How to Run the Best Poker Home Game in Town
The Best Guide to Organzing Your Own Poker Home Games
This article is intended as a 'how to' guide for anyone interested in organizing poker home games. It promotes poker as a sociably enjoyable game of skill. In accordance with Hubpages policy, it does not promote the act of gambling.
Organizing your own poker home game is a great way to beat the bankroll-diminishing rake of the casino or the monotonous lonely grind of playing online. Hosting a poker night is a rewarding experience that grants you the power to shape the game in your own vision. A good host wins the gratitude of his guests along with a few of their chips.
As with any social gathering, there are certain responsibilities attached to the planning and running of a poker home game but these chores are always offset by the satisfaction and entertainment that come from an evening of cards and conversation.
I’ve played cards for over ten years and have been hosting poker home games for almost as long. Through this guide, I’ll share my experience with you and equip you with a checklist to facilitate your own plans, ensuring that your poker evenings are as enjoyable as mine. Where possible I've tried to explain the meanings to any esoteric poker terms but you can refer to this glossary if needed.
Ten reasons why hosting a poker home game is better than playing in a casino.
- There is no rake (playing fee) or professional dealer to tip.
- You can save money by buying your own drinks and food.
- Home games are usually friendlier and more sociable.
- You can set your own limits and choose which poker variation to play.
- You can listen to music while you play without having to wear earphones.
- You can smoke at the table if you wish.
- You don’t have to sit in the presence of obnoxious players or people you wouldn’t normally associate with.
- You can play for as long as you and your guests wish.
- You don’t have to worry about bringing your ID or adhering to a dress code.
- There is no need to tip the waitress.
Ten reasons why playing in a casino is betting than hosting your own game.
- You don’t have to bother with dealing or managing the pot - a professional takes care of this.
- Greater choice of games and limits.
- Professional security.
- Floor person to mediate disputes.
- Greater choice of food and drinks.
- More hands per hour.
- Players who leave are quickly replaced.
- Choice of other amusements if you grow bored with poker (this can be a disadvantage too).
- New faces, different conversations.
- You don’t have to prepare or clean up afterwards.
What will you need for your poker home game?
- A poker table – this is optional but will massively enhance your game. The padded rail or rim of the table will prevent the cards from sliding onto the floor when dealt (as often happens on glass table tops) and it is generally much easier to play poker on a felt surface, as opposed to a glass or wooden one. If you don’t already own a table, there are several types that you can invest in, starting from as little as $30. I currently use a very basic foldaway poker table top that rests perfectly on the surface of my circular kitchen table. For greater stability, I strap it down with back adhesive tape. Within the next few months, I plan on purchasing an oval-shaped poker table with a vinyl rail and foldable legs. You can store these behind wardrobes or in the garage and prices start at around $150.
- Poker chips – these are essential and unless you’re a penniless scholar, betting with matchsticks won’t satisfy your guests and betting with coins and notes is too much of a headache. The cheaper poker chips are made from plastic and a set of 500 will cost between $20 and $40. The more luxurious clay brands will set you back more. Having a minimum of four different colors is advisable. Custom chip sets are available to buy online for hosts that want to add a personal flourish to their games. Most chip sets come with a dealer button and storage unit – usually a small metal case.
- Dealer button – see above. If you don’t have one, or you’ve lost it, you can use a replacement object like a card holder or commemorative coin.
- Three or four decks of cards – you can’t play without ‘em. Having several spare decks at hand is a prudent move as a contingency measure for damaged decks or ones that have been destroyed by spilled beer. Cards have a natural lifespan and need to be replaced every so often depending on their quality.
- A timer – if you are playing a home poker tournament then you are required to time the levels. A wrist watch or mobile phone countdown alarm will suffice although it is better to have a device with a timer that is visible to all players.
- A money tin or box – to keep chips and buy-ins safe and organized. See section below entitled 'Stock the cage with change'. .
- Food and drink – see paragraph below entitled 'Food and Drinks'.
Why Do You Play poker?
Serious or Social? Decide what you want your game to be?
Poker is a competitive game of skill where the better players are rewarded and the weaker players are punished. A consequence of this is that some players are likely to take the game very seriously, others less so. Potentially a divide can occur between participants who are primarily concerned with the cards and those who came to socialize and drink. Will you be entertaining a social gathering or a group of poker players?
Often, the best games fall somewhere between the two extremes and there are several methods you can employ to keep the cards turning smoothly and the chips uncluttered. As a rule of thumb, you should set the buy-in in accordance with your game type; lower for drink-fueled parties, higher for sombre battles of wit and cunning. We’ll discuss this in more depth later.
Pick your format
There are two ways of playing poker – ring game and tournament format.
In a tournament, the participants buy in for a predetermined amount of chips with each competitor receiving the same amount of chips (also known as a chip-stack). The game is then contested as a knock-out tournament, with blinds increasing at regular intervals, and played until a single winner emerges. A prize can be rewarded solely to the victor, or distributed among the top place finishers. In a home poker tourney, It is the host’s decision as to how prizes are distributed although he should consult his guests first and MUST declare his decision before the tournament begins.
A single table tournament of ten players will typically see the top two or three receiving prizes. In single table tournaments online, the winner usually takes fifty percent of the prize fund; second place takes thirty percent and third takes twenty percent. You can deviate from this standard prize structure as you and your guests see fit but remember to declare your decision before the first cards are dealt.
One further consideration; will your tournament be a ‘freezeout’ or will it have a ‘rebuy’ period and will players have the choice of purchasing an ‘add-on’ at the end of the rebuy period? Rebuys and add-ons increase the size of the prize pool and give players a second or third chance, preventing their night from finishing prematurely. See below for definitions.
- Freezeout Tournament – In a freezeout tournament, a player is limited to the amount of chips he began with. Once has lost his starting stack, he cannot get more chips and his tournament is over.
- Rebuy Tournament – A rebuy tournament allows a player to get another stack of chips (usually the same amount that they began with for the same entry requirements) when they lose an all-in hand. The rebuy period only lasts for a pre-determined amount of time and afterwards, the tournament reverts to a freezeout format.
- Add-on – An add-on permits players the option of topping up their chip stack at the end of a set time limit.
The most complicated part of organizing a poker home game tournament is ensuring that starting stacks are properly balanced against the size of starting blinds and duration of each level. Deep starting stacks and lengthy blind levels will result in a longer tournament and vice versa. If you want your tournament to finish within a certain amount of time, you must gauge these measurements accurately. Although this is a skill that develops with experience, a good starting point is make the starting chip-stacks equal to 50 x the big blind and have the blinds increase by roughly 30% every 20-30 minutes.
- Ring Game
Ring games are the traditional way of playing poker. Players enter into the game whenever they arrive and leave whenever they please. Unlike a tournament, your chips in a ring game represent the exact amount that they were bought for. Ring games can last indefinitely, with two players, or ten, and only come to an end when there are no longer enough participants wishing to play. As there is no obligation to play down to a single winner, the blinds remain static throughout.
Most of my home games are played as a ring game format because it empowers players to participate for as long as they choose. In a home game tourney, you may find yourself in a situation where the final two or three players are needled impatiently by those who have been knocked out and wish to start a new game. This scenario cannot occur in a ring game because a player’s participation is only limited by the time and/or resources. In short, ring games keep everyone involved for the maximum amount of time and allow them to exchange their chips and leave the game whenever they grow bored or tired.
There are two important rules to note when organizing a ring game. Players are not permitted to ‘protect’ their chips by removing them from the table unless they have announced that they are leaving. This prevents cautious players from siphoning chips away from the field of play after they have won a big pot. Likewise, players who wish to get extra chips are required to wait until they are not involved in a hand. They can only play with the chips that are in front of them.
Select Your Game Limits
Limits should be set at a level comfortable for everyone involved. They should be high enough to make the game worthwhile and interesting without over-committing anyone. The friendlier the game, where enjoyment and socializing take precedence over the poker, the more important this latter consideration becomes.
In my own poker home games, which are genial affairs contested by relatively young and inexperienced players, we play at limits that won’t cause anyone serious hardship, even if they play appalling poker or receive a catastrophically terrible series of cards and beats.
For a ring game, you would typically set a minimum and maximum entry requirements which affords players a certain amount of flexibility in managing their resources. The size of the blinds is determined in relation to the overall limits. The minimum entry requirement should be no lower than twenty times the size of the big blind. If you find that the majority of players are entering the game for the minimum amount, you have set the limits too high and the blinds should be lowered.
If you are playing a tournament, you need to set an initial entry requirement and also decide if rebuys and add-ons are permitted. Estimate the average resources of each player and set entry and make allowances for add-ons, rebuys and additional tournaments. Like a ring game, limits should be discussed and finalized prior to the evening itself.
Whether you decide to host a ring game or tournament, it may be necessary to print off a chart showing the value of each colored chip. You can pin this to the wall so players can quickly familiarize themselves with how much each chip is worth. If you are running a tournament you can also include the blinds and levels on the chart.
Stock the cage with change
Unless he has nominated somebody else, the host is responsible for collecting entry requirements, and distributing chips and prizes. I use a little portable safe which is just spacious enough to contain entry requirements and a few larger domination chips for players wishing to top-up their stacks or re-buy.
You can never expect players to arrive with pocketfuls of change, no matter how many times you ask them, so ensure that you take precautions. This makes exchanging chips for their correct value at the end of the night much easier. Remember to arrange your chips into easily managed piles before the guests arrive so that you can quickly dispense them to the player after collecting their entry requirement.
If you are inviting strangers to your game, keep the chip box locked and in a secure place. It is rare that anybody will attempt to steal from you, and it certainly shouldn’t be a worry if you have invited only friends. However, on one of my poker nights, a couple of dubious characters somehow ended up at the table. One of them was seemingly drunk and used this as an excuse for knocking the portable safe onto the floor and trying to pocket some notes while I was cursing and scrambling to pick up the contents. He failed and quickly left the game before he was forcibly ejected. This is the only time an incidence like this has occurred in my poker home games but I should point out that I very rarely invite players who I don’t know.
Set the right environment
-Furniture and Lighting
For poker home games, I tend to arrange my apartment in the same manner as any other social gathering such as a party or dinner party. I move the playing table into the center of the room and realign the surrounding furniture so that there is ample space to walk around the table. I use lamps or desk lights to illuminate the felt surface whilst turning off the main lights so that the table area is brightly lit in contrast to the darkness of the surrounding room. This creates an intimate, ambient feel.
Although it is not traditional to play music in a poker game, I usually pick a radio station with minimal DJ chatter and advertising between songs and set it on low volume. This way, I don’t have to worry about getting up every time the CD finishes or the play-list ends. As with all aspects of creating your environment, music is entirely optional. If you do want some background music, keep it light and relaxing. Think Pink Floyd or the Grateful Dead rather than Rage Against the Machine or Dutch Techno.
Will you allow players to smoke or keep their drinks on the table during your poker home games? Although many poker tables are built with cup holders, they won’t prevent clumsy or drunken guests from spilling red wine across the flop as they lunge to rake in a huge pot they’ve just won. If you don’t allow drinks on the table, you will need to provide alternative surfaces, such as mini-tables or food carts, otherwise players will be perpetually holding their drink in one hand and counting chips with the other or having to reach down and place their drinks on the floor.
If smoking is banned outright then providing smokers with a place to indulge would be reasonable. The majority of players in my home games are smokers, myself included, and smoking is permitted at the table. I provide several ashtrays and try to keep the room well ventilated. My poker table is starting to age badly and I’m not concerned about players placing ashtrays and drinks on the table, as long as they are kept to the edge, and don’t obstruct the cards or chips.
-Food and Drinks
When playing for several straight hours, guests will inevitably get hungry. To avoid them devouring the contents of your fridge, ask each player to bring a tube of Pringles or bag of peanuts, something simple that you can rustle into a mini-buffet for everyone to share. Keep a selection of take-away menus at hand so that guests can call for a pizza whenever they please.
Remind people to bring their own drinks unless you are wealthy enough to keep a fully stocked bar. If you intend to rotate poker evenings between friends, playing at a different house each week or month, then the host could be in charge of providing drinks and food whenever the event is held at their respective home. This arrangement may not go down too well with a tea-total member of the group if the other players are raging alcoholics with penchants for champagne and single malt whiskeys. If you are the permanent host and you want to shop for the supplies yourself, you might consider asking guests for a small contribution to cover the cost of the food and drink.
As with hosting a party, make sure all of your preparatory chores are completed before the guests arrive so that you can devote your energies to pouring drinks, taking coats and getting the game underway.
Deal with drunk or abusive players
Excessively drunk or verbally aggressive players may need to be ordered to tone down their behavior if it is slowing down the game or irritating other players. This is a common sense move that is obviously applicable to all social events and not just a poker game.
Managing the game
Unlike a casino where a professional dealer is provided by the house, poker home games are usually dealt in turns. If your playing position is dealer, then you will also be expected to shuffle and deal the cards. For each hand, it is the dealer’s responsibility to manage the pot and keep the action moving.
To speed up the playing process, you may wish to keep two decks of cards at the table. While one is being dealt, the other gets shuffled ready for the next hand. At my poker nights, we only keep one deck in circulation because the game usually continues from 8pm to 6 or 7am so nobody is overly concerned with maximizing hands per hour, as you might find in a casino or higher stakes home game. If several inexperienced players are seated at the table and are not confident with shuffling, dealing and pot management, it may be sensible to exempt them from those duties and have somebody else deal on their behalf. It is possible to buy a device that shuffles the cards for you but I’ve never tested one and have been advised that the cheaper models are inconsistent at best.
To keep the action flowing smoothly, you should insist that the following rules are adhered to:
- Hole cards should be kept on the table in clear view directly in front of the player unless they have folded.
- Players who have folded should refrain from discussing the current hand until it is over.
- Players should not splash the pot (throwing chips into the pot in a careless manner that makes it harder for the dealer to calculate the bet).
- When making a bet, call or raise, players should position their chips directly in front of them until they are collected by the dealer at the end of the round.
- If a player moves all-in and receives several callers, the portion of the pot that he can win should be calculated by the dealer and positioned in front of the all-in player. This is now known as pot one and is the maximum amount that the all-in player can win on this hand. The remaining players continue betting as normal and any further chips are kept in a separate pile.
- If a player wishes to take change from the pot (i.e. he doesn’t have the correct denomination of chips for the bet or call he wants to make), he must announce this to the table before doing so. It should be the dealer’s responsibility to supply change from the pot however an inexperienced dealer may not know or remember this.
You should check that all players are familiar with how to deal the cards. After shuffling, the dealer should offer the deck to be cut by the player to his right (in the cut-off position). The dealer should also ‘burn’ a card before delivering the flop (if you're playing Hold em or Omaha) or a new round of hole cards (if you're playing stud). These are precautions that are taken to eliminate the possibility of cheating. In your friendly home game, these precautions aren’t really necessary but they are still a traditional aspect of poker dealing and should be followed for that reason alone.
Best game in town
Aspire to make your card nights relaxed and fun. Encourage new players to familiarize themselves with basic poker strategy. This might mean that you are less dominant against them but it also serves to sharpen their appetite for the game. If you intend to run a regular weekly or monthly poker home games, you can never have too many potential players. Not all players will be available for each game and having a large group of poker-loving friends means that there is always somebody to fill that last seat at the table. And if the game becomes bigger than you envisaged, you can always consider running two tables - assuming you have enough space. I live in a relatively cramped city center apartment but have managed to squeeze in two tables on a few occasions. I now try to concentrate on running high-quality single table ring games because allowing two tables to run simultaneously can eat into your time. If you do opt for a multi-table game, nominate experienced players as adjudicators for the tables at which you are not sat.
I hope you found this guide to hosting your own poker home games enjoyable and informative. If you have any questions, or don’t agree with any of the advice I’ve given, please leave your comments below and I’ll get back to you. You may also want to take a look at my poker accessories guide. Good luck and see you at the tables.