Tipping in Live Poker Games

By Trent Bottin

Should I Tip, and if so How Much?

he posed a simple question - how profitable was my play?

I am not a professional poker player nor do I play for leisure; I am somewhere in the middle.  As my passion for cards grew, so did the amount of money that I was putting at risk and, while I am able to responsibly maintain my bankroll in the discretionary column of the domestic balance sheet, I am very conscientious of its health.  This was not always the case.  A friend and I were exchanging thoughts on career poker players a while back and he posed a simple question - how profitable was my play?  I had read extensively from the literary canon dedicated to the subject, spent hours applying various strategies and refining my game but I was unable to quantify the most basic business metric.  At that moment, it occurred to me that my favorite pastime just became more complicated.

Identify All of the Costs of Playing Poker

How many well intentioned entrepreneurs had their great ideas go unrealized because they neither understood nor could apply the required practices to manage a successful company?  Read any book on playing poker and you will notice the author's focus is on explaining a wide range of issues players need to consider in order to increase their odds and maximize the profits of any particular outcome.  Now read ten more books and ask yourself how much attention has been dedicated to minimizing career expenses.  I am not talking about probabilistic risk minimization; I am talking about non-poker theory related cost reduction.  Consider this: you drive 30 miles to play in your favorite game, when you sit down you are 60 round-trip miles in gas and one hour in time behind (whatever that translates to in monetary terms) and you have not even posted your first blind. The cold hard reality is that if you want to play for other than simple leisure, you need to make and keep more money than you lose; you need to identify ALL costs associated with your game and then come up with a strategy to reduce or eliminate them all together.  Failure to do so will be the difference between playing in the black (with other people's money) and consistently having to recharge your bankroll's batteries.

I began to meticulously track all financial aspects related to my poker play and it was not long before I had collected enough data points to begin drawing conclusions.

Realizing profits is tough; it requires hard work and the shrewdness of a successful business person.  After the conversation mentioned above, I began to meticulously track all financial aspects related to my poker play and it was not long before I had collected enough data points to begin drawing conclusions. Unexpectedly, I noticed that one of my biggest re-occurring expenses (the worst kind) was the amount of money I was giving back to the house in the form of tips to the dealers.  Turning to the internet to see what others were saying on the topic, it became apparent that this is an issue that people approach with strong and emotional opinions but very little in the body of discussion outlined any fiscal logic (WARNING: an opinion coupled with emotions rarely translates to a rational thought).

Is Dealer Tipping a Gratuity?

What is a gratuity?  A gratuity is an award given without obligation for services rendered.  But explain what service the dealer performs beyond what they are being paid for and how it influences an outcome to your advantage.  All of the tables I play at have auto-shufflers and the dealer is just presenting the cards in accordance with some commonly adopted set of rules based on that game.  Does a tip garner special treatment from the dealer beyond pleasant conversation?  Does your tipping behavior influence an opponent's play in subsequent hands?  Does the dealer reciprocate if you run into a series of deuce-seven hands, if they do not finish off your draws in accordance with the statistical probabilities or if they dealt you AA and then the board gives your opponent's lesser hand the advantage?  No.  If my line of reasoning was incorrect there would be just as much attention given to dealer management as there is to position play, betting strategies, player manipulation, pot management, etc.  So, why would any player attempting to make a profit accept an expense for which there is no reasonable expectation for a return on their investment?  NOT a sound business practice.

This concept is hard to put into practical application because of the amount of interaction and time we spend with the dealers.  I once engaged in a conversation with a successful, local, small business owner and presented my position to him. Surely a man who made more than $600,000 a year would accept my logic.  I asked him how he would handle an expense in his company that he was not obligated to pay and served no purpose (i.e. did not contribute in some manner to his bottom line).  He quickly stated that he could not nor would tolerate such an expense in his (or any) business profession.  When I posed the same question in the context of tipping the dealer, he saw my point but still defended the act by stating that dealers only make minimum wage and rely on tips to earn the balance of their living.  The primary case for tipping given by proponents of the act is based on the notion that there is an obligation to the dealer(s) based not on the role they play with respect to the outcome of any particular hand but rather on how poorly they are paid.  Are people obligated to tip the gas station attendant as well?  You will note that I suggested above that each gratuity given is going to the house because I realized that casinos are the true beneficiary of players’ generosity.  After removing all of the rhetoric, a casino is a business run by smart people that understand that gratuities are a mechanism that can be used to defer THEIR expense (i.e. the dealer's salary) to YOU the customer.

There's No Realistic Way to Get Around Tipping the Dealer.

I am not advocating NOT tipping, quite the contrary…by other people.  What would happen if every player stopped tipping?  The dealers that could would seek employment elsewhere.  This would force casinos to pay higher wages which they would offset by increasing the rake becoming an unavoidable expense.  For example, it is a commonly accepted notion that the winner of a hand pays the house.  If a casino with a $4 rake was forced to increase it to $5 ($4 to the house, $1 to the dealer), each hand I won would represent an additional $1 of unrealized profits and it would be an expense which I had no ability to manipulate.  Fortunately, the odds of ever experiencing a tip-free casino are less than beating a King-high straight flush.  Ideally, you would like to not incur the expense at all but this is not realistic; the tension between you and the dealer(s) will simply prevent your ability to relax and enjoy the game.  The optimal solution is to adopt some guidelines whereby you are able to defer the majority of the implied expense to the other players and keep the explicit portion below some acceptable threshold.

Tipping Strategy: Share Your Successes with the Dealer

One strategy I have adopted is to share my success with the dealer in terms of how much I am able to extract from my opponent(s) and inversely to how much I had to work.  For example, if I am dealt a monster hand, and then flopped the nuts, I probably won't be able to get much action and thus will pull a small pot.  Even a small tip here represents too great of a percentage of my profit.  I am less likely to tip if I am forced to make a series of tough decisions.  On the other hand, if I make a position play with a marginal hand that pans out (and usually yields a higher return than obviously strong hands) or I find myself walking through a multi-player hand (which translates to a lower risk/return ratio) I am more inclined to reward the dealer.  This works well when I am "running good" and tips are coming from free-flowing gains but when I am struggling, the cumulative total can easily exceed gains. 

When Struggling Consider Tipping on the Dealer Change

In such cases I use a different strategy where I tip at the end of each dealer’s session at the table.  I note the size of my stack when the dealers change out and, if I am up at the next switch; I give the out-going dealer an appropriate tip. Finally, there is one scenario that I always tip the dealer.  As much as I would like to think I always play a solid game, there are times when I put my opponent on the wrong hand or I make a bad play and I see that I am a dog after the cards are turned up.  If I find myself in this position and the board turns in my favor - I give props to the dealer.  I do not consider this rule inconsistent with my general beliefs.  While the dealer did not personally influence the outcome, neither did I...I just got lucky.

Using Other's Tipping Style to Learn About Their Poker Play Style

One aspect of tipping that readers may not think to consider is the ability to identify weaker players.  Just as you would note a player that consistently demonstrates poor position play and bad starting hand selection as a favorable target, I also monitor my opponent's tipping habits.  I assume most serious players recognize gratuities as a drain on profits and minimize their exposure, approaching this facet in a systematic and disciplined manner.  High tip/profit ratios indicate euphoria that is tempered by experience.  Frequently tipping small pots indicates poor discipline (stack management) which frequently translates to the individual's play.  Not tipping a good hand suggests a poor understanding of the accepted conventions (i.e. a beginner) or a player that is stuck and potentially on playing on tilt.