it’s likely that you are not playing your “A” game when you do this. Likewise, let’s say that a well-known loose player sits down at the table (we’ll give him the initials A.T.M.). It seems like everyone has ATM’s pin code except you, and you think it’s your turn in line to make a withdrawal. Again, it’s likely that you’re playing worse since you’ve targeted a single player, when in fact you’re still playing against the whole table. Like I mentioned before, when playing against a loose (and aggressive) opponent, tighten up your starting standards and wait for the right opportunity to snap him off.


Strategy articles by Oliver Butterick:
Poker Jedi Mind Tricks
Poker Commandments
Poker Tournament Survival
Calling on the River



(c) Shirley Rosario

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