I got an email from a guy this weekend that described a home tournament he had just played in, and all the things that he felt were just terribly wrong in running and managing the game. Special thanks to David B., who collaborated with me on this article.
My experience has shown there are 2 classes of home game players; those that “want to have fun” and those seeking to advance the craft. Since you probably wouldn’t be reading this if you are only playing for fun, let’s assume you’re one of the latter.
If you play in a casino, it is already run properly. Ideally, you/we would like the casino experience replicated at home. So the following is my advice and tools on how to set up and run your home game.
The benefits of a well-run game are:
- Money management
- The prize pot will be right
- Opportunities to play
- Zero admin stress (ZAS) means high quality poker
- Opportunities to improve
- ZAS means focus on craft
- Opportunities to elevate
- ZAS means a solid invite list, full games, better play, better players and more money
Let’s start with the basics.
Do you need equipment? Trust me; if you’re going to host games at your home, you need your own equipment. I have several friends that are willing to host games, but are completely unwilling to buy even something as simple as a deck of cards. This gets quite annoying. Every serious poker player should have at least 1,000 chips of various colors or denominations, and at least two sets of plastic (PVC) poker cards. Sets, not Decks! A set is two decks. A good set can be as much as $25, but most run around $16. And they last forever (allegedly).
One friend of mine buys the paper Bicycle cards in bulk at Sam’s Club. Sorry, but that just won’t cut it with real players. They wear out within minutes of starting, are easy to mark, and easier to wind up with 37 aces at the end of the night. Who doesn’t have a full drawer of worn blue Bicycle decks at home? So here are some links to some good deals in poker equipment.
For quality poker cards, I recommend: http://www.kardwell.com/index.
For a great deal on poker chips, I recommend going to EBay and searching for poker chip sets. You will get the best deal there. Expect to pay around $100 for a 1000 chip set in an aluminum case. ($60 for the set, $40 for shipping. They’re heavy). Again, while unique chips are more expensive, keep in mind that everyone who will attend your game has a set of the red, white and blue basic generic chips at home. You’ll find more chips in your set at the end of the game than when you started. I can smell a future column on cheating as well. It’s sad, unfortunate, and disappointing, however, it does happen and a prepared player/host is a better player/host.
Ready to host your tournament? You’ll need a computer program to run the whole game; blinds and breaks, the seating and the payout, if you want to look professional. Sure, you can sit there with your oven timer dinging, or you can look cool, and actually be cool, and put this on a laptop. It’s called the Tournament Director, and I love it.
Email me, and I’ll happily send you the blind schedule I use. It works really well for most 2-3 table home games.
Need a table? Sure you do! Probably two of them. There are plenty of places online with directions on how to build your own, like:
But if you aren’t so inclined, then just buy them. I got mine from Craig’s List, and you could too.
Now, how about some discussion on how to actually run the game? It amazes me that so many home games are run so poorly. I guess I am just spoiled by the fact that most of my friends run professional games that deliver total enjoyment. Aspire to Professionalism.
Be set up and ready. Have the money collected, and the envelopes prepared with the prizes. Have TD select the seats. Have the chips counted out and stacked on the table. Have the game ready to play on time, always start on time, and you will have the best chance for continuing happiness.
Start on time. This one factor can sometimes be the difference between whether I’ll return to your game or not. If a game is advertised to start at 7:00 PM, and there are 29 players ready to roll in their seats at 7:00 PM, it is totally wrong to announce that we are going to wait 30 minutes for Bill to arrive as he is running late. Bill should just pay the price for being tardy and suck it up. One great trick to get people there is the “on-time bonus chip” with a fifteen minute cutoff. Also, the double blind-off works well.
Get a dealer for each table. Organize this ahead of time. You know who’s coming, right? Get/make volunteers. The dedicated player/dealer is seat One. TD will set that up. I don’t care if it is one of the player/dealer or a dedicated paid person who is solely responsible for dealing, but have someone deal. There is hardly anything worse than passing the deal among the players. The players in the middle of the table are fine, but the ones on the end make for a terrible time as they try to throw cards to the other end of the table. Good dedicated dealing is good for another 10 hands per hour easy. And you do want to see cards, right? Otherwise, you could stay home and watch Survivor. Also, dealing properly is not as easy as a good dealer makes it look. This is going to foster another column on dealing and managing the table well.
Have two decks of cards for each dealer. The game is drastically slowed when the dealer shuffles one single deck between hands. If you give the second deck to the person on the button and make them shuffle, the game goes much faster. Much faster play means more hands played. To put it in perspective, a two-deck game lets players see nearly twice as many hands as a one-deck game. In a one deck game, they might see ten to fifteen hands per hour. In a two deck game, they will see as many as 25-30 hands in that same period. The difference is incredible.
As for safety protocol, use only one cut card, held by the dealer, let the dealer cut every time and the shuffler never lets the cards leave the table surface.
If you have non-playing dealers, ensure the rules for compensation are clearly outlined before the game starts. If you pull $5 from each player to pay them, say so. If they are playing for tips, say so. If tips are expected above and beyond the $5, say so. Then make sure the dealers know the compensation deal, and that they are fully aware that by agreeing to deal for a tip, they must accept whatever tip they receive, even if it is zero. If I win the tournament, I am not obligated to tip you, especially if you got paid $50 before you dealt your first card. Be happy with whatever comes your way. I don’t owe you anything, so I can tip you in any amount I feel like tipping.
A common rule among our group is that we not only rotate dealing over a course of games, but the player/dealer may get a few more chips to start, and tipping is really only for a dedicated “professional” dealer in the bigger games.
Speaking of dealers, make sure the ones you appoint know what they are doing. If we are paying for a dealer, we expect to get commensurate quality out of their work. If we constantly have to correct the deal, or fix the pot, or anything else, the dealer is overpaid at $0. See my future column on dealing.
It is illegal to pay dealers for home games in Colorado. It is also illegal for the host to take (rake) any portion of the buy-in as a “house fee”. A rake means casino which means police. It should be respected. You should never invite me to your house to play cards and profit from the mere fact that I show up. You don’t own a casino, and you should not profit in the slightest from hosting. I have no problem with you putting out a tip jar and asking for donations because you put out snacks. I do have a problem when you take money that was intended to be put in the prize fund and put it in your pocket, claiming it was for the snacks, especially if I don’t eat your snacks. I have even played with people that played for free as compensation for their hosting, and then played to win money I paid. I shouldn’t have to point out the obvious: this is wrong.
Once the game is running, stick to the schedule. Blinds go up according to the blind schedule, and breaks occur according to the break schedule. If it is a 10 minute break, then cards are dealt at the beginning of the 11th minute. Keep it on time.
At the end of the game, have the payouts ready to go. Separate the money into envelopes and pay them out as the players bust out of the game. You never want to pay each player out of a roll of bills, and then realize when you get to the winner that his payment is short. Or you have money left over. There is nothing that will kill your respect for hosting as much as having money problems. One series I used to play in had money problems every game. That series died a quick death. The easiest way to fix this is to have the payouts preannounced, and displayed on the computer, which Tournament Director handles professionally. Then anyone can quickly calculate to see that all money is accounted for.
Some of this same advice works for home cash games too. Very important that one person handles the cash and chips and remains until the end, and, accepts responsibility for proper counts. Sloppiness here is unacceptable.
If you have a dealer who is working strictly for tips in the cash game, that dealer must be aware that they may not get tipped for some hands or by some players. Tips are never mandatory. If you shove your tip cup at me because I forgot to tip after winning a hand, I can assure you that you have received your last tip of the evening from me, and many players might be offended as well.
On that same topic, the dealer should stay aware of the size of the pot that was won. If the blinds are $1/$2, and I raise to $12, and everyone folds….I just collected a whopping $3. I’m not giving you a $1 tip, or 33% of my winnings. Trust me; I’ll tip you when the pot warrants it. That being said, appreciate and encourage a good dealer managing your cash game.
Speaking of tips in a cash game; be aware of one little fact. Every dollar given to the dealer as a tip is money that cannot ever be won back. It is gone. So if 10 people buy in for $200, and over the course of the evening the dealer receives $200 in tips, then there is only $800 left to be won. Twenty percent of the available money is gone. Read that sentence again. Twenty percent of the available money is gone.
Over-tipping a dealer adds to this problem. If you win a $200 hand, and toss the dealer $15 to say thanks for the great cards, then that is $15 more dollars that can never be won back by the other players. It is no different than you winning a $200 pot and pulling some of it off the table and putting it in your own pocket.
What do I prefer? Here are some choices that help avoid the tipping problems.
- Tell the dealer that the big winners of the evening will tip at the end of the session.
- Have everyone pay $20 before sitting down for the dealer, and tell the dealer that this money is going to be his only compensation.
- Have separate “tip chips” that each player buys that are not a part of the money in play.
- Best yet, share the deal among the players in a cash game, and stop tipping at all. Like I said, it is a home game, not a casino.
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