Don’t Let Cheaters Get the Best of You at the Live Poker Table
According to Wikipedia, Hanlon’s razor is “an aphorism expressed in various ways including ‘“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity,’” or ‘“Don’t assume bad intentions over neglect and misunderstanding.’”
In other words, people are more often dumb than nefarious, so we ought to keep that in mind when judging their actions.
Many people do dumb things when playing poker. And this is a good thing; we like it when our opponents do dumb things. But often those ‘dumb things’ break rules or offend good poker etiquette. According to Hanlon’s razor, in those circumstances we should give people the benefit of the doubt—they simply didn’t know better. But it’s also important to protect yourself from people who actually are trying to exploit you in unscrupulous ways.
These players are called angle shooters: players who willfully act against the spirit of the rules, if not against the strict letter of them, in an attempt to elicit information or an action from their opponent(s). There’s another word for this kind of person in all other games and sports: cheater.
If you’ve played mostly online, then perhaps you’ve never heard of or encountered angle shooters. They mostly thrive in live games and tournaments, because their tactics usually take advantage of live game flow, and of live cues.
The specific tactics—the ‘angles‘—are almost universally looked down upon in the professional poker community, not just because they’re a way of cheating, but because shooting angles has an effect on the long-term health of poker more generally.
Just imagine how angry a recreational player must feel knowing they’ve essentially just been cheated, and worse, sometimes with no recourse because the angle shooter’s tactic does not clearly break any rule. Think of how easily that could drive recreational players away from the game…
In this article, I’m going to discuss seven angles to look out for, and explain how to protect yourself against them. To be sure, there are more than seven angles out there, but in my experience these are the most common; I have personally seen even one of them attempted.
But first, let’s consider who angle shooters are, and look at a couple of famous examples.
Angle Shooters and Scumbags and Cheats Oh My!
Angle shooters, or “anglers,” as I like to call them, are the lowest of the low. An angler is typically a player who cannot beat the game when they’re playing straight up, so they shoot angles to make up for not being able to outplay their opponents.
Admittedly, it’s usually pretty good drama to watch other people get angled successfully. In fact, it has happened a number of times in televised poker. Probably none are as famous (or in as big of a spot) as this one:
And here’s a particularly satisfying one between Phil Hellmuth and Tony G on The Big Game:
You might be thinking, “how could anyone possibly fall for that?” Well, let me tell you, in the heat of the moment it’s very tough to realize you’re getting played.
Let’s go over some specific angles so you can avoid being the punchline of a YouTube video.
Angle #1: Betting Line Shenanigans
Many poker rooms have a line that goes around the table in front of the players which is supposed to function as a kind of point of no return. This is called the ‘bet line,’ or ‘betting line’.
Some poker rooms rule that all chips put across the line must stay in the pot. If, for example, a player faces a bet and puts enough chips across the line for a legal raise, then that player will be deemed to have raised. In that same circumstance, some other poker rooms just commit the player to putting in some chips.
In any case, the betting line is a kind of finish line, which is supposed to demarcate when a player has bet, raised, or called.
A very common and relatively easy angle involves the betting line. When facing a river bet, angle shooters will ‘fake call’ by creeping chips toward the line but stopping just short of it, in an attempt to get a reaction from the bettor.
This may seem like an impossible sell, but many players are simply nervous and jumpy, especially when making a big value bet or bluffing, and so they are apt to unintentionally react to the angle shooter’s tactic.
The ‘fake call’ could cause a player to squirm in their seat, for instance, or, worse, cause a player to accidentally muck or turn over their hand. In my experience, even seasoned players can fall for this simple angle, especially in a tense river bet situation.
Some casinos combat this angle with what’s called a “forward motion” rule. Forward motion rules commit a player to calling or folding just based on the movement of chips towards the betting line. But not all casinos have this rule, or strictly enforce it, unfortunately.
How to counter betting line angle shooters
Countering this angle is simple: stay mindful of your opponent’s actions, and make slow-reaction a habit; that is, don’t react to any movements or actions until you’re certain of your opponent’s action. In many cases this means waiting until the dealer has announced your opponent’s action.
Angle #2: Drastically Miscounting Chip Stacks
Any bet that is made can be counted, so you can get a count of someone’s stack if they go all-in. But if someone makes a small bet and you want to know what their stack size is, you aren’t entitled to an exact count— usually a player will be nice enough to count it out for you, but they can also just give you an estimate, or they can just let you stare at their stack and do your own counting.
It’s a common misconception that any player is entitled to a count of any other player’s chip stack at any time. Unfortunately, this misconception lends itself to another common angle involving misinformation about stack size.
Tournaments provide particularly easy situations for angle shooters to misstate their stack size. With several denominations of chips in play, counting or estimating stack size can be tedious, and we rightly assume that many players (but not all, of course) continuously keep track of their own stack size.
So, when we ask for a count a player can give a drastically wrong number that cannot be disputed without some effort. And they can do this with virtually no repercussions… “Whoops, I guess I counted wrong. Sorry.”
What you are entitled to, however, is a look at their stack. Some poker rooms require stacks of twenty chips for easy counting. And most rooms require all high denomination chips to be in the front, easily visible to other players
How to counter chip miscounting
No one can pull this angle on you if you’re able to quickly count chips.
You should know, for example, that a stack of $25 chips is $500, and you should be familiar with the color and denominations of the chips in play. You shouldn’t have to rely on your opponents being nice and telling you an exact count.
Angle #3: “That wasn’t a check!”
This is another fairly simple angle. Consider some of the many ways to ‘check’ in the poker world:
- Nodding at the dealer
- Tapping literally any object in front of you
- Looking at the dealer a certain way
- Twirling your finger
- Pointing at the table
- Wiggling a finger
..and the list goes on. Taking advanced of this vague part of poker, an angle shooter in the big blind, for example, could make a check-like motion on the flop which causes you check behind. She could then say, “wait, I never checked!” which allows her to essentially steal position from you (she’s elicited information about your hand when it should have been you getting information from her).
Consequently, she might be able bluff with hands she otherwise wouldn’t have bluffed with, or comfortably bet to protect a weaker value hand. I call this angle the ‘phantom check’.
How to counter phantom checks
Countering phantom checks also requires developing a slow-to-react habit: if a player does something that only vaguely looks like a check, you should verify with the dealer or the player that they have indeed checked before acting on your hand.
Angle #4: “Accidentally” Raising by Tossing Out the “Wrong” Amount of Chips.
“Accidental” raising might be the most common angle. I’ve even seen players somewhat innocently attempt it from time to time, not knowing that it’s plainly unethical.
Accidental raising is when a player feigns an attempt to call, but instead throws out way too many chips, or chips of the wrong denomination, committing them to a raise. As a result, players behind them might think they are capitalizing on the player’s apparent mistake by either calling with a marginal hand or re-raising to steal the pot.
Some players argue that it’s important to do this from time to time to balance out other, legitimate mistakes they make. I disagree, and think that any angle goes against the spirit of the rules.
How to counter it “accidental” raising
In my experience, that ratio of angles to legitimate mistakes—as far as chips crossing the line to either call or raise—is very lopsided towards angle shooting (maybe 10:1, as a rough estimate). And a legitimate accidental raise is rarer than a legitimate accidental call.
If a player has to throw out multiple chips, you can probably assume that this move (especially limp/re-raising pre-flop) is an attempt to angle.
Angle #5: Announcing the Wrong Hand at Showdown.
This is an angle you’ve probably encountered: a player bets the river, and their opponent calls and then announces that they have better than they actually have, causing the original bettor to instantly muck their hand. This angle works particularly well when it’s possible that angler has rivered a flush, or some other drawing hand, since the bettor will be frustrated.
This angle is so pervasive that there’s an actual rule in Robert’s Rules of Poker—the official poker rulebook used almost universally—dedicated to it. The rule states that if the floor person determines that the angler purposely misled their opponent to cause them to muck, then their hand may also be retroactively killed.
Unfortunately, it’s very hard to prove intent in such a situation. Often the angle shooter will get away with it, claiming to have simply made a “mistake,” or been “joking.” Yeah, right. (This angle is akin to the lie Tony G told Phil in the above video. Notice that Phil simply trusted what Tony was telling him; he wrongly assumed that Tony wasn’t capable of acting in a completely unethical way. And Tony’s excuse afterwards was akin to ‘joking’. “It’s poker!” he said.)
How to counter it showdown liars
Here’s a rule you should always follow: Never muck your hand until you see your opponent’s hand, regardless of who your opponent is.
Angle #6: Faking a Reaction to a Phantom Action
It’s pretty common to show your hand immediately when someone calls your river bet, which lends to this relatively tame but transparent angle.
The angle goes like this: when it looks like a player is about to call their opponent’s river bet, their opponent will start to reach for their cards, as though they are eager to show their hand. The idea is to feign excitement about getting called, giving the impression that they have a strong hand.
This angle works well because it’s generally good to notice when a player looks eager to show their hand—it’s often a reliable live tell.
But the angler feigns excitement to induce a fold. And they usually do this against experienced players who are looking for live tells. So, this one should be pretty easy angle to watch out for.
But there can also be an additional level to this angle, which involves a fake reaction and a phantom bet: the angler will simultaneously look anxious to reveal their hand, perhaps having their cards in one hand, while also pushing chips towards the betting line. The idea here is also to induce a fold from their opponent, only this time they are the bettor, and their ‘bet’ may not be intended to be legitimate.
How to counter fake reactions
Yet again, you can counter fake reactions simply by being slow to react, and paying close attention to your opponent’s movements.
If they’re betting, wait to act until they’ve made a bona fide bet. If they look excited to show their hand when they’ve bet, pause and assess their demeanor, and then act. Oh, and if you call, don’t muck if they announce, “flush!” Wait to see the goods.
Angle #7: Straight-Up Stealing Chips
I’d bet many of you won’t consider this an “angle,” but instead straight up thievery. But I’d also bet that many of you have never heard of this angle, or seen it happen and known that you were witnessing an especially dirty but sophisticated angle. So, it almost goes without saying that this is absolutely the most important one to watch out for.
A lot of poker rooms, including some in Las Vegas, consider the chips in front of you as your property. The chips in the pot, on the other hand, are considered the casino’s property.
Now, it’s very common to announce “all-in,” without ever having to move chips forward into the pot. So, many times you’ll win chips (those that are supposed to be “all-in” the pot) that the casino has no legal right to take from the offending player. That player must put the chips in the pot for the casino to have control over then.
That means that it’s completely legal for a player to shove their chips in their pockets, after having just lost an all-in, and walk out of the casino without paying you. I’ve actually seen this happen in several rooms!
This is kind of a nuclear angle, because the casino will ban the player from ever stepping foot in the poker room again. And, of course, you could sue (and win) in a civil court against that player. It’s rather hard to sue someone you don’t know, however, and the casino can’t hold them or compel them to give you their information. You’d have to chase that player into the parking lot, or otherwise track them down.
I bet a lot of you won’t even consider this an “angle”, but instead straight up thievery. It almost goes without saying that this is by far the most important angle to watch out for.
How to counter it chip thieves
Chip thieves are so rare that I would not consider actively looking out for them a priority, but, like protecting your house against burglars, it’s important to always keep in mind that there are players out there who are capable of shooting this criminal angle.
If you’re paranoid like me, though, you can always make sure that the dealer pulls an all-in player’s chips into the pot before turning over your hand. That way, the player has no claim to the chips at all.
So, is Poker Just Full of Cheats and Scumbags?
After reading about these angles you might be thinking that poker is full of scumbags who are constantly trying to take cheap shots at one another. Rest easy. You won’t run across many angle shooters in your poker adventures; very few people attempt to shoot angles. And anyway, many players just do dumb things. Remember: Hanlon’s razor.
But anglers are out there. They are a fact of poker, and they are usually compulsive cheaters. I happen to know a particular player who attempted almost all of the angles we just discussed in just one live session. It was infuriating to watch!
So, if you come across an angler, hopefully you’ll remember to pay closer attention to their actions; once you see someone attempt an angle, it’s important to make a mental note of them. And, in turn, you should always be slow to react yourself. You’ll be in the clear if you do.