9 March 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 been following this column Blue Peter-style since the beginning, then by now you’ll be at the point where you’ve got a well-structured home game of poker going, played with some nice professional chips. But if you’re an alert and cultured viewer of the sort this column likes to cultivate, you’ve probably noticed that your cards are starting to look a bit shabby.

The packs that come with the average chipset or that you’ve got in a drawer or bought from WH Smiths are okay for an annual game of gin rummy at Christmas, but the intensive handling of a serious poker game is a different kettle of sausages altogether, and ordinary cards will very quickly get bent, marked and stained to the point where you can identify every card in the deck from the back alone. (As well as just not being very nice to handle in the first place.) What you need are some proper decks that’ll stand up to hours of riffling, shuffling, dropping on the floor and spilling and still look as if they’ve just come out of the cellophane.

The first thing to note is that anything other than 100%-plastic cards are a false economy. Paper or plastic-coated cards – even if you buy good name brands like Bicycle or ex-casino decks - are hard to riffle, prone to bending up at the corners after just minutes of play, and if one gets creased it’s creased forever. (Real casino dealers always shuffle the cards face-down on the table, so casinos use plastic-coated cards because they’re cheaper.) But don’t be scared – you can get some excellent-quality plastic cards for little or no more money than crappy paper ones, and plastic doesn’t crease or tear and can be wiped clean when some muppet knocks an entire pint over it. Here are some of the best options.

KEM ARROWS (typically around £22 for a twin-deck pack)

Kems are generally considered to be the gold standard of playing cards. Incredibly flexible and hard-wearing, they handle absolutely beautifully and look pretty nice to boot. However, they do have an odd tendency to curl up at the edges if you leave them unattended for any length of time, and while it’s easily remedied by putting them back in their box it’s still slightly irritating when you're forking out that sort of cash.

COPAG POKER PEEK INDEX (around £14 for two decks)

My personal favourites. (The short-sighted sometimes dislike the mini-indices at the corners, but you can get regular-index and plain jumbo-index versions too.) Less glossy and a fraction firmer than the Arrows, they’re still so flexible and glidey that they practically riffle themselves, without being so slippery that they skid out of your hands. In this columnist's view, Copags are without doubt the playing-cards of champions. 

DAL NEGRO TORCELLO (around £6 for a single deck)

Other hosts in the B&SW Poker Meetup group swear by these, and they’re a lovely, extremely durable card, a little stiffer than the previous two but still a pleasure to work with. An added bonus is that they’re sold in single packs with proper cardboard boxes, unlike the Copags and Kems (see BOXING STUPID), and they’re also quad-indexed in case you have any left-handers at the table. Avoid Dal Negro Excelsiors, which are horrible.

ROYAL POKER SIZE (from around £1.80 per deck)

These are the cards to go for if your players are particularly robust or clumsy. While still very bendy, they’re made of heavier, glossier stock than most of the cards in this roundup and are almost indestructible, though the trade-off is slightly less smooth handling. They’re also the cheapest, but I found them more prone to printing marks than other brands – buy at least one more deck than you need, so that you can swap out marked cards with ones from the spare pack. They're also quite hard to find in the UK, but can be bought from the US via eBay, with very reasonable shipping rates if you're buying several decks at once.


These, though, are probably the best all-rounders for occasional home-game use. They shuffle and deal almost as well as cards three, four and five times the price, they look good (especially the drinkstuff.com cards at the top of the picture, because they’re cheeky exact knockoffs of the Kem Arrows back design, so get ‘em before the lawyers show up), and they come in proper individual cardboard boxes so you can put them in your chip case.

Next month: showing off your nice new chips and cards on a proper playing field.





Once you dip your toe into the world of premium playing cards it’s easy to get carried away, to the point where you’re buying ridiculous decks made of ultra-thin stainless steel that cost £100 a pop. But even below that level you might find yourself tempted by other “special” cards in an attempt to make your game a touch more stylish. Don’t do it – poker players really hate them.

Whether it’s freaky-looking commemorative designs modelled on the first ever Copag decks from 100 years ago, reverse-colour black-and-silver packs intended for goth magicians, or even transparent plastic cards that you can make faces at the other players through, everyone will just moan that they’re “too weird” or that they can’t tell the spades from the clubs, until you give in and get some bog-standard decks out again. So save yourself the earache and stick to normal designs.

They might look arty and pretty, but it turns out that artiness and prettiness
aren’t major parts of what poker players want from a game of cards.



One thing that a lot of people don’t like about live poker as opposed to online is the relatively slow pace, particularly the long delay between hands while people obsessively shuffle the deck until half the pips rub off. One solution is to just slap anyone who shuffles for more than 10 seconds hard across the face, but a friendlier way is to double-deck. It often confuses people who haven’t done it before, but it’s actually a simple process and it speeds live poker up dramatically.

You need two decks of cards, obviously in different colours. While a hand is being played with one deck (eg red), the person to the right of the dealer shuffles the other deck (let’s say blue). When the hand is over, the dealer takes the shuffled blue cards and cuts them to the new dealer, and then gathers up the red cards from the table and shuffles the red deck while the new hand is being dealt with the blue one. Next hand, the process obviously repeats with the colours reversed.

That’s all there is to it, and it means there’s no delay between hands, since there’s always a freshly-shuffled deck ready to go the second the previous hand ends, and the OCD loons have all the time they need to ensure that it’s been randomised to within an inch of its life. Try double-decking once and you’ll never go back.



An odd quirk of paying out top dollar for super-fancy playing cards is that you don’t get any practical packaging for your money. If you’re at the point where you’re laying down 20 quid for two decks of cards, it’s probably a fair bet that you’re also carrying your chips in a nice case, which usually come with slots for two individual packs. So why do all the expensive cards come in stupid twin-pack plastic boxes or commemorative tins inside which the cards just flap around loose, leaving you twatting around making sure there aren’t any red cards in the blue decks before you can start?

You can’t put the plastic box in your chip case, and you can’t put the individual decks in there either because they don’t have their own cardboard boxes and will fly around all over the place getting scratched and bent. You end up having to stuff your lavishly-expensive Kems or Copags into the flimsy boxes of the crappy Bloggo’s Budget Cards that came with the case. What tool thought of that one?

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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