Kings and Little Men

A singular, forceful personality can alter the entire vibe of a table. It only takes one asshole to ruin a good time, but one magnanimous person can transform the most boring table into a raucous affair.

Behold, the table captain. There’s one at every poker table, whether you realize it or not. The most responsible table captains wield their power in a culpable manner that is good for the game, while the most dangerous table captains resemble crooked politicians exploiting their power for their own personal gain.

Kings and Little MenA table captain is sort of like being the class president of a poker table, but under dire circumstances, it’s more akin to being a gang leader fighting a vicious turf war. A captivating captain holds a powerful reign over their table. The average Texas Hold’em table is 84” by 42”. The dimensions are small but a master manipulator controls all nine egos at the table, ruling that confined space with supreme authority, including the dealer.

Captains come in all shapes and sizes but they’re typically the most influential personality at the table. Alpha males/females are dominating people no matter where they go, so they were born to be table captains and instinctively seize control whenever a power vacuum exists. Extremely outgoing and gregarious people often fall into a leadership role, sort of like the cool kid in class who transcends all cliques. Attention whores never pass up an opportunity to seek out the validation of others and a poker table gives them a built-in audience and an intimate space to perform. Emotionally disturbed people suffering from personality disorders often use a poker game as a rare opportunity to exert supreme authority over everyone else.

To be (the captain), or not to be?

Over the long run, becoming the dominant personality at the table has many advantages, like controlling the flow of the table or instilling a positive vibe that is beneficial for all parties involved. My favorite table captains are fantastic hosts like a game-show emcee. Genial table captains are constantly welcoming new players and new dealers to the table in a cordial matter. The most relaxing tables in any poker room resemble a friendly neighborhood bar like “Cheers,” where everyone knows your name. A fun and laid-back atmosphere often takes the nasty sting out of a losing night.

Bad table draws include anything with a slow dealer and dull-eyed players engrossed in snooze-inducing conversation. A good table captain can loosen up even the most uptight nits and stiff nut peddlers. A table captain is part-stand-up comic eliciting a few laughs, or an old-school talk-show host like Johnny Carson or Dick Cavett extracting a laborious story from a listless guest. Sometimes the table captain breaks up the monotony and injects some much-needed life to a table, sort of like Rodney Dangerfield in “Caddyshack.”

Table captains are like soul-soothing shrinks offering sincere words of encouragement when a distraught player is running bad and self-indulgently venting about bad beats. A fatherly table captain is like a seasoned coach who knows how to stroke an anguished player’s ego.

Highly effective table captains are amazing referees who calm down irate players and know when to intervene in an argument and mollify a player/dealer disputes. Part of a table captain’s job is to keep everyone honest if the dealer misses something, but they never overstep their boundaries and allow floor people and dealers to run the games. They respect the rules, especially the spirit of the law.

Some of the worst table captains are rules’ nits and harp on every infraction. It’s almost like living in a dystopian police state. Self-absorbed table captains have little respect for the dealer and demand to see the floor person to discuss innocuous issues. Annoying table captains love confrontations with TDs and poker room managers for the sole purpose of demonstrating their vast knowledge of poker rules. Those supreme egomaniacs abuse their power and slow down the pace of the game. I want to see as many hands as possible and play at a table that is like a well-oiled machine, but overbearing captains who are sticklers for the rules create unnecessary delays.

The worst table captains are braggadocios who won’t stop talking about their favorite topic: themselves. They often claim to beat nosebleed stakes, yet we should be honored that they’re gracing us with their presence by slumming at a $1-2 NL table. Some of the most nightmarish situations I encountered in poker rooms involved a seat next to a pompous table captain who prattled on and on about their own brilliance. They never misplayed a hand, yet easily find 14 different ways you screwed yours up.

An effective table captain is like the mayor of the poker room, someone who knows and treats everyone with equal respect. Those beloved mayors instill a jovial atmosphere, similar to playing in a home game, even though it is a formal casino setting. Win or lose, everyone has a good time when you’re at the mayor’s table. That’s the ultimate goal right? Even if someone loses (especially inferior players with deep pockets), they’re more apt to return if they had a pleasurable experience. The worst possible scenario is to alienate a juicy player because they’re turned off by an abrasive table captain’s snobby vibe.

“Well screw those stuck-up poker dorks. They don’t deserve my money. I’d rather donk off my cash in the pits and be surrounded by people having fun.”

I feel compelled to take down corrupt table captains misusing their power. Whenever I see anyone berate another player, I’m overwhelmed with a self-righteous anti-bullying streak. I was taught to stand up to bullies, but more importantly, to help those who can’t help themselves. When a table captain incurs a bad beat and goes off on a Hellmuthian tirade, I often want to kick them in the genitals, or hold them down while the rest of the table beats them unconscious with bars of soap like that “Code Red” scene in “Full Metal Jacket.”

I’m also from the “don’t tap the glass” school of thought. Even if an uber-fish makes a boneheaded play, a diplomatic table captain shines it on. Being a gracious loser is proper etiquette, but being an even more gracious winner pays off substantial dividends over the long run.

I have a theory that abusive table captains were not hugged enough as a kid and they absorb the role of table captain as a way to correct a previous injustice from their childhood. I know this a 10-cent clinical analysis, but disparaging table captains are usually out prove something. T­he clinical term for anyone who obsessively craves attention and validation is narcissist personality disorder (NPD). Narcissists are megalomaniacs that seek out supreme power and authority, which is why they naturally gravitate toward the role of table captain because it allows them to maintain power over a group in order to feed their insatiable egos. Holding court is a form of recognition and it allows narcissists to feel special and distinguish their so-called superior selves from the inferior masses.

The most obnoxious table captains are Cliff Clavin clones, like the aggravating, know-it-all mailman from “Cheers.” I loathe those faux-intellectual snobs who overanalyze every street of every hand, often dismissing losing players with a condescending comment. Worst of all, they provide an obnoxious play-by-play with the vanilla-flavored flair of Joe Buck.

The anonymity of the Internet allows online poker players to act defiantly. You can turn off the table chat and ignore the trolls. So if/when you make a bad move, you can avoid the slings and arrows of disdain from a virtual table captain. In a live setting, socially awkward and meek people avoid public humiliation at all costs. They acquiesce to bullies and alter their play in order to get on the good side of the table captain. No one wants to get berated by the ring leader. It sounds so foolish and resembles high school pecking order, like a scene out of “Mean Girls,” with insecure teenagers fawning over the Queen Bee. An unscrupulous table captain uses psychological fear of alienation to their advantage. The moment anyone challenges the captain’s authority, retribution is swift and merciless, usually with a sharp barb or a belittling remark. If you misplay one hand or suck out on the river, you might never hear the end of it for the remainder of the session while you’re verbally accosted by the table captain and their minions.

Ousting a nefarious table captain can reap financial rewards. Or in extreme cases when the table captain is an annoying chatterbox who won’t shut the hell up, picking them off is a sure-fire way to get a little peace and quiet.

Tyrants maintain power through Machiavellian principles of fear and paranoia. Fierce and intimidating table captains have the ability to neuter individual playing styles without even playing a pot. It’s a weird psychological reaction, but the world has no shortage of passive sheep begging to be shepherded. When you assemble a crowd of 10 strangers, a herd-like mentality takes over the moment someone exercises a glint of authority. They’re wired to be “Betas” or natural-born followers.

If you can eliminate a threatening table captain, the rest of the table will instantly fall in line behind you under the theory that “whoever kills the king becomes the king.” Once the transfer of power is complete, you have the juice. It’s good to be the king, until a new gunslinger arrives with one thing on their mind — destabilize power by assassinating the table captain.