A Table Player’s Guide to Etiquette
Don’t be intimidated by the rituals of the felt
It can be intimidating, sitting elbow-to-elbow with a bunch of strangers, their egos and personalities radiating across the felt. Meanwhile, you’re staring across at a dealer who is handling money, chips and cards, and he’s asking you to make decisions. Hit or stand? Play or fold? The stress of making strategic decisions in a stewing cauldron of social pressure is why so many players opt for the solitary experience of slot machines.
Casinos know this. That’s why they charge a big premium for slot games. Machines are designed to pay back less than tables because they’re perceived as being easier to play.
But tables don’t have to be so scary. If you’re an experienced player, then you know tables are great fun (and you can skip ahead to the advanced etiquette section below). If you’re new to the tables, or wondering if you should give them a try, then the next few paragraphs are for you.
The best way to feel comfortable is to get beyond the rules of the games, and understand the rules of the felt. Tables have special customs. Here are the basics.
Choose Your Game
Every table has a plastic card on an upright stand that describes the game, rules and betting limits. The card is usually on the left-hand corner of the table (near the dealer’s right hand). On a craps table it’s on the far wall under the dealers. Read the card first before sitting down or stepping in. An empty table may look inviting until you realize the minimum bet is $100, or the game is something other than what you expected.
Sit Where You Want
Generally, you can sit at any open seat at any table as long as chips are not on the felt in front of the seat. Ditto at a craps table. Just park yourself wherever you prefer. The only exception to this rule is in ring-style poker when you should ask the dealer if the seat has been reserved. Remember that there is no “best” seat, other than what appeals to you aesthetically (or to your superstitions). Cards, dice and wheels have no awareness of who is sitting where. All the seats are equally “lucky.”
Don’t hand cash or chips directly to a dealer. Instead, put money flat on the felt. The dealer will count bills and chips so that cameras above the table can see the amount. Then she’ll make change or do other transactions. When you decide to leave the table (hopefully with more chips than at the buy-in), ask the dealer to “color up.” She’ll exchange your lower-denomination chips for fewer chips with a higher value.
Chips on the betting area must not be touched after a hand begins. The rule is, “If it lays it plays.” Betting areas are always clearly marked and separated from the space set aside for players’ stacks, so don’t be concerned that you’ll inadvertently bet your entire bankroll in a sitcom-style misunderstanding. But be sure you promptly retrieve winnings before the next hand begins.
If the game involves an option in which you can increase a bet (such as a double down in blackjack), don’t stack the extra bet on top of the chips already in the circle. Instead, place the extra chips next to the original bet, or in the space designated for a raise.
Handling Cards and Dice
Don’t touch cards dealt face-up. Let the dealer do the work. Obviously, you must handle cards that are dealt face-down, but they should never be removed from the table or placed out of view at any time. Ditto for dice. Never conceal them. It’s okay to bend cards slightly to look at them, but don’t bend them so much that you permanently crimp them in any way (unless you’re playing high-stakes baccarat, and then anything can be done to the cards as long as they’re readable). Some games require that you use one hand only for holding cards or dice; these games include face-down blackjack and craps. In games like Pai Gow Poker, it’s okay to use two hands. Ask the dealer if you’re unsure.
When communicating your decisions to the dealer, verbal instructions generally don’t count. Hand signals and other actions must be seen by the overhead cameras. For example, you must clearly tap the table or scratch your cards for a blackjack hit, and lift up one hand (as if to say “stop”) or push the cards under the bet for a stand.
And of course, make decisions promptly when it’s your turn to act. It’s okay to pause if you need time to think, but don’t be preoccupied or chatting away with someone, unaware that the table is waiting.
When you’re comfortable around the tables and the games, you may be tempted occasionally to offer strategic advice to other players. Resist this temptation. People rarely appreciate unsolicited advice. And even solicited advice is tricky politics. What you should do, unsolicited, is try to make other players comfortable. For example, if you know someone is thirsty, and you see a server, wave her over. It costs you nothing, and creates a lot of good will and a better atmosphere for the game.
If you have a problem or complaint about a particular hand in progress, try to stay calm and begin the process of resolution by talking to the dealer. Don’t complain to other players or try to gain their sympathy. If the dealer cannot resolve the situation to your satisfaction, then don’t hesitate to have the dealer call a floorperson. Be polite but firm.
When a problem or complaint does not involve a specific hand, then handle it away from the table if possible. The folks in suits are more likely to give you a break—or perhaps give you something for free—if you’re not in front of a gaggle of players.
Tip the dealers. They’ll cut you more slack if you toss them some chips once in a while. A little pleasant banter is good, too. Tip about 10% to 20% of one average bet per hour, so if you bet $25 per hand, that’s about $3 to $5. In ring-style poker, the minimum toke should be $1 for each pot that you win when the pot is larger than $20.
If you’re losing and your chips are melting to the felt, then it’s okay to not toke. Nobody expects you to buy in just to give chips away.
It’s okay to be privately upset if you’ve lost a bundle, or privately gleeful if you’ve won a fortune, but your outward demeanor should never change. Be gracious. Act as if a windfall is no big deal. If luck abandons you, don’t whine. Win or lose, walk away from the table looking like a winner.
Then when you return, you’ll be remembered well and treated that way.