If people are new to poker, and particularly if they have graduated to the game from the blackjack tables, they might think there are a number of hand signals poker players use either to convey information or to instruct the dealer of their intentions.
While this is maybe a forgivable assumption, it’s important to draw some important distinctions right away between other table games and poker, particularly the major poker tournaments and cash games played in major casinos.
In most table games — including the one called Texas Hold’em Poker (or Ultimate Texas Hold’em Poker) — players are playing against the dealer, who is representing the “house”, i.e., the casino itself. It therefore doesn’t usually matter what signals players make, nor what information they might wish to impart about either their cards or their betting intentions. The game’s mechanics are unaffected by this kind of thing.
In what we might call “regular” poker, however, it’s very important not to be passing on information to opponents, even if they might be friends, in a surreptitious fashion. Any unconventional hand signals will be frowned upon and will most likely result in some kind of penalty.
It’s also important to note that there actually aren’t all that many hand signals used by poker players in the course of a normal game. While a blackjack player might scratch the table to signal “hit me” or make a swiping motion to signal “stand”, poker players only really use the table-knock to indicate that they’re checking. There’s nothing equivalent of the “hit me” signal in poker.
With that in mind, and because some people are still confused as to whether there might be hand signals in poker, here’s a quick overview of how poker players use their hands.
When a player is faced with an opponent’s action, and they are deciding exactly which option to take in response, only one absolutely demands the use of the hands. It’s the “fold”, which requires the player to return their cards to the dealer. Of course, there are various flourishes one can take while pursuing this option. There’s the exasperated “sigh-fold”, which will usually mean an exaggerated tossing of the cards back into the muck. There’s the “f— you!” fold, which might be accompanied by a wince and more of a flinging of the cards towards the dealer. Then there’s the much more passive, no-big-deal fold, suggesting a player wasn’t that interested in playing these two cards anyway. And then we have the can’t-get-rid-of-them-quickly-enough fold, where the cards are scorched across the baize as if radioactive. As ever, of course, none of these are preferable to the simple, slow, deliberate and conventional, gentle pick-up-and-deposit-elsewhere fold. If you keep it consistent, you won’t be giving away any additional information for an opponent to use against you at a later date.
Most experienced players know, but some novice players might not realise, that actions are almost always binding at the poker table. If you say “call”, you can’t then say “raise” because you’re committed to the first word out of your mouth. Importantly, this also goes for whatever you do with your hands, and if, following an opponent’s bet and no verbal declaration from you, you begin to move chips into a pot, this will go as a call. You cannot, for instance, first put a small pile of chips forward and then start adding to them — that is a string bet. Similarly, you can’t push some chips across the line and then reach for them back. The minute you make that forward motion, it’s binding. So while there’s no specific hand motion that signals “Call” without verbal confirmation, any movement of your hands containing chips, accompanied by silence, will be taken to mean just that.
Much as above, if you remain silent while putting chips over the betting line in a hand of poker, this motion will be considered binding. So if you push a number of chips forward without declaring your intention, it will be taken to be a call (if less or equal to a previous bet) and a raise if it’s more. The one exception to this — and it’s something you see quite often in major tournaments — is the “one-chip call”. This means that if you put a single chip over the line — either of a lower or a higher denomination to the previous bet — it is considered a call. Be careful of this, particularly if you are intending to raise. It doesn’t matter if the denomination of your chip is much higher than the current bet — say, you’re putting a 25K chip over the line after a bet of 5K. If you only put one chip out there, and you don’t announce anything verbally, it’s going to be taken as a call.
Aha, now we’re talking. Checking is the only common poker action for which there is a designated hand signal, and there are numerous ways you can do it. Essentially, a check is designated by some kind of knock on the table, but while the rank amateurs (on, say, Celebrity Poker Showdown or some such late-night made-for-TV disaster) might go for the all-out knuckle-rap, most of the more experienced players will be more subtle. The one finger table tap is common, especially among players who have mastered the art of remaining statuesque. They move only one finger, keeping all other parts of the body entirely rigid, in a bid to give nothing away. Sometimes players will have their arms crossed in front of their body, with a hand clasped around an opposing arm. They then tap their finger on to a triceps, signalling a check.
The major downside of this kind of understated action is that it relies on the dealer to a) notice it or b) not mistake something else for a check. If the dealer doesn’t notice it, play could grind to a complete halt with the player thinking action has moved on, but the dealer actually still waiting for a perceptible indication of what is intended. The other problem is if the player is simply actually making a tiny movement before reaching for chips, and the dealer thinks it’s a check. That can sometimes necessitate a ruling.
The one simple word of advice for anyone confused by the use of hand gestures in poker is this: if in doubt, say it. It takes away all the ambiguity.