Poker Night: Excerpt

Poker Night: Winning at Home, at the Casino, and Beyond
by John Vorhaus

Chapter Two: The Gulp Limit

Poker Night

No one has to play home poker, you know. If you live in California, New Jersey, or some twenty other states in the union (or Canada, Australia, Estonia and many other civilized countries), you’re probably within shouting distance of a perfectly safe, perfectly legal public cardroom. Thanks to the internet, you can play online poker against real opponents for real money, in the nude if you like, any time you like. And planes fly to Las Vegas every day. So then there’s the question, “Why?” Why play home poker at all? I can think of a few reasons.

First, it’s fun. Social poker played among friends, colleagues or peers is just a flat-out pleasant way to spend an afternoon or evening – or afternoon, evening, night, next morning and next afternoon. Jokes get told. Smack gets talked. Bragging rights get won. People have the feeling of participating in something, being part of an event, in a way that cocktail parties or dinners out just can’t match. Further, many home poker games are safe havens, either of gender where boys can be boys or girls can be girls, or just of being, places where, unlike an office, school, or church or synagogue of your choice, you can let your hair down even if, like me, you have none.

Second, it’s a training ground. If you’ve never played in a public cardroom, or find the idea of playing poker against unseen internet opponents to be frightening or bizarre, your home poker game is a controlled environment of known opponents where you can take your time learning the rhythms of the game and honing your strategic skills. To be honest, cardrooms aren’t nearly as daunting as public poker newbies imagine them to be – not everyone you meet is named Doc or Ace or wears a World Series of Poker championship bracelet – but this is a case where perception is reality. If you feel intimidated, you’ll be intimidated. Home poker lets you get your feet wet, and home poker plus the advice in this book will give you a good tactical and psychological grounding for the day you decide to step up to public play, either in cardrooms or online.

Third, it’s a buzz. Let’s not overlook this point. Gambling – wagering on outcomes – is a very powerful stimulant. The first time you find yourself contesting a big pot and investing all your hope for happiness on the turn of the next card, believe me, you will feel it. Your armpits will tingle and your palms will sweat. You’ll get the coppery taste of adrenaline in your mouth. Your pulse will race and your temples will throb. Your heart will feel like it wants to explode through your chest like some slimy space alien exploding out of a host body. Good times!

Then there’s the money. In a raked game, such as you’ll find in most cardrooms, the house takes a percentage of each pot, so every player who wants to win has to overcome not just his foes but also the house’s cut. It’s easier to make a profit at home because you need only beat your opponents, not your opponents and the house. Not only that, the quality of your foes at home will likely be lower than in the general poker population, making them generally easier to best.

Once real money starts changing hands, the question always arises, “Is this legal?” Well, with so many state and local jurisdictions to consider, I can’t tell you for sure that home poker is strictly legal where you are. In many places, so-called “social gaming” is legal so long as the house isn’t dealing itself a built-in edge (by banking a blackjack game, for example) or raking the pot for profit. In practical terms, home poker is almost universally ignored by the forces of law because, hey, why bother? They’ve got better things to do like chasing crack heads, carjackers or Martha Stewart. I’m no lawyer, and I certainly won’t post your bail if you’re busted, but I think that on the list of things you need to worry about, getting arrested at a social poker game is somewhere between getting hit by an asteroid and having nothing to wear when the Queen invites you to tea. Nevertheless, I know of at least one person who said he’d never play home poker because, “I might want to run for office some day.” Well, if it’s your trip, take it.

Having decided to host a home poker game, your first order of business is filling the seats. Five players is the realistic minimum number for a playable game. Six is better, seven or eight is best. To find these worthies, simply spread the word among friends, co-workers, golf cronies, fellow inmates, whatever. Set a date far enough in advance that people can put it firmly on their calendars, then keep recruiting till your table is full. Don’t be surprised to find enthusiastic responses from unexpected quarters. Poker having come out of the back room in recent years, and shed its tawdry image in television’s bright lights, the game is attracting interest from people who would not formerly have given it a second thought. I’m not saying that your priest, rabbi, minister, mother-in-law or town councilor will take a seat in your game, but okay maybe they will.

As it has for so many other group activities, the modern miracle of email has made establishing and organizing a sign-up list a snap. With surprisingly little effort, you can grow your list to the point where filling the game is merely a matter of setting a date, sending the word, and locking up seats first-come, first-served. Thanks further to the internet, you can hunt up other home game players online in a variety of ways.

No matter who your players are or how you find them, there’s one thing you’ll want them to have and no it’s not loose money, it’s commitment. Whether you play once a week, once a month or only at the equinox and solstice, everyone in the game must understand and agree that on poker night, poker comes first. Otherwise… sad scenario… a couple of late scratches, an unexplained absence, some lame excuse about Ebola Virus… next thing you know, it’s just two or three of you passing each other’s money back and forth all night and basically hating your friends.

So seek players who will make the game a priority, and – my advice – seek them regardless of gender. Not to challenge the sanctity of the boys’ (or girls’) club, why restrict your search for able poker players to half the human gene pool? Enthusiasm, reliability, good sportsmanship, quick wit, ready cash, commitment… these are the qualities you want in each and every member of your poker gang. Don’t worry too much whether they pee lid-up or lid-down. This is the twenty-first century, after all.

Male or female, the first thing they’ll want to know is, “What are the stakes?” or more to the point, “How much do I stand to lose?” Setting stakes can be a tricky business. On one hand, the money has to be meaningful, or no one will take the game seriously, thus neutralizing two of poker’s key elements, fortitude and the bluff. Then again, if it costs too much to play, either you won’t find willing competitors or people will go broke too fast and the game will fall apart.

To establish the right stakes for your game, first locate your group’s gulp limit, an amount of money that makes most players in your game go gulp, at least just a little. The gulp limit is, of course, a sliding scale. I know games where they battle for pennies with the intensity of rabid javelinas. In other games, people spew Big Bens (or Franklins –

hundred dollar bills) into play from midnight till dawn without batting an eye. A good way to identify your own gulp limit is to ask this question: “If I misplaced [blank] amount of money, would I feel real regret?” Then start filling in the blank with higher and higher numbers until the answer changes from no to yes. That’s your gulp limit.

Gulp limits change over time. Once when I was a kid I lost a exactly 65 cents pitching nickels and cried. The first time I played cardroom poker, I won twenty bucks and felt like Donald Trump. These days I routinely buy into poker games for a thousand dollars or more, knowing full well that that grand may be going home as someone else’s guest. I don’t love to lose – no one does, and no one should – but for the type of poker I play, about a grand is my gulp limit now.

Gulp limits change over time because people improve their play and “step up in class” and also because get used to gambling and build up a tolerance to the buzz of the bet. The dollar wager that caused an adrenaline frenzy the first time you made it simply doesn’t have the same impact a thousand bets later. Because of this, it’s a good idea to start your game small, whatever you define small to be, and plan to raise the stakes over time. Remember that you’re serving the long-term goal of building and sustaining a healthy and ongoing home poker game. Keeping the stakes small to start gives everyone a chance to learn the game, love the game, and build confidence in their ability to compete, plus acclimate to the buzz. Be patient. There’ll be plenty of time later to strip-mine everyone’s wallets.

Having identified your group’s gulp limit, you next need to establish appropriate betting limits. Most poker games establish a minimum and a maximum allowable bet size, and these minimums and maximums are the limits for that game. In so-called nickel-dime poker games the limits are, you guessed it a nickel and a dime. In bigger games, you might have limits of $1 and $2, $5 and $10, $100 and $200, and so on. In the biggest games, such as the ones you see on TV these days, the betting structure is no limit, which means that players can wager up to everything they’ve got on the turn of any card.

At the start of each game, all players will make an initial buy-in, or purchase of chips. The buy-in should be roughly 25 to 30 times the size of your top limit or big bet, for example $100 in a $2-4 limit game. Note that higher the ratio between the betting limits and buy-in, the more bets a player can make with his initial buy-in, and the more “play” there is said to be in the game. Let’s say you’ve figured out that your guys’ gulp limit is about fifty bucks. That’s what you set as the buy-in, but now you have to make sure that everyone gets appropriate action for their investment. It would be ludicrous, for example, to set betting limits of $10 and $20, since every player losing his first hand would have to buy more chips. More appropriate limits would be $1 and $2. If you want to give players more play, just drop the limits to $.50 and $1.

Buy-ins and betting limits, though, tell only half the story, because it’s reasonable to expect that somewhere along the line someone is going to lose his or her initial buy-in and have to rebuy, or buy more chips. Some nights – some long nights – players go through several rebuys, and the sum of these rebuys is said to be the swing of a game, where swing equals the amount of money a player can expect to win or to lose on an exceptionally good or an exceptionally bad night. Swings of 100 times the big bet are not unheard of in home poker games. While it’s not likely that that someone will drop $400 in a $2-4 game, it can happen, and if such an outcome would have your poker pals reaching for their razor blades, they probably shouldn’t play in a game as big as yours.

In the name of full disclosure, then, tell prospective players in your game what they can expect in terms of three things: betting limit, buy-in and swing. Tell them, for example, that it’s $1-2 limit poker with a $50 buy-in and possible swings of a couple of Big Bens. Armed with this information, they can decide for themselves whether they want to jump in.

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