6 January 2009


A complete beginner's guide to hosting home poker games. First published in Poker Player magazine, so a certain amount of very basic poker knowledge (eg the difference between limit, pot limit and no-limit) was assumed.











































with The Reverend Stuart Campbell

If you’ve ever watched a Tournament Director setting out the tables and chips, shouting out the blind levels when the timer beeps and tidying everything away at the end of the game, or if you’ve already had a few informal games with mates, you might have formed the conclusion that running a proper poker game is incredibly easy.

Well, you’re wrong. Actually, it’s only pretty easy, and over the next six months we’re going to take a journey through the running of successful tourneys and cash games, from the simplest no-budget kitchen-table affair right up to the point where you’ll be able to handle the management and administration of an entire league. We’ll also be learning what the best kit is to give you the ultimate poker experience without breaking the bank, and what some of the pitfalls are that lead to a friendly evening of card-playing ending up with squadrons of police cars at your front door and a hefty glazier’s bill.

So this month, the basics. All you absolutely NEED for a game of poker is a deck of cards and something to bet with, but you don’t really want to all be sat on the carpet and straining your spines shunting piles of Chewits wrappers around, so first set yourself up with a nice sturdy table and some friends.

A lot of home games fail even at this early stage, because poker is best with 7-10 players to a table and most people’s dining rooms only come with four or maybe six chairs, so it can be surprisingly hard just to get everyone sensibly seated (ie without some poor sap perched on a little footstool or a living-room armchair two feet lower than everyone else with the cards flying straight into their eyes). That’s a pretty embarrassing way to screw up your first game-hosting evening, so make sure you’ve got somewhere for everyone to sit, even if it means asking some people to bring their own chair.

Even an ordinary tablecloth or sofa throw, firmly secured, can still give you
a fairly classy playing surface, and the glass stones will look good on it.

If you’ve chosen a ring game (see CASH OR TOURNAMENT? below) you can play with actual money instead of chips, but it’s a bit tacky and it needs someone to go to the bank in advance for a hefty bag of change. (Unless you’re one of those people who keeps a big jar of shrapnel to save up for stuff the missus won’t let you buy normally, in which case you have bigger problems than inexpertly-run poker games.) And if you use Smarties, it’s hard to avoid eating your stack.

If you don’t want to fork out for a set of proper chips at this point, an excellent cheap alternative are the little coloured-glass “stones” that you can find in pet shops, craft stores and supermarkets for putting in fishtanks and the like. A fiver will sort you out with enough of those for a dozen or more players, and they’re nicely weighted with a solid clinking sound that isn’t too girly, and makes you feel as if you’re playing with a bunch of hard-bitten South African diamond miners.

And bear in mind that if you’ve gone for a tournament game you should always remember to provide some entertainment for bustouts. Obvious examples are a games console or some DVDs to watch, but those are noisy and can end up being distracting for the players still left in the game, so a bunch of quality magazines – such as this one you’re reading now – is probably the best idea for occupying bustees quietly. Another option is to keep them involved by getting them to act as dealer, but obviously that only works for the first person out.

Of course, you can always make a virtue out of necessity, and use your lack of Vegas-style
casino gear to turn your card game into an Edwardian-dandy theme night.

So that’s the Home Poker For Dummies stuff sorted. These simple steps should give you a workable game with no major disasters, and next month we’ll start getting into an altogether more professional sort of setup. There might be some nudity. See you then!


Once you've sorted out the basic mechanics, you're going to want to have a think about what sort of game it is that you actually want to host. There are roughly four million variants of poker, so which format is best suited to your players?


The very first decision you’re going to have to make is whether you're going to go for a tournament or a ring game (more commonly called a “cash game”, even though both types are obviously played for cash). The main advantage of a tournament is that it limits the maximum amount anyone can lose, and is therefore good for protecting friendships, while the main point in favour of a ring game is that you don’t have a situation where someone busts out in the first five minutes and has to spend the rest of the night twiddling their thumbs and/or getting bored, drunk and disruptive.

A compromise we’ve recently trialled successfully in our own poker group is a £20 freezeout tourney with a single rebuy or top-up of £10 for half the original starting stack if you bust out or fall below a certain level (say half or a quarter of what you started with) at any time in the first 90 minutes. That puts a pretty modest ceiling on anyone’s losses, but gives everyone a second chance in the event of getting over-excited early on and donking off all or most of their chips. Making the rebuy only half of the starting stack encourages more careful play in future.


If this is your first stab at a home game, or if some of your players are new to poker, no-limit hold’em is probably jumping in at the deep end. Remember, everyone was a noob once, and if you get constantly bullied with scary all-ins you’re probably going to have no fun and not want to come back. (And you want that inexperienced dead money at your table every week, don’t you…?)

On the other hand, limit poker is horribly dull, almost impossible to win at if you get rotten cards, and is actually the most complicated form of the game, none of which are attractive traits for the beginner. So consider playing pot-limit for at least your first few games, whether ring or tourney – it helps novices restrict their losses in any given hand, while the more veteran players at the table can easily effectively turn the game into no-limit anyway when they tangle with each other.


Structure isn’t quite as important in home games as it is at “outside” locations, because obviously you don’t have a rigid closing time you have to be finished by. But you don’t really want to be going on until 7 o’clock in the morning, so if you’re playing a tournament you should structure the blind levels so as to be done at a reasonable hour.

(In a ring game, you can just set a finish time and then cash everyone out when you reach it. But stick to it, and don’t let anyone have “just another couple of hands” to try to recoup their losses, because that can end very badly.)

As a very rough rule of thumb, you can expect a game to be over when the big blind is about one level below the starting stack – that is, if you start with 8000 chips, you’ll probably get a winner around the time the blinds get to 3000/6000. So build your structure with that aim in mind, and keep the progression of levels reasonably steady so there’s a good balance between stagnation and a crapshoot. Levels 25 minutes long, give or take 5 minutes, are a good ballpark.

The Reverend is Assistant Organiser of the Bristol & South West Poker Meetup Group, which runs scheduled single- and multi-table tournaments and cash games at numerous venues across the region and is sponsored by Poker.co.uk.

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