Playing Live Poker – Etiquette, Betting Rules & Formats

Your Guide to Where and How to Beat Live Poker Games

Many people will have their first live poker experience in kitchen-table home games. Other will play online first – before trying their hand in a casino poker room. This guide covers playing live poker for those who are new to this at a competitive level.

This beginners guide covers everything from etiquette to adjusting your strategy to beat the types of players you’ll meet.

Here is what you will find below:

Where to Play Live Poker – The Three Options

You can find online poker games in three different places:

  • Home Games: These can range from kitchen table / dorm room casual games to well organized regular games for high stakes. These games often have a social element, with drinks and snacks and entertaining poker formats. Expect a lot of people seeing the flop – and not too much in the way of folding!
  • Poker Rooms: You’ll find these at major casinos, and as stand-alone rooms. This depends on your state / country. At the lower buy-in levels, the social / recreational aspect is important. You’ll often find more ‘serious’ stakes – $5 / $10 and above – where experienced players and pros do battle.
  • Events: Big tournament events are held in casinos around the world. The biggest is the annual World Series of Poker at the Rio in Las Vegas. Conference rooms are used (depending on the size of the event) and many players travel thousands of miles to attend. While the lower buy-in events attract huge recreational fields, you’ll also find high-rollers – and plenty of cash game action on the side.

A lot of information in this guide will cover all 3 settings. You need to keep in mind that there are big differences in the standard / experience of opponents you will meet at the different venues – and adjust your own strategy accordingly.

Live Poker Game / Format Choices

If you are used to playing online, you’ll have a huge choice of games, table size and formats. Live poker rooms are more limited.

No Limit Hold’em dominates to a huge extent. This is usually in full-ring (9 or 10 player) format. That way the casino minimizes the number of dealers needed. For cash games, the lowest stakes are $1 / $2 (with a full buy-in from $200 and up). Many rooms also specify a minimum buy-in, while some allow you to top-up to the biggest stack at the table. Common stakes are $2 / $3, $2 / $5 and $5 / $10. You’ll need to go to a bigger casino to find a game at higher stakes.

Other games which you’ll find in live poker rooms include Fixed Limit Hold’em, Omaha (both PLO and Fixed Limit Omaha Hi-Lo) and the occasional Stud variant.

Daily tournaments are common, though bigger guarantees rely on scheduled events – or a touring event coming to town. Note that when tournament events are on, many recreational players appear in the card rooms. This can make the cash game action much more profitable.

Betting Rules and Chip Handling in Live Poker Games

If you are coming from online poker, there are some rules and factors you need to know about.

First, you need to keep track of the size of the pot during hands. Online, the software does this for you, and even gives you useful ‘half pot’ and ‘pot’ betting options. The dealers will be able to count chips stacks for you when asked. What they can’t do is count the pot for you. If you ask, they will spread the chips, so that you can count it yourself. It is much easier to keep track yourself, if you get into the habit early, this will become second nature.

Verbal actions are binding in live poker games. If you say ‘raise’ then you are obligated to do this. The minimum raise is then the smallest bet you can make.

Some players make errors with oversized chips. If a bet ahead of you is $50, and you throw in a black ($100) chip without saying anything, this is counted as a call. If your intention is to raise, and you only have oversized chips – you absolutely must say so. Note that if you throw in 4 green ($25) chips in the same spot, this is counted as a raise.

You need to be careful with betting in other spots too. Moving chips forward (for example to get a read) will be counted as a bet in some poker rooms – even if you don’t release them. If chips go over the betting line (a line on the felt), then it is almost certainly binding.

If you throw in an oversized chip and make an unclear statement – for example throwing in a $100 chip and saying ‘seven’, you could fall foul of another rule. Your bet here could be $7 or $70, since it is unclear, the maximum will be based on the size of the pot. If the pot is less than the bigger amount, the smaller amount will count. Again, get into the habit of making your intentions clear.

One more aspect of chip handling involves keeping bigger denomination chips visible at all times. You can’t put those black chips at the back of your stack. If you see another player doing so, you can ask the dealer or the floor to rectify.

Live poker is played at ‘table stakes’. This means you can only bet the chips you have in front of you at the start of the hand. Some rooms allow cash to play. If you have a hundred-dollar bill with your chips at the start of the hand, you can also bet with this. You should absolutely clarify this rule with your poker room before you start playing.

Etiquette When Playing Live Poker

If you want to be the least popular player in your game – then sitting down without knowing the etiquette is a great way to get there!

Here are some of the key things to know about before you start a live game:

  • Slowrolling: If you have the winning hand at showdown, and your opponent shows first, you need to turn over your cards right away. Hesitating, even for a moment, is considered one of the worst things you can do in a live poker game.
  • Hit and Run: If you double up, and then immediately leave the game, you will make yourself very unpopular. It is usual to play one or two more orbits when this happens.
  • Sitting Out: Most live poker rooms will pick up your chips after 45 minutes to an hour if you are away from the table. A common complaint is about people who take breaks for less that this time – and do it frequently.
  • Berating Fish: Games rely on bad players donating their money. It is considered bad form to lecture or berate bad players for their mistakes. If those errors lead to you losing a big pot, smile and move on. Lecturing bad players can make them leave the table, or worse can educate them and improve their play.
  • Talking About a Live Hand: If you are not involved in a hand, you should not comment on it or speculate about what the player’s hold. In fact, good etiquette would be to avoid distracting the players at all.
  • Tip the Dealer: Dealers make most of their money from tips. You should tip whenever you win a decent sized pot. This is not necessary if you raise and take it pre-flop, though a token $1 for small or medium pot, up to $5 for a big pot / double-up is needed.

Types of Opponent You’ll Meet in Live Poker Games

If you are used to online poker, here is some good news; live games are generally a lot softer! You’ll meet a lot of different opponents at the tables. If you enjoy the lower stakes games, these are mostly recreational players (tourists if you play in Las Vegas or Atlantic City). You’ll find more regulars as you climb the stakes.

Live games feature opponents that are loose / passive compared to online games. You’ll see a lot of people seeing each flop – and a lot of calling after the flop. While some players are aware of concepts like position and implied odds – many will not be. You need to consider that what you think your bet ‘represents’, might go straight over the heads of many players.

You’ll meet a number of players who fit the ‘old man coffee’ stereotype. These are (usually) older players who will fold for hours, waiting to flop a set or nut flush before finally waking up and betting. While these types don’t give much action, they are easy to play against. You can steal pots from them all night – then fold when they wake up and start betting.

Playing Live Poker and Physical Tells

If you are new to playing live poker, you need to watch for physical tells from your opponents. You also need to be aware that many of them will be more experienced in this area than you are. Covering your own tells, by making sure you bet the same way each time whether weak or strong, is an important consideration.

Poker tells is a big topic, for this guide, here are some of the main factors to consider.

  • Acting Tells: Many players will pretend to have a big dilemma about whether to call when they have the nuts. This is a common ‘weak means strong – strong means weak’ tell. When someone acts strong, giving you an intimidating stare, they are often bluffing. Like all tells, this is player dependent – look for people who ‘act’ frequently and watch what types of hands they show down.
  • Shaking Hands: This can happen when an inexperienced player hits the nuts. For example, someone wakes up with aces, the adrenaline kicks in, and they have visibly shaky hands when making a bet. You might also see their pulse in the veins on their neck.
  • Staring at the Flop: When a player sees a card which helps their hand, they will often naturally glance away from the flop and at their chips. Conversely, players who miss will often stare at the flop for longer.
  • Folding Tells: Look out for behaviours which show a player is about to fold. Some players will put chips on their cards when they are going to play – and hold them ready to flick to the dealer when they are going to fold. This works pre-flop. If you are in middle position and see that two opponents behind you are going to fold, you can raise a wider range.
  • Timing Tells: This category of live poker tells is player specific. You need to look for patterns in how quickly players bet each type of hand. A common example is a quick / instant call with a draw or mid-strength hand. Players with strong hands often pause before making their raise (thinking about extracting value and maybe wanting to look weak).

Strategy Tips for Live Poker Games

Adjusting your strategy to the types of opponent you will find is a must when starting with live poker. This does not mean good basic poker strategy is useless. Position, hand strength and a solid understanding of poker mathematics is still needed.

Raise sizes will be different live. The standard open raise will be 4x the big blind (not 2.2x as you find online). This affects your implied odds, and with the common situation of 3 or 4 callers pre-flop it can make for big pots too.

You only get 30 hands or so every hour when playing live games. This means card-dead stretches can feel like a lifetime. It also explains why you’ll find hands shown down which would be instantly folded pre-flop in online games.

Some of your opponents will be playing any ace, any picture cards, suited hands like Queen-Six and so on – even if there is a raise ahead of them. You’ll find players too loose pre-flop, and many that play a ‘fit or fold’ game after the flop. This makes continuation betting profitable. It also makes selective aggression before the flop profitable. An ‘ABC’ poker strategy, where you raise your strong hands from position and keep the pressure on when you hit will win money in these games.

Note that as you move to $3 / $5 and $5 / $10, you’ll find more experienced players at the tables. They will be considering your range of hands, while you are thinking about theirs. At the lower buy-ins, expect players to consider only their own hands.