Happy talking? Speak for yourself

man with hand over mouth

There has been a lot of talk in poker recently about manners at the table, particularly the importance of showing respect to new players and not deriding those who perhaps do not belong to an established clique. My friend and colleague Brad Willis wrote a long piece on the subject for PokerStars Blog that was deservedly well circulated throughout the World Series, and several commentators pointed to similarities between Willis’s observations and some carefully-considered articles by the British pro Neil Channing. (Here and here)

It’s worth reading both Willis and Channing at length (on any subject actually, but especially this) because they both make some really important points. Willis, who is a strong amateur player but who makes most of his money writing, puts it succinctly thus: “If you want an insular world in which only the best play against the best, then, by all means, do your best to make the new money feel unwelcome”. Channing, meanwhile, who is a professional of long standing, says: “Can we all try to think about our actions a little more and the size of our three-bets a little less? Can we all stop discussing strategy at the table? Can we all let the recreational players see the odd flop?”

There are, of course, slight variations to their arguments, not to mention different overriding motives. I get the impression from Channing that his desire to make the new players welcome is primarily so that he can keep on taking their money, which perhaps moves us into slightly ambiguous moral territory. However Willis is more altruistic having spent many years writing about the recreational players taking their one shot at the big time. He likes to keep everyone happy and the poker economy buoyant as a result.

Both of them agree on the importance of keeping poker a social pastime, pointing to how unnerving it can be for new players to come to the table and be greeted by cocky oiks. And I agree to a large extent. There nothing controversial in asserting that rudeness is poor form in any walk of life, and arrogant poker players are a particularly odious, self-defeating breed. Their brashness can deter anyone slightly apprehensive about their first foray into live poker.

There is, however, one small point on which I take issue: I simply don’t agree that a pleasant poker table has to be full of conversation. I want to defend a poker player’s right to stay utterly silent if that is what he or she prefers.

Channing and Willis are both naturally gifted storytellers, highly personable and content to chew the fat with all and sundry. They belong to a fine breed of chit-chatters. But it’s important to remember that not everyone is cut from this cloth, and for many the prospect of talking to strangers at the poker table is not so different from conversation in, say, a dentist’s waiting room, where it feels both forced and awkward. Politeness is important, of course, but just because two people are thrown into close proximity, it doesn’t mean they have to be mates.

It can be bloody irritating sometimes to be invited into conversation, especially when perceived rejection offends so much.

This is further complicated in poker when you consider the abilities of the best table talkers to elicit information from conversation, and to artfully manipulate their opponents into acting sub-optimally by distracting them through their words. I have happily chatted to Roberto Romanello in bars, airport terminals and tournament breaks, for instance, but he is the one player I would absolutely loathe to share a poker table with; his relentless, probing table talk is so disarming, he can practically charm chips into his stack.

The point is that silence is not necessarily a mark of impoliteness. It may be a legitimate strategy to stay focused and, for some, to enjoy the game more. I fear that any move to turn poker tables into social clubs may also help send a fair few potential players silently back to the rail. The talkers can talk, that’s fine, but let’s not insist everyone joins in.