Playing with Style
Good etiquette is an important part of a winning strategy
by Basil Nestor
“Bond. James Bond.”Agent 007 was playing high-stakes baccarat the first time he said those words in a movie. And of course, he was wearing a tuxedo. Classy situation, classy person. That is what the filmmakers were saying. They were blending a bunch of powerful ideas and stereotypes: the excitement of risk, being cool under pressure, gracious winning, the hipness of knowing the rules, and the sexiness of being able to do it all simultaneously while stacking chips, making a date with a hottie, and saving the world from Dr. No.
It’s a fantasy, but like most enduring fantasies, the basic components are all true. It is cool to do all those things without breaking a sweat. And in the real world, it actually gives you a bit of an edge in some circumstances, because dealers, pit bosses, and other casino personnel may cut you slack in borderline situations. Yin-yang decisions usually go to the player who is suave and cool (as opposed to the one who is all puffy-faced and shouting so loud he is spitting).
This occasional advantage is even more pronounced when the dealers and the pit perceive that you’re a regular, that you understand the rules, and you respect the game. Oddly enough, you don’t actually have to be a regular to get this benefit; you just have to act like one. So playing with style has some practical advantages as well as being fun and sexy.
Here are the essentials of casino etiquette. Some of these items you surely will know, but there may be a few new ones you’ll want to add to your repertoire. And after we cover the essentials, we’ll cover some advanced techniques.
Thou Shalt Not
These are the basic No-Nos, rules that involve security and the integrity of the contest. People who break these rules look like goobers or cheaters, and they attract the ire of dealers, the pit, and other players. Of course, you would never do these things (because you’re a regular). But let’s mention them briefly anyway.
We’ll begin with something that might seem obvious, but is often neglected. Simply, it’s always a good idea to know the rules of the game. At the very least, a player should read the upright display card at the table or the paytable on the machine. The surest way to start off on the wrong foot is to complain about something when the rule is printed clearly on a display sitting two feet away.
Note that it is perfectly okay to be a novice, but everyone appreciates a player who is attentive, someone who wants to maintain the flow of action.
When playing at tables, money transactions must be visible to the cameras above. A player must never hand money directly to a dealer. Instead, he should put it flat on the felt, and tell the dealer the denomination of chips he wants.
Cards that are dealt face-up should not be touched. Cards that are dealt face-down should never be removed from the table or blocked out of view at any time. Ditto for dice. When throwing dice, use one hand. A player should not hold anything else in that hand when he grabs the cubes. And he should aim for the wall at the far end of the table when he throws.
Never touch chips that are in play. Never touch another player’s chips. Hand signals must be clear and observable. Verbal directions must be understood and acknowledged by the dealer, or they don’t count.
Here are some etiquette rules that aren’t written as legal standards, but are important standards nonetheless.
Each person should play his own hand. It is bad form (and in some cases cheating) to offer strategy advice at the table, and it’s unwise to give advice when asked. The best response is, “Do what you think is best.”
Similarly, it is bad manners to talk with someone who is in the middle of a hand. The best time to chat is when a hand is completed. Never speak directly to someone throwing dice (unless that person speaks to you). Never mention the word “seven” to a dice shooter.
If a player is losing, don’t talk about it. If that person talks to you about his losses, or complains about the dealer or casino, nod indulgently, but refrain from making any comments.
Likewise, keep your successes and your losses mostly to yourself. If you happen to be at a table where everyone beats the dealer, then high-fives are certainly appropriate. But otherwise, keep the celebrations to a pleasant smile and big tips for the dealer and the cocktail server.
A “toke” is a tip in casino-industry parlance. Casino dealers typically earn half or more of their money from tokes. Toking is a good idea because dealers sometimes will cut you slack on discretionary decisions if they’re profiting from your largesse.
Nobody expects you to toke after a loss, or if a game is poorly dealt, but if you’re having a winning session (or you’re on a winning steak), and the dealers are making it fun, then it’s always nice to give something. A standard toke is 10 percent to 50 percent of one base bet given once or twice an hour. Obviously, this is on a curve. If you’re betting $10 per hand, then toke a bit more. If you’re betting $500, then a lower percent is acceptable. It is customary in poker to toke at least one dollar per pot when you win, unless the pot is extremely small (less than $20). When the pot is over $100, some players toke two or three dollars.
Also, it is customary to toke a casino employee who pays you a slot jackpot of $1,200 or more. One percent of the jackpot is the norm. But remember that you’re toking for service. You should definitely not toke if you wait more than 30 minutes for a standard jackpot payment or more than two to three hours for a wide-area progressive payment.
Note that professional players tend to be rather stingy with their tokes because a dollar here and dollar there can add up to $10,000 at the end of the year. Following their example, you shouldn’t go overboard with tokes. Give just enough to keep the warm feeling going.
“Thank you gentlemen for such sterling service.”—James Bond as he’s toking the craps crew in Diamonds are Forever (1971)
Advanced etiquette mostly involves handling disputes or asking for comps and favors from casino employees.
If a dealer makes a mistake in your favor, you are not legally required to correct the dealer. Let your conscience be your guide. On the other hand, if a dealer makes a mistake (or if a player breaks the rules) and this costs you money or puts you at disadvantage, then you should speak up. Tell the dealer what you want in a polite, yet firm tone. If the problem is not resolved, then call a floorperson. Do not make further play actions until your concerns have been addressed. This is important.
Casinos want to keep games moving because action earns them money. If you refuse to make a play action during a dispute (let’s say refusing to call or fold in poker) this freezes the game. In craps, put a hand flat on the layout if necessary, or hold the dice if you’re the shooter. A floorperson will be at that table pronto. When she arrives, explain your concerns succinctly and without hyperbole. Look serious but speak calmly. Make reference to specific house rules (if you can), or at least show that you have acted in good faith and have received less than a fair deal. If you have adhered to the tenets laid down in earlier sections, then you have an excellent chance of having the dispute settled in your favor.
Use this freeze-the-game tactic rarely and sensibly. Do it only when you have a legitimate and serious complaint. For lesser matters, call a floorperson, but keep playing.
While you’re waiting, if other players taunt you to give up your claim, politely ignore them.
If another player is having this sort of problem, it is generally best to stay out of it. Don’t complain. Just let the casino and player sort it out.
Schmoozing the staff
Hosts and supervisors have feelings like everyone else. They respond to kindness. So be friendly. Thank casino staff when they write you comps. Tell your host that you enjoyed the meal, the show, the room, or whatever. You’ll be amazed at how far that gets you.
Remember that casino employees have chosen to work in the hospitality business; they get their kicks from making you feel welcome and doing you favors. But this Pavlovian response doesn’t function unless you give them some indication that you can be satisfied. When you politely describe what you want, and make those requests reasonable, then a casino staffer usually will try to accommodate you.
Whatever you do, don’t let anyone get away with a flat “no.” Begin a negotiation. You never know what might come up in a conversation.
By the way, you don’t have to wear a tuxedo like James Bond, but your appearance does carry some weight when decisions are made. That’s just a human reality. Take that into account when you’re deciding when and how to make your special requests.
Overall, make people happy to see you, and they’ll be more likely to give you favors. Remember what Mom said, “You get more flies with sugar than with vinegar.”
Basil Nestor is author of The Smarter Bet Guide to Blackjack, The Smarter Bet Guide to Poker, and other comprehensive gambling guides. Got a question? Visit SmarterBet.com and drop him a line.