So, you want to start a home game. I mean, why wouldn’t you want to start a home game? Home poker games are some of the most fun you can have, and it’s incredibly easy to start one. These days when everybody is wrapped up in their devices and binge-watching the most recent TV hit, a home poker game is a glorious return to the days when people actually got together and socialized with each other.
I’ve hosted more home poker games than I can count, and played in home games in dozens of basements, kitchens, and dining rooms. I’ve experienced the good, the awesome, and the awful – so if there’s a better or worse way to run a home game, I’ve seen it.
With that, I offer here a guide to setting up your own home game. In return, I only ask that you give me a seat next time I’m in your town. Here goes:
Start with the right group of people. “Player pool” is to home games as “location” is to real estate. If you get that right, pretty much everything will fall into place. When finding your players, select people who are good company, first and foremost. If somebody is a big winner but fun with a good sense of humor, they are better for the game than a donor who whines all the time.
Get people who show up. Preferably on time, but not the guy or gal who’s always texting you at lunchtime on the day of the game to say they can’t make it. Once you have that group established, give special preference to the ones who are there at the appointed time, and don’t leave for at least 4-5 hours. You can’t have a successful home game if you start an hour late and you’re on the verge of the game breaking throughout the evening.
Make sure you’re clear with everybody what the game is going to be like. I’ll put more details below, but you want everybody to have the right expectations when they show up.
Set up a schedule for your game. The more predictable and regular it is, the more people will commit to it, put it on their calendars, and show up. The most successful home games I know run like clockwork. They’re Tuesday at 7:30pm, or Sunday at 1:00pm, period. Then everybody puts them on their calendars, clicks “Repeat weekly”, and bam, you have an institution. In his glorious paean to poker, Big Deal, Anthony Holden talked about the Tuesday night game he played in near London. Tuesday night was sacred to members of that community and nothing – not even an invitation to see the Queen, we’d learn – would prevent the regulars from showing up.
If the schedule is “sometime in the future”, then you have the constant battle that Joe and Mike can make it Friday, but Amy and Bob can’t. Amy can do Saturday and Sunday, but Bob...
Even if your game is every two weeks or every month, that’s fine. Make it the third Thursday of every month. Pretty much anything that can be programmed once into iCal or Google calendar will work. It also allows people to plan and look forward to it. Anticipation of a good poker game can drive a lot of people in your direction.
Starting, Staying and Stopping
Setting expectations is crucial. So have a pinpoint start time and a pinpoint stop time. Set the expectation with your players that they’re not going to drift in 30 minutes late. If they do that, then the players who are on time will decide that they’re not going to twiddle their thumbs for 30 minutes. So they start showing up 30 minutes late. Causing the usual late crowd to show up an hour late and the game spirals down.
If you have a popular well-run game, there will be enough demand that you can fill the seats with reliable people. Explain to late arrivers that they will be moved down the invite list in the future – if there is limited seating, they may be shut out.
You also want people who will commit to sticking around. Somebody who comes, plays for two hours, and leaves just ties up a seat and weakens the game. Obviously, people have lives and a once-in-a-while exception is fine. But you don’t want somebody who routinely shows up for the 7:00pm start and then goes out partying at 9:00pm.
Within this group lies the hit-and-run artist. Somebody who leaves the game if they get way ahead. Now, this is a delicate situation. In a casino, you can triple up your stack in the first ten minutes, then stand up and walk away. The players might not like it much but there’s nothing they can do about it. But people who do that in a home game violate one of the more agreed-upon social contracts of home game poker.
You should have a clear understanding with your players about whether such hit-and-run attacks are “cool”. You can’t really force somebody to stick around, but you don’t have to invite them for next week. Like everything else about how you run the game, be transparent and professional with your players. Let them know what you expect, what you tolerate, and so forth.
Finally, ending the game. Yeah, I know – it sucks to end a poker game. And there’s nothing to stop a cash game that hasn’t run out of players. What follows is my personal preference, gleaned from decades of home game...
Set an ending time. Maybe it’s the time when the last hand is dealt. Or “One more orbit at 1:00am”. But be clear about it and then stick to it. That allows people to plan their next day, and be honest with spouses and partners about when they’ll be home. Maybe once in a blue moon you throw caution to the wind and say, “We’re going to play until we can’t see the cards any more. Then we’re going for breakfast.” It will make a great story to tell later, but it makes a better story than experience. Especially for those who have to adult the next day.
What kind of game are you going to have? Some people like to start with a tournament, and then have cash games form afterwards. Others prefer all cash, all evening. One of the nice things about cash games is that you can start them the moment you have 4-5 people. And tournaments are more fun with larger fields (and bigger prize pools), so you have the logistics of managing a two- or three-table event. One table is perfect for a cash game.
Similarly, decide what game(s) you’re going to play. These days, 99.9% of home games are all no-limit hold’em. But you may be able to find some people who want to play PLO, High Chicago, or whatever your favorite variant is.
This is where consensus is vital. Suppose Don wants to play a $30 tournament, and then a cash game with $.25 and $.50 blinds. Edith, however, wants all cash, $1/2 blinds. Edith and Don will not be happy in the same home game. I mean, for any one evening, either one would probably tolerate the other’s preferences. But don’t expect them both to be regulars in the same long-term game.
Finding the right balance of stakes is a delicate task, and you have to fold that into your search for the right player pool. If you’re going to get the stakes wrong, get them wrong on the low side. One thing you don’t want is for people to get financially hurt. That leads to bad blood and threatens the long-term survival of your game.
Having a one-off home game is easy enough and plenty of fun. But if you’re going for the bracelet in home game hosting, think long-term. Think of how truly awesome it would be if one of your regulars gets an invitation to dinner, and says, “Thursday? Oh man, I can’t do Thursday. Thursday night is poker at Helen’s. Always.”
And having come this far, I realize that I have a great deal more to write on the subject. Too much for a single blog post, so the sequel will show up here shortly. But if you’re itching to get a game started, go for it. The crucial bits are here – I’ll fill in the details in the next post.
Lee Jones has been in the poker industry for over 30 years. He writes at the Global Poker blog, plays poker every chance he gets, and coaches poker. You can contact him at www.leejones.com.