Thoughts on Poker: How to Grow Poker’s Popularity and Global Appeal Part 2: Table Talk

Keith Woernle : July 14th, 2016


A single conversation across the table with a wise man is better than ten years mere study of books.

-Oscar Wilde

Poker is a fascinating equalizer. A homeless man, a CEO, and a supermodel can all buy into the same tournament and sit at the same table. Suddenly they are equals –  at least as far as the cards and chips are concerned. Suddenly, they can relate to one another. While they may come from exceptionally different walks of life, they at least have a common interest in this card game. For all of them, it’s one of their favorite hobbies. This creates a bond amongst them. And conversations will naturally flow out of that bond.

But talking is seemingly evolving out of today’s game. It has become fashionable to be quiet. I think this is due mostly to the perceived short term negative EV that players expect to result from revealing information. However, I believe table talk actually has positive long term EV results. And that chatting is actually good for the game for many, many reasons. Those reasons being:

1. Table talk increases the chances of having a positive experience regardless of whether you have a winning session or a losing one.
And that’s what the casino has been selling for years. Come down and gamble. Maybe you’ll win, but even if you lose, you’ll have a great time doing it. If you’re laughing and joking and generally enjoying yourself at the table, then perhaps, even if you lose, you can leave with a smile on your face. If losing players are fraternizing, laughing, and otherwise enjoying the conversations about them, the sting of their losses will be much less severe. (This also applies to overall winning players that are simply having a losing session).

Poker is fun. Remember how poker is supposed to be fun? That fun should not be limited to your weekly basement home game. Many pros always try to have a good time at the table, regardless of the cards they’re dealt. And if the overall losing players still have a great time, then they are likely to come back for more and keep the poker economy moving.

Laughter and joy are contagious. If nine out of ten people in a crowd start laughing, then the tenth person usually joins in. And if Seats 1, 2, 4, and 5 are having a conversation, then it is simply a matter of time before Seat 3 jumps into that conversation as well (assuming they speak the same language of course).

I think table talk can create a bonding experience amongst players. Conversation creates connection, an almost kinship, between both the winning players and the losing ones. And from that kinship real relationships can arise because…

2. Table talk allows you to meet people, make friends, network, etc.
This one needs little explanation, but you know how you make friends? By talking to them. Everyone that’s a poker enthusiast has friends that are also poker enthusiasts. And chances are they met randomly at a poker table one day, struck up a conversation, and went on from there. Thousands of people became friends through chatting on poker forums. Thousands of people have gotten jobs through conversations that started up at the poker table. People have even gotten married to others whom they met across the felt.

This is a social game, and we are a social people. You never know what relationships may arise just by striking up a conversation.

3. Table talk literally gives the professional an instant edge by way of tells.
Let’s make the pretty simple assumption that pros are better than amateurs at picking up tells. Well, as any actor will tell you, it is extremely difficult to fake comfort in stressful situations or fake joy when they are nervous. When amateurs are engaged in conversation during hands, it is extremely difficult for them to not reveal their true colors. This is what gives Antonio Esfandiari and Daniel Negreanu and Phil Hellmuth that little 1% edge. And in a game of razor thin edges, that one percent can make all the difference.

Amateurs are simply going to be less comfortable during big hands while talking. If the atmosphere of the table is one of flamboyance, table talk, and animated gestures, then the less experienced players will be at a disadvantage and the professionals’ edge will increase. This is in stark contrast to a stone quiet table where reads are much less pronounced and tells less easily deciphered.

Also the truly best table-talkers can use their chatter as a weapon to manipulate their opponents. The last person in recent memory to talk every hand and dominate a WSOP was Jamie Gold. Looking back it is seemingly obvious what he did, but during the 2006 WSOP his opponents were completely baffled as to whether he was telling the truth or bluffing. (He was often telling the truth.) Obviously Daniel Negreanu has an uncanny ability to convince his opponents to make bad calls and bad folds.

This isn’t to say that a professional should always talk during big hands. Obviously, there are times when being silent is more advantageous. A professional needs to guard against giving off tells just like anyone. But the main point I want to hammer home is that if everyone is talking, the professional should be able to decipher the situation better than those around him.

4. Time at the table goes faster.
“Buy in at 8, and next thing you know, it’s morning.” This Rounder’s quotation illustrates a moment to which many of us can relate. Have you ever had amazing conversation only to look at your watch and realize it was four in the morning? The same thing happens at the poker table all the time.

Justin Bonomo once said how miserable he was initially after Black Friday because playing live is so different after you have grown accustomed to multi-tabling online. And we’ve all been bored at the table. Folding for two straight hours is pretty awful. But what if you could engage your mind with something else? Maybe the guy sitting next to you has an amazing story about TJ Cloutier. Maybe the guy sitting next to you is TJ Cloutier. If so, strike up a convo. You can ask him what it’s like to get second in the Main Event… twice.

I imagine Daniel Negreanu will say that the High Rollers feel like they go faster than EPT Main Events because everyone is talking up a storm and laughing about how much money they have. Table talk simply makes your experience at the table a happier one because your mind is occupied even more. And because of that time goes faster. And then the grind doesn’t have to be a grind at all.

5. Table talk makes watching poker on television more enjoyable.
And I mean a lot more enjoyable. Table talk provides entertainment – both to the players at the table and to the fans watching them.

For example, I think David Sands is a very, very good poker player. I assume he can outplay Sammy Farha in Texas Hold ‘Em nine times out of ten. That being said, I would rather watch Sammy Farha play on television ten times out of ten. I want to see him trash-talk, look smug, and be generally condescending all day long. Watching him and Jamie Gold and Dmitri Nobles is simply more fun than watching Chris Moorman or Jordan Cristos, even though we can all agree that the latter are probably better players. Competitive games need people to cheer for and to cheer against. Poker is losing that.

Watch old World Series of Poker episodes. Remember that British guy who stood on his chair during the 2005 WSOP? Do you remember the guy who barked like a dog every time he won a pot? Do you remember everything Hevad Khan did ever? You likely do, but you probably don’t remember very much about the WSOP Europe Main Event that Elio Fox won. That’s because, based off the players’ reactions, you wouldn’t know if they were playing for $20 or $2 million. Obviously big hands can make exciting television, but if you can package those big hands with excited players then you have television gold. And the more entertaining the television coverage, the more people that will watch, and the more that will start playing poker themselves.

6. Table talk accentuates an important difference between live poker and online poker.
Table talk is one of the greatest differences between live and online play. Of course, you can also chat online, but those conversations are more like comments than dialogues. I believe the reason the tables are becoming quieter these days is simply because more online players are at them, and they just aren’t used to talking while they are playing since that is the atmosphere online (more on this in a later article). And as those online players entered the live arena, they changed their environment to one in which they were more comfortable. Online, there are no conversations, no physical tells given away. But that is what makes live play so much different, and many would say, so much better.

7. Table talk loosens up the betting.
It just does. When everybody’s talking, everybody’s playing. Amateurs don’t come to the poker table to fold. And as the atmosphere loosens, so do their calls and chips. All good news for the pro as more experienced players should want as much money in the pot as possible.

Look, I know not everyone is comfortable talking. I know not everyone is extroverted. Some people prefer to keep to themselves. And some people out there are just quiet people. Excellent. That’s great. Poker needs all types. Chris Ferguson was a good character. Allen Cunningham was a good character. We all liked watching them play. But I think that being quiet for the sake of being quiet when that is not who you are is a mistake. And as cliche as ‘be yourself’ sounds, that’s how I feel we should all be at the felt.

I think we should bring back the characters and bring back the conversations. Bring back fun. And watch as everybody – pros and amateurs alike prosper.

As always, let me know what you guys think. This is an article that I feel several will disagree with, but I’m ok with that. At least it means we’re talking. Thanks everyone for reading, and as always, good luck out there.

Keith Woernle is a writer, comedian, and semi-pro poker player based out of New Jersey. He was a producer for season 10 of the World Poker Tour. He won a WSOP circuit ring in 2011. He likes poker a lot. Follow or contact him on twitter @WoernlePoker.

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