Things I’ve Learned From Playing Poker In Bars

First let me start by saying that where I live it is perfectly legal to play poker at bars. For “fun”, anyway. There are several companies / leagues in my neck of the woods that promote free tournament-style Texas Hold ’em Poker nights at different bars around the area. The winners get a bar tab and the bar gets a bunch of people to come in and drink: everybody wins.

I have been playing / studying the bar poker scene for about a year and a half and tonight am playing in my first quarterly tournament (having won a seat by winning a regular-night bar game). In all fairness, and to “toot” my own horn, It would have been my second had i not had to ask my best friend to be my surrogate in another recent tournament because I was traveling for work.

Anyway, the point of this blog, in honor of having reached this milestone, is to record some of the data I have collected and reflect on my analysis of the ethnographic experience thus far.

And for those of you who are unfamiliar with Texas Hold’em Poker, here is a link to the basics of game-play and terminology so I don’t have to do all that here:

Venue Dynamics:

Free poker nights are usually held at “neighborhood” bars: regardless of the city or locale (urban versus suburban, etc.).  These Bingo Sweets typically are sports themed and also host open-mic nights or double as a local music venue.  Typically speaking these venues also have pool tables and  dart boards and can be counted on for game night and fight night as a place to grab inexpensive drinks and food. A background a mobilcasino populated by people not only playing them here at the bar but also on slots online, on their phones. As the software giant has partnered up with “The Really Useful Group” and will see Microgaming developing an online slot based on the 2004 Andrew Lloyd Webber movie, The Phantom of the Opera, the game we have been waiting for is finally here

The game is run by a promoter in charge of supplying tables, chips and cards and monitoring tournament play: including when the blinds go up, when tables get consolidated and who gets “chipped up” for buying drinks or food (which is typical practice and obviously helps the bar make money).  This person also typically gets a “tip” for allowing an extra “fun game” table for those interested in some small-time action (usually abut a $20 buy-in for up to 9 lucky “losers” from the free bar game).

In the more suburban-to-rural settings the players range from blue-collar retirees and middle-aged employees, local business owners and entrepreneurs, the occasional local SEO consultant in Atlanta and a handful of not-quite-21 year-olds and slightly older who play in local bands or work locally (at the supermarket, etc.), go to community college and are familiar with / regulars of that particular venue.  I should point out that about 90% of the players in this setting are white people, which has everything to do with the populace of the local area in my case.

In the more urban settings you still get the collection of older folks and blue collar workers, but with the distinct addition of more ethnic as well as white collar representation.  You also get a lot of younger twenty-something hipsters who will come “in character” (intentionally or not) to mimic some of the star-players they see on ESPN’s World Series of Poker:  wearing hoodies, sunglasses, hats, ear buds / headphones, etc.  They are likely to come in packs of several friends at a time and sit at the same table and talk about the stats and comment on the game play with one another.  As friends are eliminated, however, the remaining players become quiet and put on a more “elusive” air when tables are consolidated and new players join the table.  The vibe in this setting is often a lot more “series”.  These types of players are nicknames with a bit of sarcasm by older, less “serious” participants as “professional bar-poker players”.

In the more suburban / rural / blue-collar bars, the table talk will still be about the game (among the men), but in a more self-reflective fashion and with a lot more humor (“I was waiting to see if you stated your flush…I was totally full of shit”).   I should also note there these settings also typically have a healthy representation of women (usually about a third to less than half the players) who typically end up as half or more of the  final table players.  The women don’t talk about the cards as much. Typically, they chat about their lives and use the game as social time in addition to a chance to use / demonstrate their often keen analytical skills.

Game Play Dynamics:

It’s customary in most games to rotate the deal:  as the dealer button goes around so does the actual deal so everyone has a chance to be “in charge” and the responsibilities are shared.  This is far more prevalent in the suburban / rural bars.  In the urban settings oftentimes one person likes to take charge of the deal for the entire game:  usually a younger male who also fancies himself an expert at poker and likes to comment on the game / demonstrate his expertise with conversation and analysis.

I have also noticed that the deal serves as a bit of a milestone:  in the non-urban bars where smoking laws have not relegated smokers to the outdoors, most players also smoke cigarettes…and when someone has finished their deal it is usually their queue to light up.  Not the only when they are done dealing but always when they are done dealing.  And I have learned on poker night to just go ahead and allow myself to smoke, because I won’t be able to avoid it anyway.
(Side note:  cigarette brands are typically all-American:  Marlboro, Camel and Pall Mall in addition to lower cost brands like Basic)

Good sportsmanship is viewed as pretty important.  For example, If you are the last to bet and everyone has called the big blind (on every  hand at least one person has to ante up the full minimum betting money and the person next to them has to pony up half with the option to call…to make sure that hands don’t get folded every time and game play progresses) then it is customer to not raise (even if you have a great hand) to allow for a “family” pot where everyone has a chance to see the flop.  Additionally, bullying the table by excessively betting (e.g. raising all-in frequently or betting more than a few times the blinds) or raising without having a good hand (people will know when and if you are “called” by another player and asked to show your cards) is considered “donkey” or “jackass” poker and frowned upon.

If you are new to a regular game, it is acceptable to ask questions like the value of the chips and so on.  It is also a good idea if you are new to the pack and end up at the final table to buy a round of house-special (the cheapest) shots to “make nice”.  I have noticed this on a few occasions.  It’s also customary to buy the person running the game a drink every now and then.


There is also a lexicon for nicknames with regard to the different hands one can get in their pocket (every player is dealt two cards face down to start with..this is the “pocket” hand. While I was able to capture a healthy amount of these, I found a better list on

A-A – American Airlines, bullets, pocket rockets

A-K – Big Slick, “Walking back to Houston”, Anna Kournikova

A-J — Ajax

K-K – Cowboys

K-Q – Marriage

K-J – Kojak

K-9 — Canine

Q-Q – Dames, divas, ladies, the Hilton sisters, Siegfried & Roy

Q-J – Maverick, Oedipus Rex

Q-7 – Computer Hand

Q-3 – A San Francisco Busboy (a queen with a trey – har har)

J-J – Jokers, hooks

J-9 – T.J. Cloutier.

J-5 – Jackson Five, Motown

10-5 – Five and dime

10-2 – Doyle Brunson. (He won two World Series of Poker titles with this hand.)

9-9 – Meat hooks

8-8 – Snowmen, Octopuses

7-7 – Hockey Sticks, walking Sticks

7-2 – The Hammer

5-5 – Nickels, presto, speed limit

5-4 – Jesse James, for his Colt .45

4-4 — Sailboats

2-2 — Ducks
You will notice the vernacular is mostly rooted in working class references: as this is very much a working-class game.
Totems and Status Marks:

A handful of regular players will bring along good luck charms or totems.  Often times these charms double as status markers.  For example, if you win a bar tournament, the league that runs that tournament often gives the winner a metal medallion the size of a dealer button to demonstrate the win.  People who earn these will typically bring these to games and use them as their good luck charm as well as to demonstrate their skill to other players and surely “intimidate” to a degree.  This is an acceptable display given the more casual nature of the game.  In professional poker, winners get bracelets (much like an army ID bracelet, but with thicker metal, jewels, etc.).  sometimes they give these out for bar leagues, but it is less acceptable to wear these to free bar games lest one be seen as “pretending” to be professional.

Other good luck charms span different forms of whimsy: from figurines to one guy I play with who carries two oversized “nuts” (think mechanic) on a string.
I am sure I will have more to share as I wrap my brain around the ethnographic story.  But I can tell you that I have thoroughly enjoyed my participant-observation of this “subculture” experience.  I didn’t intend to start off studying it, but then I never do.   I have been enjoying making new casual acquaintances and earning the respect of the more skilled players in the room.

I have met some interesting characters as well:  Jerry, who is 70, been married for 50 years and used to be a screenwriter in LA, who used to play backgammon at bars and who’s wife drops him off and picks him up from every game.  He also can’t see very well so you have to read out the cards. Then there’s   Mike the truck driver who just bought a new house with his common-law wife of 15 years.    Chris the “sandwich artist” at the local grocery store plays in a band, just turned 21 an is entering the police academy.  Sheila is about 50 years old and  works as an admin at a construction company and plays poker every night of the week and is trying to quit smoking (but failing miserably).  Mike the semi-pro player  just got engaged to his fiancée (who also plays regularly and runs a tree-removal business) and who has been to the World Series of Poker 4 times.  Then there is the Filipino pool shark (who shall remain nameless) who has a white-collar desk job by day and teaches / hustles pool and poker by night to earn “extra” income, and the 75 year-old gay man named Richard who lost his partner of 25 years a few months ago and is looking for a boyfriend and brings a joint or two for the young veteran in the wheelchair that comes every week to the in-town game.

I suppose what I have learned to appreciate more than anything about Hold’ Em night at the local bar is more than just a promotional tactic to earn the bar more money and give folks with nothing better to do someplace to go hang out.  It is a facilitator of community that allows everyone to enter with a little bit of their authentic self while building another identity rooted in their skill and affinity for a game that takes time to learn and to play, but gives us plenty of time to learn about one another as well.
Thanks for indulging my shameless data repository as well as my musings.   Wish me luck tonight. I don’t have any illusions that I will be the last woman standing…but I hope to at least make it to the final table.  Okay, I’m bluffing.  I wanna win. You may also want to take a look at the

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