I’ve a run but successful home game for many years. It is, on the whole, my pleasure to run, but it is more than that. It’s my belief that private games are the grass roots of poker, and just as I have written about the duty of players in public games to make the game fun and accommodating, poker players have a duty to play and host home games.
I’ve also written a bit about home games before, so won’t go into the history of my own, but before I talk about last night’s game, I will offer a few thoughts on why some games succeed and some games fail.
Poker players are notoriously lazy, and barring the kind of critical mass some games eventually benefit from, or there being such a strong player pool that a games succeeds as a matter of course, this characteristic is the first obstacle a host must combat. Players need to be given all the details of a game repeatedly. Some need to be specifically reminded about when and where to be. For example, there have been several players on my list who more than once showed up at my door, curiously, twenty four hours in advance or late. Another, to this day, never knows what the game or stakes are, despite complete written details, and is usually surprised at what he is playing once he sits down. I text him occasionally to get him ready. I can laugh at these sorts of players’ disorganization… or I can take it upon myself to make sure they come on the right day and time.
This isn’t a trivial concern, because the next salient fact about running games is that players want a full table. A poker host is foremost, a host. Poker is actually second. Therefore you need to do all the things having guests in your place might require. I don’t pretend to have the swankiest home in the world, nor is it large enough to make everyone completely at ease, but I do everything I can to make the scene comfortable.
The table is the center and theater of the action, so make sure it is quality, and if possible, unique. Mine has some drawbacks, including being a little too high, but on the whole works, and its coloring and shape distinguish it from other games- a big part of your success as host.
The cards are true acrylics and I set aside the ones the players don’t like. As a specific recommendation, do not use four color decks. I use jumbo sized cards deliberately, as they are easier on everyone’s eyes from any distance.
Chips are very important to players. They want to shuffle and play with them. They want to have enough so that stacks are created- avoid that low-stakes live tournament feeling where you about ten chips and feel broke already. It’s great if someone is winning and has a monster stack, even if it is primarily ante chips- it creates drama and jealousy, which are fuels for action. In fact, having too few small chips is a disaster, as it slows the game as players make change and you as host feel unprepared. Also, avoid cheap chips that are either too light or more likely, too heavy, from the metal slug inside.
Lighting is key. Despite what you see in movies, poker players do not like the dark. Make sure you have strong general lighting. I have directional lamp mounted on the ceiling that works as a poor man’s spotlight, and the bright gleam it creates on the table takes you away from the feeling of playing in someone’s kitchen for nickels.
Don’t forget about chairs. Mine aren’t great, but they are an improvement on the past or in other games, where players are sometimes required to bring their own. Folding chairs are easily had and storable.
Drinks and snacks are important. You may be inclined to overdo this as a new host, but it’s better to do it than not do it, at least at first. The issue is that players may leave if there is not something for them to eat or drink, go to a bodega or for pizza- then not come back. As I said before, you want the game as full as possible and need to find ways to keep them in their seats. However, on the whole, this shouldn’t be your concern, because you need to create a culture of players bringing food and snacks for everyone. Be upfront about this. I don’t spend a dime on food or alcohol for my game, yet we always have plenty of munchies.
Getting away from the details of the host’s interior, the third important point that the host must attend to its regularity. For a while, it may be a pain to keep it up, but getting a real rhythm and establishing that the game is not just a one-off bears great fruit. In the end, we all want to be a part of something successful, and forcing the game to go while you grow your list is of immense long-term consequence. The time will come when the seats fill themselves, but the first six months need all your attention. Ask people to come. Advertise. Talk about the game with people you meet, even just acquaintances or strangers. Guys who like sports, guys who sit in bars, really just about anyone who looks like they have some leisure time, enjoy the idea of a poker game. Women are often curious about the game if it does not sound too serious or have gambled in a casino before.
One more critical point: let’s talk about money and the stakes. A cash game is best, first off, if you have some players. This allows freedom and true adjustability, even in the games you are playing during the session, to make everyone happy. (However, if you have none at all, and even a bunch of novices, tourney style is affordable and fun.) The stakes, however, are a knob you will have to turn very carefully. Listen to your players and identify their limits. Remember that just as you can drive out some people with big games, you also will bore some with small games.
I myself offer a variety of stakes but that was accomplished after a long time. We started small, and by the time we got fairly big, players were dropping out. This is problematic, because the truth is that people are moody. If they feel they are not wanted because of their limited funds, they may not come back- even when you reduce the stakes again.
That said, I have a real suggestion that works for my game, something I’ve learned over years of this: the buy-in matters more than the stakes. As long as you can allows some stubs for the thrifty, fearful, or novice, you can also have the guys who want to play deep. In other words, do not cap your buy in, but set the minimum to the range you want the play at. After all, it’s the effective stacks, as you well know, that really matter.
There are a lot of other things I can say. Keeping yourself happy as the host is an important subject. Managing situations. How to get the players to pay for the gear. Lots of stories, of course. However, I’ll leave it as is. Feel free to post any questions if you are looking to run a game or improve yours.
Happy home gaming.
So a couple interesting things happened at last night’s game, which I played conservatively. I had donked off quite a bit at the last one, and had to adjust my attitude for this and bankroll reasons. Two hands stick out.
The first was a good use of range advantage, a subject which by coincidence came up in some fairly robust debate among the Coveners. In this hand, a player who has done well at my game but likes to overplay hands, tournament style, got himself into trouble by not really understanding the cbetting matrix and why it is necessary to be prudent in betting.
He opened very small from EP, 3x, too small, and picked up three callers. I flatted the button with Q7hh, and on a Q46 board he continued into all of us. One fold and I overcalled. In general a competent player will either have me beat or be willing to barrel off the whole way, using his position and EP action to force a bad queen or worse to fold. However, I don’t want to give up, especially given price, and the fact that he continues indifferently all too often into multiple opponents. On a turn 8, he bet again a fairly small amount, not even half pot, and I could see that his bet did not mean much, and that he was pushing buttons. He gets one fold, and now I have the choice to bluff catch, fold, or what I ultimately do, represent my range advantage. The open ender just came in, and with my blocker to several strong hands, and my gutter, I decide I will raise all my continuing hands which called the flop. He has weak queens he can fold, and which will check call the river if I flat again, forcing me to lose a boated pot. The best play is to use the board against him, whether I have him beat or not. I raise and take it down. What was most +EV for that hand in particular is not so important as what is most +EV for my entire range. So I was happy there.
A second hand illustrated a NLHE concept, as well as the difference between PLO and NLHE. In PLO, I three bet a meaningless open raise from a very active player with a marginal but very playable holding, and Gargamel cold called behind me. Here he has to have a very strong hand, including KKxx, weak AAxx, and pure rundowns. The action player calls, and checks to me on A109cc. I do have piece of this and can beat all draws for the moment, and have some weak nut equity. Gargamel raises my cbet, which was repping AAA or the nut flush draw. Since my three bet was AAxx heavy, and I have no blockers to this hand, it’s pretty clear he has flopped top set. I can’t continue.
The reason this hand is interesting because of the use of ranges by action to determine what he has to have, but more importantly, the fact that his raise in PLO is probably good, whereas in NLHE it definitely would not be. On this board, with strong range advantage, there is no NLHE hand I would raise, even a weirdly played AA, and would only call in position. This is a concept players at the $5 NLHE level simply do not understand, and it allows me to make all kinds of great folds. When you are the PFR and you get raised on AKx by a tight player, you can simply discard all but your strongest hands rather than level yourself, and then with the nuts, win a giant pot. Correctly playing giant made hands in position on boards like this, which favor the PFR, is critical to getting the most out of your monsters and not letting the PFR off the hook.