Tuesday, December 11, 2012

How To Have A Great Home Poker Game

Add One Evil Monkey
In 11 days, I'll host the third annual final of the year-long poker series in my Man Cave. There will be, in all likelihood, at least and maybe even four tables of action, with maybe some $1,500 in the pot. Players will compete in a super deep stack tournament where you start with 4,000 big blinds. When the final champion emerges, it will likely decide who takes down a winner-take-all yearly prize of around $1,200, and if that happens before dawn, I'll be pretty surprised. The winner will spend a portion of the pot on a WSOP bid, and if they somehow wind up qualifying, then cashing, the top 10 players in the yearly points standings will get a piece of their action. If they actually win the thing, players in my home game could get some life-changing money, really. And three weeks after that, it will start again.

This game has been running now for six years, and most of the players have been making it a night for years. This isn't an area that's underserved for poker: Parx in Bensalem is only about 25 minutes away, and the room is huge and a WPT stop. Online has boomed and busted during the time of this game, and Parx opened a couple of years ago, and the game has just gotten bigger and better. And in that time, I've learned a few things about running it that you should know, if you are thinking about starting your own game.

1) The base is everything.

A half dozen guys have been at damn near every game, and without them, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have a game. Your regulars will monitor play among noobs, bring new players in that will be among your best, and give you the ability and support to try new things. They will also tell you, in no uncertain terms, what's working and what isn't, and who should be invited back. Don't underestimate the importance f your regulars.

2) Steadily improve the gear.

There are six components to a poker game: chips, cards, chairs, tables, the room and tournament software. It's a mistake to think that you need to go top drawer right away, on any of the component pieces. But the big thing is to keep making small moves to make things better, and to watch your players to see what's causing the most difficulty.

Start with the cards. Matching a casino experience isn't hard, since most houses go with fairly disposable decks that you can usually get in bulk for $20. Once you see that your game has graduated to a permanent level, step up to all plastic. Da Vinci is a solid card for the value, Copeg's are the next best thing, and KEM's are quite pricey but unmatched for performance. By the time you are at that level, you are spending $25-$30 for 2 decks, rather than that amount for a dozen decks.

Chips come next. I like weight in a chip, but it's a secondary consideration to denomination; don't make players guess how much a chip is worth, especially if you are hoping to make things comfortable for the new players. The discount way of doing this is to print your own paper labels and put them on plain clay chips. I labelled my chips nearly five years ago, and the vast majority of them have stayed good. Now for my tournament chips, I've found heavy 15g chips that come self-denominated (I'm a fan of coin inlay) from China. You can't beat them on the price, and they do nicely on wear and tear.

Tables are the next investment, and by far, the one you can spend the most on. The key here is to really know your space; a big table that doesn't leave people enough room to move isn't going to work for you. I'm also a fan of varying shapes and sizes, so that if you have to move people, it's easy to know where to go. It also gives you options, which leads to my next great trick for value tables -- Craig's List.

Home games come and home games go, but the equipment stays... and you can frequently find solid values in the used market. Then, especially if you know (or are) someone handy with tools, you can retrofit you tables with speed cloth (a serious win in home games, where you have to alternate the deal). My favorite table was a CL find, a small kidney that seats up to 8, for just $85 that got a speed cloth retrofit for another $65 with parts and labor, and it's likely to last for decades. My octagon was a curbside special that got salvaged by my handyman, and my long kidney was a discount buy from, of all places, the Sports Authority. It's seen better days, but for $80, then another $70 with the retrofit, it's served me very well for six years.

The thing with chairs is that they need to be equitable; you don't want people scrabbling for the good ones. I locked in on Samsonite models from Costco for about $16 a piece years ago, and just kept adding to them as the game got larger. I'd like to replace them with something more comfortable at some point, but the space of the room isn't in favor of that idea. Maybe just some extra cushions will do the trick.

Tournament software can be cheated; there are free Web sites that will do it for you, but they do pay a price in not being terribly sophisticated, and require more in the way of keystrokes on set up. But I'm fairly cheap as these things go. Last and not least is the room, and that's the thing that you can always improve, either through better food, fans, air conditioners, carpet, etc., etc. It never really ends, but the nice thing about room improvements is that you get to keep the enhancement after the game's over.

Now, here's your next question... how do you not spend all of your winnings on gear? Well, you will be spending some cash here, but that's where your regulars come in, too. Put out a tip jar, let the people know that you are doing this for your benefit, and your outlay really isn't going to be that bad. I don't take a rake myself, but some do, and if you are OK with the possibility of law enforcement risk or your players having a lot more input into your purchasing decisions, that's an option as well.

3) Vary the game.

The simple way is to have tournaments at the start of the night, and cash games at the end, but there's really no reason to stop there. I run sit and goes, deep stacks, turbo event, bounty games, and even the occasional mixed game in tournaments, and when things are getting late in the cash game, dealer's choice (with no wild cards). Listen to your players and take what you like from casinos and online, but just don't run the same thing every time and expect it to stay fresh.

4) Play to the strengths of a home game.

If someone wants to rabbit hunt after folding, I allow it -- it's a home game. If the table needs an unscheduled break for cigarettes or restrooms, I pause the clock. If somebody else wants to straddle, on the button or off, or double straddle or call a game of pineapple... well, um, it's a home game. I also run things as a true mid-stakes game, where you can't buy in for more than $50 in the cash game, so it's actually pretty difficult to have enough time and luck to just play Moneybags Bully moves. The point is to do the things that only a home game can do, so that players who like that sort of thing will keep coming back to you.

5) Open your game up to noobs.

This can only be done if you've got a good base, but the reason why most home games die on the vine is that they are purely reliant on the core players to recruit noobs. People move, get sick, get old, get kids or start their own games; your regulars are going to change over time, and if you aren't bringing in about a table's worth of new guys every year, you won't be able to keep your game at optimal size. I use MeetUp and Craig's List and Facebook for new players, and also give up free rolls to players who bring their friends that earn a second invite. It's not fun, but this isn't a duty you can ever let slip.

6) Add bizarre rituals.

When the bubble boy busts out of our tournament, they are "awarded" the Evil Monkey, a stuffed animal from the Family Guy show. He makes his appearance with a couple of players left in the game, and dozens of similar jokes are made. As someone who has given and gotten the Monkey, I can tell you that it makes the beat both easier and harder to take, but it's also, well, very memorable. And the relief from the survivors over not getting monkeyed is almost worth the cash.

The player of the year gets their name on a plaque that's put on the wall. Clubs on the flop are known, due to eccentricities of one our players, as Parsleys. Trip sixes are serenaded by a rousing chorus of BEAST, as in the number of the. Lemmy from Motorhead impersonations occur on public appearances of the Ace of Spades, and eventually this gets transferred to random blank cards, too. I'll say, for no good reason, A Flop Of Intrigue at least a half dozen times a night. And that's just the ones I can remember as I'm writing this; feel free to use any of these, but it's really better to just develop your own.

But by all means, if you've ever had the bug... develop your own game. I've lived in New Jersey for about 7 years now, or about as long as I've ever lived anywhere. The game keeps me grounded, has given me dozens of great nights and buddies that have helped me out of bad situations.

And, well, every poker player should have a home game to call their own. It's just that much fun.

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