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“About House Rules” by Alan25main

June 11, 2019

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If you’re playing a board game, a tabletop RPG, or good ol’ poker, house rules matter! Replay Poker player Alan25main shares the importance of paying attention to house rules — whether it’s at a friend’s place, a live event, or a recreational poker site.

“In the 1950s, one of America’s great comedians was Red Skelton. Humor, especially radio and TV humor was very different in those days. It was mostly character driven, like Jack Benny’s persona as a cheapskate. Character can be very funny because you can see, in your mind’s eye, exactly how silly the character is being and laugh with–or at–him or her.

In his live stage shows, Skelton was also a first class actor, and one of his favorite characters to portray was The Tramp (sometimes called Freddy the Freeloader). Nothing ever worked properly for The Tramp; it was as if he had the Anti-Midas Touch and everything turned to garbage when he touched it. One night, The Tramp got into a poker game.

He sat carefully at the table and waved money at the dealer. The dealer sold him chips. The players anted. The cards were dealt for draw poker. Tramp was Under the Gun and looked at his hand. He nearly had a fit. He shows the over-sized cards to the audience, a pat Royal Flush. He makes a bet. A little, mopey guy across the table raises, Tramp re-raises, and the little guy raises him all in. Both players stand pat. Tramp shows his Royal and reaches for the pot. The dealer waves Tramp’s hands away from the chips so the little guy can show his cards. The little guy shows 2-2-4-5-6 of assorted suits and takes the money. The Tramp jumps up and down waving his cards. The dealer calmly points at a sign that reads: OLD CAT (2-2-4-5-6 of assorted suits) BEATS ANYTHING! Tramp reads the sign, waves his cards and sadly agrees that the House Rules were posted and apply.

Now, the angry Tramp digs in his pockets for more money and buys into the game again, pulling his empty pockets out to be sure he’s found every pfennig. The very next hand he picks up is an Old Cat, 2-2-4-5-6 of assorted suits. The Tramp does a satisfied little dance, and bets all his chips into the little guy who just beat him. The little guy calmly calls, shows a pair of eights and takes the money while the dealer points to a different sign on the wall that reads: OLD CAT GOOD ONLY ONCE PER NIGHT.

The real lesson here for poker players is that you must know the rules before you start, not after you’ve already played the hand.

Poker has no governing authority like a Commissioner. The rule books you can buy or read online will all say, usually where it’s barely noticed, that all players should “check their local rules or house rules.” That’s because there are legitimate differences of opinion on how some things should be handled. Since no one opinion has any more validity than the others, the rules are whatever the players and house agree to.

A few areas of difference:

  • What is the best low hand? A-2-3-4-5 of any suits, A-2-3-4-6 of mixed suits, or 7-5-4-3-2 of mixed suits?
  • Are “unusual hands” (skip straights, skeet, around-the-corner-straights, large and/or small Tigers/Cats or Lions/Dogs, Blazes, four-flushes/straights, etc.) allowed, and if so, which ones and how do they rank?
  • In games with a blind, how does the button move?
  • In ante games, does every player ante for himself or just one player for the whole table?
  • In draw games, must a player open if he has openers or may he pass?
  • Is check raising allowed?
  • If not, what is the penalty for doing it illegally?
  • In High-Low games, will there be a declaration of which way a player is going? Is it verbal, consecutive, simultaneous, by chips or gestures?
  • And, if so, what if a both declarer ties another player’s hand? Do they split or does the caller win?
  • Or, is the game “cards read” for high and low without any declaration?
  • Can players draw light from the pot and make the lights good at the end of the hand? Or must they simply go all in for whatever chips they have on the table, creating side pots?
  • If a pot is split, who gets any odd chip, high hand, low hand, first player to dealer’s left/right, or does the dealer keep it as a toke?
  • If the deck is stripped of some low cards, can the Ace still be used as the lowest card in straights?

And, this is just a bare bones beginning. Real house rules in a casino will also address things like how to handle misdeals (an issue I have yet to see at Replay), when and how a dealer is to make change in the middle of a hand, when a hand has to be redealt, and more trivial, nitpicky things than we have space to write down. Suffice it to say, there are a lot of things that could conceivably go wrong, and a lot of ways how to fix them. The last time I saw a full set of written house rules, it was over 200 pages of 12-point font, single spaced within paragraphs. And, that was nearly 30 years ago. The game has gotten more complex since then.

There IS no standard set of rules. Whatever rules the house decides to use, we players can agree to play by them or not. But, as long as they are consistently followed, every player should have an equal chance to win. And, that’s about as much as we players can hope for.

Amarillo Slim Preston may have said it best. When asked what he required from a game, he replied: “That the game be honest and that if I win, I’ll get paid.”