I’ve been playing in a regular once-a-month home game for a few years now. The game has lasted much longer, stretching back at least a decade before I ever joined, maybe more. Starting in the spring — as has happened with many home games — we moved the game online at PokerStars Home Games.
Others might prefer their home games meet more frequently than one time per month, and in fact for many poker players a weekly game is more their style. The weekly game also lends itself more handily to names like “The Tuesday Game” that can be useful when sharing stories that emanate from the games.
But once a month works well for me and my schedule. It clearly does for the others, too. Finding a good schedule that works for everyone is obviously a first step toward hosting and maintaining a successful home game.
Here are three other things I think tend to make great home games.
1. The rules are clear to everyone
There’s an essay I assign in my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class written in the 1960s called “Poker and American Character.” The author is a historian, John Lukacs, and near the beginning he points out one way poker is different from most games.
According to Lukacs, poker “becomes gradually more interesting the more one plays with the same group of people (provided, of course, they are agreeable partners).”
Some might disagree with Lukacs, finding it much more interesting to play against new opponents, but I trust you get what he’s saying. A big part of what he likes about poker is getting “to know the habits, the quirks, the tendencies, the strengths, and the weaknesses of the other players.” It’s a different point, though, that Lukacs makes that I want to highlight here.
“Poker is a game of a thousand unwritten rules,” says Lukacs. Calling it a game for “gentlemen” (remember, he’s writing in the 1960s), Lukacs points out how poker necessarily requires a kind of “gentlemanly” agreement about rules and etiquette in order for the game to played at all. This is especially true of home games.
“People play poker in the way they want to play it,” he says, likening poker to other acts of “free will.” However, in order for all of us to sit down together and play some hands, we can’t all be totally free.
For one thing, we gotta agree on the rules.
Make sure in your home game that the “house rules” are all clear to everyone, and that everyone agrees with those rules. Do that and you’re on your way to a successful home game. New players especially should be told if your game allows anything out of the ordinary.
Make all of that clear from the start, and avoid things getting less than “gentlemanly” later.
2. People are playing for the same reasons (mostly, anyway)
My home game is a very fun, low-stakes affair. No one loses much, but there’s enough on the table to make the game just the right degree of competitive for all involved.
I remember a regular once saying that the modest amount of money we put in each time we play is the best price for a few hours of entertainment that there is. I think most everyone else agrees. It’s always great to win, and obviously that adds significantly to each individual player’s fun. But trying to profit significantly off of one another isn’t what our game is about.
That’s not to say the profit motive can’t be front and center in a good home game. If most or all of the players are more focused on winning money than on entertaining each other, that can work, too. The important thing, though, is to ensure everyone understands and agrees that is a primary reason why you’re coming together each week or month or however often you play.
There is a good made-for-TV movie from the 1970s called Thursday’s Game that I write about in Poker & Pop Culture. You can watch it on YouTube. Not many have heard of it, but it stars comic giants Gene Wilder and Bob Newhart and was written by James L. Brooks of The Simpsons, Terms of Endearment, and dozens of other notable works.
As the title suggests, there is a weekly poker game. All the players are men. The game kind of resembles what you see in The Odd Couple.
One week the men in the game decide things have gotten too boring, in large part because the stakes they are playing for are too low for anyone to remain interested.
“We’re playing cards, not poker,” one of them complains. He’s emphasizing the point that money is an essential part of what defines “poker,” and when the money doesn’t matter, it ain’t poker.
The group agrees to raise the stakes. The experiment goes horribly. Players win too much, lose too much, and when it comes time to settle up the night ends in a big brawl. The home game is no more. Wilder and Newhart’s characters end up deciding to get together on Thursdays, anyway, just for the company… and to get out of the house.
You get the point. It might be easier to make sure you’re all “on the same page” in terms of the rules than to figure out if your individual motives for playing all more or less coincide. But great home games tend to work best if everyone is there for more or less the same reasons.
3. A healthy willingness to experiment
You’ve heard the advice that it is good sometimes to break out of your “comfort zone” as a poker player. You’ve developed a particular style and approach, now go mix it up a little! It helps you learn as you try new approaches. It helps keep the game interesting. And it can also help keep opponents from exploiting you and your deeply-ingrained routines.
I’d suggest the same idea applies for most home games. Mixing things up now and then can be especially healthy, but only (again) if everyone is on board. New variants, different formats, the occasional wild card — all of it can help enliven things, and even improve everyone’s poker acumen, too.
Some groups of players may be content to play the same kind of game every single time they get together. To be honest, poker is interesting enough that even sticking with the same ol’ no-limit hold’em grind can produce enough variation to keep things from getting stale.
Nor am I suggesting you start introducing weird variants of poker just for the sake of novelty. I’m reminded of Mr. Brush playing in a home game in the James Thurber 1930s short story “Everything Is Wild” and growing tired of the wild card games other players keep calling. He hates those games because he is a conservative sort, preferring to stick with plain old vanilla five-card draw, played “straight.”
So to get back at everyone, when it is Mr. Brush’s turn to deal he calls “Soap-in-Your-Eye,” also known as “Kick-in-the-Pants,” a game in which “the red queens, the fours, fives sixes, and eights are wild.” And that’s just the beginning of the weird rules, all of which Mr. Brush invents on the spot.
Mr. Brush is purposely being anti-social here. It’s a great way to break up a home game, and in fact that’s exactly what happens in the story. His wife is livid.
You might want to suggest something novel in your home game as well, but make sure everyone else is keen to try it first. Even just a round of Pineapple that starts with three hole cards instead of two might be a nice, small step away from regular old hold’em.
There are lots of other considerations when it comes to making home games great. An important one is having a great host for the games, or at least a collegial willingness among the players to rotate and share hosting duties (and divide expenses for refreshments).
In any event, taking these three elements of great home games into account seems like a good place to start, including when you set up and play home games online such as on PokerStars Home Games.
Lead photo: Digitalpfade, CC0.