How to Host a Home Poker Game (And Look Like You Know What You’re Doing)

by Michael Stevens
on May 10, 2018

Most of my recent blog posts have been about poker in general or specific poker games and how they’re played in the casino environment. Today I want to shift gears and write about how to host your own home poker game. There’s more to it than you think, but it’s still something anyone can do.

The benefits of hosting your own home poker game are probably obvious. You don’t have to leave the house, for one thing. You don’t have to pay a rake to the casino—in fact, you might even be able to charge a rake. And you probably know all the other players at the table already.

Here is a list of things to know before hosting your first home game:

Preparation Is the Key to Success

You need to plan ahead if you’re going to host a home poker game. This requires more than just sending a group text to everyone you want to play with. Yeah, you need to set a date and a time for the game, but you have more pre-work to do than just that.

Scheduling

First, though, decide on the date and time. And when I say the time, set the start time AND the end time. Stick with the end time. When the game’s over, it’s over. It’s tempting to keep going, but that often leads to pain for various reasons.

Refreshments

Then think about food and drinks. You’re hosting a party, and a party ain’t a party without food and drinks. You don’t have to break the bank for this—poker party food should be cheap and easy.

I often serve takeout pizza when I host a poker game. I also like serving chips or nuts. I supply soda pop and beer for my friends who drink. I suggest asking people who want to drink hard liquor to bring their own. If they do, consider arranging for them to be driven home at the end of the night. You don’t need the liability if they get drunk and kill someone when they get behind the wheel.

If you like to cook, I suggest some kind of sandwich that can be assembled from a crockpot. I’ve had big fun hosting poker games where the players could build their own meatball subs, sloppy joes, or barbecue sandwiches.

It’s okay to ask for a donation toward the food. The easiest way to do this is to ask everyone to chip in $5 or $10 at the beginning of the evening.

House Rules

Next, decide on the house rules. I’ve played in games where the players argued about what was and wasn’t allowed, but that took time and generated hard feelings. I figure this is your house, so you get to make the rules beforehand. This will prevent arguments and delays in the game.

By house rules, I mean standards that relate to the play of the game—not just the rules for specific games. I’ve played in home games where check-raising wasn’t allowed, for example. I’ve also played in games where you weren’t allowed to cash out and leave immediately after winning a big pot.

But you also do need standards for how certain game-play rules are handled. In some home pages, 5432A is the best qualifying low hand, but in other home games, it doesn’t count because it’s a straight. (In a casino, for most high-low games, 5432A IS considered the best possible low hand.)

Also, how will the games be chosen? I’ve played in home games where we played one game at one betting limit all night. I’ve also played in home games where the dealer got to choose the game. It might be best to have a limited number of games for the dealer to choose from if you do that.

In a dealer’s choice game, the dealer often gets to set rules variations like wild cards. I’ve never seen wild cards used in a casino setting, but they’re common in home games. Many home games include the joker and use it as a wild card.

Deuces (the 2s) are also often used as wild cards. One-eyed jacks are common wild cards, too—those are the jack of hearts and the jack of spades.

Sometimes wild cards can be used to substitute for any card you need. In some games, wild cards can only be used to complete straights or flushes or to count as aces. Decide beforehand which applies in your home game.

The more wild cards you use, the more luck becomes a factor in the outcome. As a strategy tip, you should play tighter when more wild cards are in play. You’ll usually need a stronger hand to win. So you’ll play tightest in a game where deuces are wild, followed by one-eyed jacks, followed by games with jokers.

You should also know what constitutes a misdeal and what you’re going to do in the event of a misdeal. It’s not a bad idea to write down the house rules and pass them out at the start of the evening.

Stakes

Before you invite anyone to your home to play poker, decide on what the stakes are going to be. If you’re hosting a penny ante poker game, I’m going to be bummed out if I don’t know that in advance. (I don’t play penny ante poker.)

On the other hand, if you’re hosting a high stakes game, I might not bring enough money unless I know in advance what the stakes are.

How do you decide on stakes?

It’s your house, so think about what your comfortable with. You should be playing for enough money that people can bluff and semi-bluff. But no one should walk away from your game being unable to pay the rent, either.

Poker Chips, Cards, and Other Equipment

Also, it’s classier and more fun to play with clay chips. They’re not expensive, and you can buy them on Amazon. If you’re hosting the game, you should also act as the cashier. You sell the chips at the beginning of the evening, and you buy them back at the end of the evening.

This might involve making some change, so have plenty of each denomination of bill available to make sure you don’t have any trouble cashing everyone out at the end of the night.

I like to play with expensive plastic poker cards, like the ones made by Kem. They cost more, but they’ll last forever if you take care of them. Cards made out of stock get ruined if you spill a drink on them, but you can just wipe Kem cards off, dry them, and put them back to work.

It goes without saying that you need a table big enough for all the players and chairs for everyone. I used to have a beautiful poker table that I’d won from the fine folks at Bovada, but I gave it to my son when I moved a few years ago.

Playing with nice equipment takes your home poker game to the next level.

What Are the Best Games to Play in a Home Poker Game?

When I was younger, the only game we ever played in our home poker games was 5 card draw. It was the only game most of my buddies all knew how to play. We tricked it up by changing the wild cards. It wasn’t until college that I started learning how to play stud poker games. Holdem games came much later for me.

Here are some suggestions for home poker games that most people will already know how to play:

  • 5 card draw
  • This is the most classic poker game I can think of. Everyone gets 5 cards, there’s a round of betting, then you can discard and replace cards in your hand. Then there’s a final betting round and a showdown. 5 card draw is often played as jacks or better, which means you must have at least a pair of jacks before you’re allowed to place a bet.

  • 7 card stud
  • I don’t know many people who don’t know how to play this game. You can mix it up by playing high-low split, also known as 8 or better. In that version of the game, the highest hand splits the pot with the lowest possible low hand. (A low hand is a 5-card hand with no pairs where all the cards are lower than 9 in rank. The highest card is what determines which low card is better. Straights and flushes can still be low hands, usually.) You can find a detailed explanation of how to play either version on this blog.

  • 5 card stud
  • This game is similar to 7 card stud, but you play with 5 cards instead of 7. 5 card stud can be played high low, too.

  • Baseball
  • This one’s played just like 7 card stud, but it has some really wild rules. All 9s and 3s are wild cards. Any time a 4 gets dealt face up, that player gets a bonus card. To win at baseball, you’re probably going to need a really big hand—4 of a kind or a straight flush. It’s easier to get such a hand than you think, because of all the wild cards. The winner is still determined by the best 5 card hand at the showdown.

  • Chicago
  • This is just 7 card stud with one additional rule—the person with the highest spade in the hole gets half the pot at the showdown. If you have the ace of spades in the hole, you’ll obviously want to bet and raise aggressively.

  • Razz
  • This is yet another variation of 7 card stud, but it’s played low only. The best possible hand is 5432A.

  • Texas holdem
  • This one’s a no-brainer. I’ve played in plenty of home games where Texas holdem was the only game we played. You just need to decide on the stakes beforehand—limit, pot limit, or no limit. I suggest limit if you’re hosting newer or amateur players. Pot limit and no limit games can result in surprise and hurt feelings faster than you think. If you really want to trick things up, throw Pineapple into the mix. That’s a variation of Texas holdem where you get 3 hole cards instead of just 2. Depending on which version you play, you must discard one of those 3 cards preflop or after the flop.

  • Omaha
  • This is like Texas holdem, only with 4 hole cards instead of 2. You must use 2 cards from your hand and 3 cards from the board to form your final hand. Like 7 card stud, Omaha can be played high or high-low. Omaha high low is probably the more popular version. Like Texas holdem, it’s important to establish the stakes beforehand for Omaha games.

  • Lowball
  • Now we’re starting to get into obscure poker game territory. Lowball is a lot of fun, but don’t be surprised if you need to explain it to the players in your game. Lowball is played just like 5 card draw, but the winner is the person with the lowest possible hand. As with the 8 or better games I already talked about, flushes and straights don’t count. If you want to win at lowball, play really tight. Put your money in the pot when you have a pat hand or when you only need to draw a single card.

  • Iron Cross
  • My father-in-law used to make us play this. I always hated it, but you might like it. Everyone gets 5 cards face-down. Then 5 community cards are dealt face-down, too, but they’re placed in an intersecting pattern. The cards get turned up one at a time, and there’s a round of betting after each card. You use 2 cards in your hand and 3 cards from one of the 2 criss-crossing rows to make your final hand at the showdown. This one is sometimes played high-low, too.

How to Behave in a Home Poker Game

Since you’re the host, it’s on you to make sure that the players live up to the ordinary behavioral standards you might expect. At a minimum, you should expect your players to not cheat. Don’t let players peak at other players’ cards. You should also encourage players to not hold up the game and play when it’s their turn.

Being a bad winner or a bad loser turns a fun evening into a drag. If someone’s being a poor sport, feel free to ask them to leave. At the very least, consider not inviting that person next time. It should be obvious, but no one wants advice on how to play their hand unless they specifically ask for it.

It’s also bad form in a home poker game to leave early, especially if you’ve just won a pot. I’ve played in games where you were expected to stay until the time stated on the invitation. I’ve also played in games where you were expected to let everyone know a few minutes beforehand if you’re planning to leave.

People like to have a chance to win some of their money back.

Conclusion

If you don’t live near a casino with a poker room, or if you just enjoy having company, hosting a home poker game might be just the thing for you. One of the keys to hosting a successful home game is preparation.

Making sure everyone knows what to expect beforehand is key, too. This includes which games are going to be played, what the stakes are, and what the house rules are. Be sure to stock up on refreshments and the equipment necessary to play.

Then have a blast.

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