Poker is hand to hand combat without all the blood.
One of the main reasons poker is so painfully popular is because it’s a game of pure competition. If you’re in Vegas and you’re sitting at a poker table, you’re not quietly, anonymously playing against the house, you’re staring at the folks you’re playing… and it’s not a game of chance. Great cards help, but the only consistent way to win is to understand those sitting at the table with you so that you may beat them… at poker.
“Player knowledge” is the unspoken game in poker and, once you’ve played poker awhile, you’ll begin to hear whispers of it. It’s played out with subtle grins and nods between players. It’s the offhand comments that seem trivial… a hint of game that has little to do with the cards… it has to do with the power struggle at the table. Who is winning? Who is savvy? Who has taken a fierce beating and is just waiting to pounce?
If you watch poker, the best example of this game of subtly is when a professional player just loses it. He/She throws their cards down, stands out, crazed with frustration. Rookie observers think “Bad Beat” seasoned players observe watch the other players to see who just screwed the pro. The nod from the guy in the 3rd seat. That’s him. He just beat down the pro at his own game. Sweet.
I’ve been playing poker regularly for just under a year. Once I figured out that a flush beat a straight, Middlefinger and I started to talking about a home game… a regular game where we could get some reps against 3D people who have actual facial expressions.
With 20+ home games under my belt, I think I’ve found a valuable set of rules and ideas that creates a predictable, fun home game. My goal is to suggest a game which is fun for players of any skill. It’s approachable to someone who has never played before, but it’s also entertaining to someone very familiar with poker nuance and strategy. Your mileage may vary.
Decisions To Make Before You Begin
Fun or money? I’ve never played a poker game that hasn’t involved some type of cash, but I’ve heard of fun money games that folks throw in order to get rookie players up to speed. OOooOOooOOOk. I guess that’s a good way to learn about the mechanics of the game, but it doesn’t teach you the unspoken rules which appear when your paycheck is sitting on the table.
If you’re considering a fun money game, I’d suggest that maybe you and your friends aren’t ready for a formal poker game. Why not go online, get some reps in the scads of fun money rooms, and then put together a money game? If you and your friends are worried about the money involved, well, first, why are you thinking about playing poker? Second, you can construct the stakes in any way that you want… from pennies, to quarters, to dollars. I’ll talk about this more below, but the point is: Money on the table drastically changes the game of poker. If you’re playing for fun money, you’re playing the rules, not the game.
Type of game. I’m hugely biased here. All of our games are Texas Hold’Em. I’ve played in home games where it’s dealer’s choice and that can be entertaining… but the game is unpredictable and, frankly, not much more interesting than other games of chance. It’s still poker, but the wildly varying rule set means that many hands are a coinflip. Yawn.
I originally thought that a single game might bore folks, but we’ve never had a complaint. A single game which happens to be Hold’Em means players get to focus on a single, pure game.
Who to Invite. If you’re thinking about starting a new home game, you probably already have a set of friends that you think would make up a good crowd. Go for it. Have a ball. You’ll probably have amazing turn-out for that first game. The second game is a different story. The second game is when folks begin to realize that you’re the addict whereas they have actual lives, so you’ll need to cast your net a bit wider.
My only advice regarding potential player selection is to make sure they’ve played cards at some point. They don’t even need to know hand rankings… you can help with that… they just have to be comfortable in a poker game. There is no greater poker buzz kill than a clueless player who needs immense hand holding throughout the night. It slows the game down and frustrates everyone.
Anywhere from five to nine people makes for a good game. Less than five and you’re paying a lot of blinds and dealing with the same folks a lot… more than nine and you’re probably running out of table space.
Booze. Poker purists will suggest that drinking and poker don’t mix, but, people, we’re talking about a home game here. Of course we’re going to drink ourselves silly. Sure, there is money involved, but if your tables stakes are so high that you’re considering not drinking, well, your table stakes are too high. More on this shortly.
Accessories. You’re going to need some or all of the following before you begin.
- Cards. Two decks. Any brand will do. To keep the game moving along, I suggest one hand being used by the dealer and another to the left of the dealer which is pre-shuffled. Handy time saver.
- Button. This is usually some plastic doo-hickey which indicates who is currently the dealer. I use a box of Altoids. Most folks think this is a nice to have, but I think it’s a must have… especially in Hold’Em. The argument against the button is that, “We can remember who the dealer is.. we don’t need a button.” Three reasons to use a button:
- A button reminds the small/big blinds to put their bets up.
- A button reminds folk who is the dealer (duh).. while a simple visual cue, this becomes more of a big deal as the booze starts flowing.
- The dealer button represents the strongest betting position at the table as they bet last… they get to see all the betting before they have to make a decision and that is a big deal. No matter where I’m sitting relative to the button, I use the dealer button to quickly assess what to do with my hand when it’s my turn to act. A glance at the button and I know whether I’m early or whether I’m late. I also use the button as a starting point for counting how many folks are in the pot.
- Chips. There’s a wide spectrum of quality when it comes to chips. Any kind will do, but I suggest a small investment in decent chips. Why? Solid, heavy clay chips are a) more fun to play with and b) make the game feel like poker. If you are going to purchase chips, getting ones with denominations printed on the chip can make for, first, an easier set-up experience, and, second, less “what are the black ones for?” questions early in the game.
- Bucket o’ change. At the end of the night, you’re going to have players with wildly varying winnings for the night. Invariably, everyone brings $20s, so making change can get tricky. I suggest getting $40 in singles and throwing them in a jar. This prevents the last guy changing out from getting screwed as all the change has vanished.
- Poker table. Green felt. This is truly a “nice to have” when setting up your game. Again, this will give your game a bit more professional feel, but don’t sweat this. Save your money and go buy decent chips.
- Poker cheat sheet. A simple list of what hand beats another. Rookies are going to need this. It will increase their comfort level by decreasing the chance they do something stupid and blowing their confidence.
Terrific. You’ve got seven good friends sitting at the table, beer in hand, and everyone is looking at you, the host, for the kick-off. If you haven’t done so via email, it’s time to set some ground rules:
- Buy-in. How much is everything throwing in? $20 seems like a comfortable amount for the games I play. It’s enough to give folks the impression they’ve got some skin in the game, but not enough to make them nervous. We always allow folks to rebuy in any amount of they get low.
-Stakes. Since we’re playing Hold’Em, we’ve got to set the blinds. This is probably the trickiest decision of the evening. You must find a healthy midpoint between a bet which means something, but is not too high as to artificially scare players out of every pot.
If you set your blinds too low, everyone is going to be in every pot and the more advanced players are going to bitch about how they can’t protect their hands. If you set the blinds too high, you’re going to give rookies the shakes, they’re not going to want to play. Eventually the booze and/or decent cards are going to show up and they are going to play only to end up with a huge financial beat-down from a more experienced player holding an obvious nut flush. Yuck.
After a bunch of games, our group has settled on $.25/$.50 blinds for the starting blinds. We’ve also simplified the blinds so that both the small and big blind is $.25. Halfway through the night, there is discussion on raising the blinds to $.50/$1.00… sometimes we change it. Sometimes we don’t.
- Chip split. Once you’ve got your buy-in and stakes determined, you can split your chips up. No magic here. You want to focus the chip denominations on the small blind bet, so for a $.25/$.50 game, you want roughly half of the player’s chips to be a quarter. A stack about half as high should be fifty… etc etc etc. It turns out that there are standard values assigned to Poker Chips. Go figure.
- Raises. For regular games, we restrict the betting to three raises unless there are only two players in which case it’s unlimited raises. I know no-limit is a thrill, but no-limit is a better game for later in the night or for groups of more advanced players. No-limit means someone is going to leave pissed and leave early.
- Dealer. In our games, the button indicates who is the dealer. This means that everyone at the table is going to deal and that’s a fair way to go. In general, this slows the game down because you have dealers of varying ability. Two alternatives that we’ve never consistently tried:
- Single dealer. Make someone the dealer for the evening. If you pick someone competent, you can move your game along, but if the dealer starts to win they, will, invariably be accused of stacking the deck in their favor. Never fails.
- Professional dealer. I’ve heard of home games that bring in professional dealers for the night. Seems like a good idea save for the cost. Anyone tried this?
- Calling hands. In games without a professional dealer, the player usually must call his/her own hand. This shouldn’t be a big deal except for the game with the rookie players. If a player thinks they’ve lost their straight to a flush when they’ve really got a full boat, the theory is they’ve got a straight… since that’s what they think they have. This is cheeseball. Home games are friendly games and if you’re penalizes rookies for lack of experience, well, maybe you shouldn’t be having home games.
- Misdeals. With shifting dealers, you’re going to have your share of misdeals. The most common being a random card flipped up. Quick tip: If a single card is exposed, the Vegas way to deal with this is to make it the burn card. Some groups just redeal. Your call. Again, don’t get tense about it… we’re talking home games.
- Pros. I’m guessing really good poker players are bored at home games. If you’re bringing in someone who is an amazing poker player, you probably want to have a pre-game chat about what they should expect out of your game. “It’s about having fun. Don’t be a prick.”
- If you’re winning, shut up. At some point during the night, you’re going to get some amazing cards which, hopefully, will translate into big fat pots. That adrenalin burst you’ll feel when you hit the nut flush on the turn is called rush. While you’re scooping up that pot built by your flush, trip aces, and two high pairs, you’re going to want to yammer like an idiot. Don’t. Bad poker etiquette especially since these folks are your friends… for now. Polite hand analysis is fine, but remember that trip aces is on tilt, the shock of losing a pretty good hand, and your hyper blithering might force him to pop you one.
- Pot splits. Calculating Side Pots. Real quick.
- If two players tie, you split the pot with whatever indivisible remainder going to the first winning player to the left of the button… or you can throw the extra into the next pot. Whatever works.
- If one player is “all in” meaning they have no more chips, the player can not win more than they’ve wagered themselves. Anything more than the maximum they can win is a side-pot for the players who still have cash and are in the hand.
- All-in Tournaments. At our home game, we tried a couple of tournaments late in the evening, but we’ve stopped doing this probably because of the hassle involved in changing out, redistribution chips, and finding some way to time rounds. The fact that a good portion of us are drunk doesn’t help.
I really like tournaments. I like no-limit a lot, so I’d like to figure out a way to regularly include them in home games. Maybe have regular game nights and tournament nights? Any ideas out there?
Post Game Report
At the end of the evening, I make sure to check-in with rookies on what they thought of the game. More often than not, rookies play a very conservative game which means they either are up or close to even. This is good news… it means they’ll come back.
My favorite comment from rookies in this state is when they say, “It’s all about luck, right?”
Riiiiight. You come back real soon, ya’hear?
My fascination with poker has little to do with the money. The money is essential, it gives the game it’s teeth, but it’s the players that give this game it’s depth. The players are the impossible variable that makes the understanding of how to play poker a lifelong endeavor.
p.s. If you’re in the Bay Area and you’ve got a regular game. Drop me a line, I’d be happy to lose my money to you.