Somehow, the increase in the number of players in casinos who take poker strategy seriously has coincided with a decrease in observance of poker rules and etiquette. In some sense, I suppose this is to be expected - more experienced players are more aware of what rules can be bent without causing complaint. Still, I had imagined that more serious players would be more inclined to promote a culture of playing by the rules. After all, if you have a deep understanding of poker strategy, encouraging fair play would seem to be in your best interest. A couple years ago, I think this theory prevailed, and the regular players would often complain if, for example, an inexperienced player tried giving advice to someone in a hand. Also, experienced players who bent the rules would do so surreptitiously or risk being called out by other players.
Yesterday, just after I sat down to play the 5-10NL game at Hollywood Park, a guy in a suit with whom I had played once or twice before walked over to the table. When he saw me there he smiled broadly and said "Hi!" While I welcome friendly greetings, this was a bit odd because I don't personally remember ever actually talking to him before, and there were several other regular players at the table who he'd surely also seen before. Staring at him for a second and failing to remember why he might be specifically excited to see me, I said "...hi." Thinking the interaction was over, I went back to playing.
A few minutes later the suited guy who had said "hi" to me joined the game and took the seat to my right. He was very interested in the tennis on the TV - evidentally Tim Henman often loses in the semifinals and was on the verge of doing so again. I know only a little about pro tennis, but I engaged him in light conversation. Soon we played the following hand: In early middle position, he raised to $45. I called with AQd, and everyone else folded. I had his $450 stack covered. The flop came Q96 with one diamond. He checked and I bet $60 into the $100 pot. He raised to $120. Obviously this is a bit fishy, but my hand seemed too strong to fold being given 4.7-1 odds. Besides, I had position and maybe I could get a backdoor flush draw and win a big pot. The turn was the Kd. I picked up a flush draw, but I no longer had top pair. My new friend bet $200, leaving him with only about $90 left. As I was trying to figure out what my odds were against different likely hands of his, I heard him mutter something to me out of the side of his mouth.
"What's that?" I asked him.
"Set of nines," he whispered to me again.
In light of the fact that this guy had shown a strong desire to be my friend, I folded a couple seconds later. He flashed his pocket 9's to me (and only me) as he threw his cards back to the dealer. This is a strangely common practice - making a bet with a big hand and then taking pity on your opponent and telling them what you have. Occasionally, a player will even show his big hand to his opponent. Two thing that made this particular instance notable:
1. Such pity is rarely directed towards ME.
2. Usually the player speaks loudly enough for the whole table to hear.
Later, in the middle of a hand he was already out of, my shifty new friend whispered advice to me during hands I was involved in: for instance, "that guy always plays weak aces," or "don't believe what he's saying." At one point he actually kicked me under the table before raising - something people joke about sometimes because it is so clearly unscrupulous (the idea being that we may have agreed that this signals he has a big hand or something - of course, we hadn't actually made such an agreement, and since I acted after his raise, the kicking of me was rather pointless). Perhaps needless to say, he offered to check down any hands where we found ourselves heads-up. I declined in all but one instance.
The striking thing to me about this story is not the bizarrely ingratiating behavior on the suited guy's part, but his implicit assumption that I would be appreciative and complicit in his cheating. I think it says a lot about the current culture in poker rooms - whereas before I think I could assume people would generally play by the rules, I now think I need to assume that my opponents will try to cheat me if they are confident they will get away with it. Then again, I've started to suspect this is the case in my daily life outside of poker as well. So I guess either dishonesty has become a larger cultural trend or I am just starting to become less naive. Also worth considering is the possibility that I'm descending into some sort of psychotic paranoia.