Playing poker at home and playing poker in a casino are so different that they’re almost 2 different games entirely. When you consider how many different variations of poker are played—especially in home poker games—they’re almost like 200 different games entirely.

But what if you want to host a home poker game for the first time?

This post contains most of what you need to know. If I left anything out, please let me know in the comments.

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Start by Getting the Right Equipment

If you’re hosting a home poker game, you’ll need the following equipment:

  • Playing cards
  • Poker chips
  • A poker table
  • Refreshments
  • Seating

When it comes to playing cards, you’ll need at least 2 decks of cards. These can be as expensive or cheap as you prefer. Are you willing to play with cards that are made of cardstock (thick paper)?

If so, you can get decks of cards for less than a dollar each. The quality improves generally as the price goes up. You can get Bicycles for $3 or $4 per deck, too. These are acceptable in most games.

But. I like to play with something nicer. If you invest in a couple of decks of plastic playing cards, they’ll last forever. You don’t have to worry about someone spilling their drinks on such a deck of cards, either, as you can just wipe them off, dry them, and go back to playing.

The best brand of plastic playing cards I can think of are Kem playing cards. These start at around $15/deck, but they go up to as much as you want to spend, too.

As far as poker chips go, they’re sort of optional. I’ve played in plenty of home poker games where we just used coins and cash. But poker chips make the game a LOT better, and better poker chips are, well… even better.

I suggest avoiding plastic poker chips altogether. You and your friends aren’t little kids, and plastic poker chips just feel too much like something you’d buy from Toys R Us. You should buy some clay poker chips. Heavier chips are generally better than lighter chips, too. You can get them customized if you want to, but even plain Jane cheap clay poker chips work great.

You can order a set of 500 poker chips from Amazon for around $50, although I think it’s worth it to spend $100 or $150 on a set of 1000 poker chips. Some sets come labeled with the amounts printed on the chips: $1, $5, $25, $100, and $500. Many sets also just come with colors—white, red, green, blue, and/or black.

It’s customary for the white chips to be the lowest denomination, usually $1 each. But you can decide on any denominations that you like. If you’re hosting the game, it’s your responsibility to exchange the players’ money for chips at the beginning of the night, and it’s your responsibility to buy those chips back for money at the end of the night.

You can spend a lot of money on a poker table, too, but only if you want to. If you have a big enough kitchen table, it might work just as well. You can also buy a poker table top that rests on top of your existing table. I see these a lot in free poker games that are hosted in bars and taverns. You probably already have seating of some kind. Just make sure you have enough seating for the number of guests you’ve invited.

As far as refreshments go, I suggest asking everyone to contribute $5 or $10 toward those. Serving beer and wine is cool, but I’d avoid serving hard liquor. When it comes to food, go with stuff that’s cheap and easy to clean up after. Ordering pizza is fine, but having sandwiches and chips is also cool.

Another option for refreshments is to host a pot luck style poker game, where everyone brings something to eat. We had a buddy who used to play in our home poker game who always brought ham and cheese sandwiches for everyone. I loved that guy.

You really should have a television and/or a music system, too. I don’t need such distractions, but I know some players enjoy that extra level of creature comfort on poker night—especially when there’s sports on television.

That’s pretty much all the equipment you need, and most of it is cheap and/or optional.

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The Logistics of Inviting People to Poker Night

You can’t have a poker night without players. Your first order of business, after putting together your supplies, is to invite friends to play. Try to invite people you like and who can act like good sports. If you have a friend who drinks too much and might tip over the table when he loses a pot, don’t invite him. Some common sense helps with this part of hosting poker night.

For most home poker games, 7 or 8 players are plenty. You might be able to get away with hosting 9 or 10 players, but the number of games you can play starts being limited by the number of players. A traditional home poker night features games which are chosen by the dealer, which rotates throughout the game.

Your knowledge of your friends’ tendencies is important here, too. If you know that your buddy Luther won’t show up, don’t count him when deciding on the guest list. Or only count him as 50% of a guest. It will take some time to get a feel for how many people to invite to have a specific number show up.

If you’re planning to make poker night a weekly thing, keep in mind that not everyone will show up every week, but you’ll also have people who want to bring a friend. It’s okay to ask the people you invite to RSVP. It’s also okay to play short-handed as long as everyone agrees to it.

Be sure to include a definite starting time and ending time for your game. It’s easy for poker night to spill over into the next morning, which can put a real damper on your productivity in the workplace the next day.

If you’re starting a regular poker night, be it weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly, it’s better to have it in the same place every week, other week, or month.

Thursday night is the best night of the week for poker. Think about it. Who wants to play poker on a Monday night? It’s Monday, for God’s sake. Playing on Tuesday is lame, because it’s so early in the week. You want to give people something to look forward to later in the week. Wednesday is hump day. Most people have something going on that day, even if it’s just family dinner.

Friday night is dinner out with your sweetheart for almost everyone. Saturday is often the same. And, of course, it would be a sin to play cards on a Sunday. That is the Lord’s day, after all.

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Getting Started on Poker Night – Some Thoughts on Dealing

If I invite everyone over for poker night from 7pm to midnight, I like to tell everyone when they get there that we’re going to start no later than 7:30pm. That gives everyone time to buy their chips, get their refreshments, and visit with each other.

Since you’re the host, you’ll start the action after everyone has their chips in them by shuffling the deck of cards. You’ll start dealing the cards to the players to determine who gets to deal first. This is done by announcing that the first person to get dealt a specific card, usually the ace or a jack, gets to be the first dealer.

You keep dealing the cards face up until someone gets the ace (or the jack, if that’s what you called). When someone gets that card, he gets to deal, so you give him the deck. He gets to choose and deal the first game. The dealer position rotates around the table after each game throughout the night.

If you have a lot of money, you could hire a dealer, but that’s not the kind of neighborhood home poker night you were probably planning to host.

I have one suggestion that will improve your home poker game dramatically:

Have a 2nd deck of cards, and get the person who’s going to deal next to shuffle it at the same time as the dealer.

People are here to play poker. They don’t want to sit there and watch someone shuffle. If the deck of cards stays constantly shuffled in advance, you’ll get to play twice as many hands per night. This will set your home poker game ahead of many poker games right there.

One thing to be cautious of is the dealer who decides to get creative and create his own weird poker variation. It’s probably fruitless to try to talk such a person out of it, but if you and the other players all fold immediately, he’ll get the hint fast.

The dealer gets to choose and enforce the rules for each game, but he also is responsible for making those rules clear to the other players. He should also pay attention to how many players are at the table. If you have 8 players in a hand, it’s impossible to play 5-card draw. You deal out 40 cards, then there are only 12 cards left to draw from, so that doesn’t work.

Some dealers might do funky stuff with the rules, and you should let them. If you don’t like their game, the appropriate response is to fold early and sit out with your mouth shut. It will be someone else’s turn to deal soon enough.

If someone does get confused about how many cards he needs for a specific number of players and runs out of cards, suggest that the discards get reshuffled into a new drawing deck. It’s customary, too, for the dealer to offer to let the player to his right cut the cards. Don’t be shy about pointing this out to a dealer who doesn’t know this. Most people won’t be offended by this.

A common mistake when a deck gets cut is for the dealer to put the top half back on top, which does nothing to randomize the cards or ensure fairness. Watch for this. It’s usually just an innocent mistake on the part of the dealer, who might not be paying as much attention as he should be.

If a card gets turned face up, or if a player gets an extra card, it’s up to the dealer to decide how to handle this. The other players can call for a misdeal, but most people prefer to keep the game moving than start over with a new shuffle and a new deal. At any rate, it’s customary to leave this decision up to the dealer.

Some home games have more severe rules for a misdeal. They might require the dealer to match the pot if he misdeals, then reshuffle and re-deal. I think this is needlessly strict, but it’s your game. Just make sure everyone knows what the house rules regarding that are before starting.

Also, you shouldn’t touch any cards but your own during the game. The dealer should handle any cards that are discarded or mucked. This prevents cheating. It also leads to a more orderly game, because God forbid the muck gets mixed up with the deck that’s in use for the game. That can create all kinds of havoc.

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More about Dealing

The dealer is, of course, responsible for dealing the cards to each player. He’s allowed to do this with whatever kind of style he prefers as long as he’s not revealing cards that shouldn’t be revealed. Most dealers hold the deck with their left hands and distribute the cards with their right hands.

Some dealers, though, like to deal one-handed. They’ll put the deck in front of them on the table and use one hand to pull cards from the top of the deck and fling them to the players.

When dealing, you should keep the cards face down and close to the table. I’m not a fan of sending cards sailing through the air to the players. Misdeals are too easy when playing this way.

If you want to get really fancy, having a shoe for the cards is a possibility, but I think that’s a bit much for most of the home poker games I’ve played in.

Some dealers like to deal the cards silently, but when cards are dealt face-up, it’s also possible for the dealer to call out the cars as he’s dealing. This can be as simple as calling out the rank and suit of every card: “The ace of spades. The queen of hearts. The 7 of clubs.” Etc.

But you can make it more interesting, too. Using nicknames for the cards can do that. Here are some common nicknames for some of the cards:

  • An ace is often called a “bullet” or a “big bullet.”
  • Kings are usually called “cowboys.” The king of diamonds is often called “the man with the axe.”
  • Queens have lots of nicknames, including “bitch” or “lady.”
  • Jacks are often called “johns” or “hooks.” (The “J” is shaped like a hook.)
  • 7s are often called “micks” in honor of Mickey Mantle. (7 was his jersey number.)
  • 4s are sometimes called “quatros.”
  • 2s are called “deuces” or, sometimes, “ducks.”
  • Clubs are often called “puppy paws.”
  • Diamonds are sometimes called “die-a-moans.”
  • Spades are sometimes called “spadulas.”

None of these are necessary, but they can add style to your dealing.

You can also identify the players based on which up card they’re showing. If you’re dealing an ace to a player with a 2 showing, you might announce, “A big bullet to the deuce.”

It’s not unusual to also announce possible hands when you’re dealing. For example, if you’re playing a stud game, and a player has 2 hearts showing, if you deal him a 3rd heart, you might announce, “Possible flush.” Or you might announce the rank of the card by saying something like, “A quatro for the flush man.”

Also, in stud games, the last card is always dealt face down. Some players just announce it as, “Last card. Down and dirty.” But it’s also common to say, “Going, going, gone.” You can come up with your own signature line here, too, just to let everyone know that this is the last card dealt in the hand.

As the dealer, you’re responsible for managing the discards (or “the muck”). And by golly, don’t stop paying attention to what’s going on just because you’ve folded and dropped out of a hand. That will earn you a lot of dirty looks.

If you set an end time for the game, it’s customary to announce when it’s getting close to that time. Some home games like to announce that there will be “X” number of hands before calling it quits for the night.

In most home poker games, it’s considered rude to drop out of the game immediately after a big win. You should agree on house rules for how to handle that. It’s common courtesy to stick around for a little while so that everyone has a chance to win some of your winnings.

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House Rules and Cards Speak

In most casino cardrooms, the rule is that “cards speak.” In other words, if you announce you have one hand, but you actually have a stronger hand but just don’t see it, you still get credit for the stronger hand.

This is not always the case with home poker games. You might establish a house rule regarding this. If you don’t, then it’s up to the dealer.

Here’s an example of a situation where this might come up:

You’re playing in a game where 3s are wild. You have a 4 of a kind made up of 9s, with a jack kicker. Your opponent turns over 3 aces and a pair of 3s and announces that he has a full house.

Since 5 of a kind beats 4 of a kind, he wins. Those 3s were wild, right? But depending on the house rules, he might have to live with the full house that he announced.

In many home poker games, the player only gets credit for what he announces as his hand. It’s considered really rude to “help” another player figure out his hand unless he asks for that help. And once he’s made that announcement, he’s not allowed to go back and change it, either.

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Hosting a home poker game can be an extremely rewarding thing to do. Really, all you need is a place to play, several willing players, a few pieces of equipment, and some refreshments. If you follow the guidelines in this post, you’ll have almost everything you need to make your weekly home poker game a success.

Don’t forget, though, that everything in this post is suggestive, not prescriptive. You can run your home poker game any way you like. This is just what’s worked for me and many other poker aficionados in the past.

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