Hosting the perfect game at home
Creating the perfect poker tournament you can play at home takes more than a deck of cards, but you’ll find that with just a little preparation you can enjoy poker games at home even more than you might at a casino or online.
You’ll need to learn how to set the blinds, levels, starting stacks and payout schedule. And naturally, you’ll want everyone to know how to play tournament poker. But fear not: in this guide to playing poker at home, we'll teach you exactly how to host the perfect home poker tournament.
Paid by the two players to the left of the dealer button. First-left pays the small blind and the second player pays the big blind - this is double the size of the small blind.
The Secrets of an Awesome Home Poker Game Explained
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- CardsChat Editorial Team
- 8 Minute Read
Before You Start
Before you can even begin to think about inviting people over to play a home game, you need to wind back a few steps and cover off the basics. How many chips you need for your poker game, the length of the poker levels and the rest of your game setup are all important, but first of all you need to decide which game you’ll actually be playing.
Picking Your Variation
There's more than one way to play these days, but you’ll want to ensure everyone knows how to play the tournament poker you choose. Here are the three most popular rule variations:
The most common poker variant, Texas Hold'em tournament rules see players dealt two hole cards each, followed by five community cards placed face up on the table. The winner is the player with the strongest 5-card hand, made up of any combination of hole and community cards. Click to learn how to play Texas Hold’em.
The five cards turned face up in the middle of the table, which can be used by all players to form the best possible hand.
In this variation, players receive four hole cards and have to make a hand using two hole cards and three from the board. Betting takes place in rounds, just as with Texas Hold'em, with three community cards being dealt on the flop, followed by one on the turn and a final river. Click to learn how to play Omaha.
The two cards dealt to each player, which are not revealed until the showdown.
Seven-Card Stud was at one time the most popular poker variation. Players are first dealt three cards, two of which are face down (in the hole). The player with the lowest value up-card is forced to kick off the betting. There are community cards, and players are dealt seven cards each in total (with rounds of betting in between). In the end, the player with the strongest five-card hand wins. Click to learn how to play Seven-Card Stud.
Which type of poker you choose to play is entirely down to you, but if you want our recommendation, sticking to Texas Hold'em is probably a wise move. It’s the most widely played and understood poker game, whether you play at home, online or in live card rooms, and if you have a Texas Hold’em poker set it probably came with a handy set of rules and instructions for newer players.
That's why in this guide we focus our advice on hosting a Texas Hold'em poker tournament at home.
So, now we've decided on the poker game to play at home, it's time to think about who to invite.
Around 8-10 players is a good number for a single table tournament. More than 10 and you’ll need to consider a second table, which will also mean another deck of cards and of course enough chips for the additional players.
It’s a good idea to invite players with a similar level of experience, so people don’t feel outmatched, and important to make sure everyone is happy with the stakes and buy-ins. But don't forget about the social side either: the evening should be a chance to kick back and have fun, so invite people you enjoy hanging out with!
The Essential Stuff: Cards, Chips and More
Once your players are locked down you need to get your home game-night-ready. And that means making sure you have the right kit.
At its most basic level, a deck of cards and a table will just about see you through. But there are a few more things to think about if you want your home poker set up to really deliver the goods.
Cards are the backbone of any poker game. While you can pretty much get by without most of the other elements, not having a deck to play with will stop your poker game before it's even started.
Don't bother bringing out the novelty deck you brought home from Tijuana either. You want your fellow players to show you some respect, so invest a few dollars in a plastic laminated deck just like Vegas casinos use. They're easy to wipe clean, don't crease or bend easily, plus they won't absorb grease from any oily chicken wing-covered fingers.
Although you can be a little more flexible with the playing surface, essentially what you need is something flat, and big enough for each player to sit around comfortably.
- Pick a table that can accommodate everyone taking part. A dining table usually works well as a DIY poker table, especially if it extends.
- Invest in a proper green felt playing surface to cover the table. Casino poker tables have this for a reason, it's so the cards slide easily.
- Don't skimp on the quality of the poker table fabric. You want something that's at least an 80-20% cotton/polyester ratio.
Of course, if you really want to look the part you could always go the whole hog and shell out on a poker table. Many fold up poker tables are inexpensive, easy to store, and already topped with a felt playing surface, so well worth considering if you enjoy playing poker games at home.
Want to know how to play poker without chips? It's not impossible – some home games are played perfectly well just using cash – but while that may work well for a cash game, things are trickier for a home poker tournament where the denominations used are usually much higher than the notes in your pocket.
Plenty of poker chips sets are available online, at a wide variety of price points. If you're starting out playing poker games at home, you won't necessarily want to spend a lot of money on a fancy Texas Hold'em poker set. And the good news is, you don't have to.
More expensive poker chips feel nicer in the hand, but they all do the same job. Spend a little extra if you want to add extra style to your home game, but the most important thing is having enough chips for the tournament you want to play.
Even in a friendly home poker tournament, you should set a blind structure and stick to it. That means a timer will be needed to help you keep track of when the blinds go up, as well as when any rebuy period ends.
- Most smartphones feature an alarm or stopwatch, helping you keep count without having to clock watch.
- Dealer buttons with built-in timers can be tracked down easily (and cheaply) online to act as the level timer.
- Some tournament apps for smartphones let you customise and save your blinds levels.
Getting Set Up
So, now the essentials are in the bag you're ready to begin thinking about the finer details of your home poker tournament. Let’s take a look at everything you need to keep the tournament moving, from setting blind levels and starting stakes to poker chip distribution and tournament structure.
Setting stakes in a home poker tournament boils down to how much the players want to play for. Ideally you want a buy-in that players will be comfortable paying for (and if rebuys or add-ons are going to be available, that should also be a factor).
Setting buy-ins too high may put off some of your invited players who are seeing your poker home game as more of a fun activity than the chance to win some prize money. Likewise, setting the buy-ins too low will probably put off players who are attracted by the opportunity to win some extra cash. It's a balancing act that depends on the players who will be playing, so bear that in mind and, however much you choose to play for, make sure everyone knows the details in advance.
It's a good idea to have a side table that offers a cash game for those who bust out of the tournament – just make sure the stakes of the cash game appeal to the same players who came to play the tournament.
While the World Series of Poker Main Event uses a freeze-out structure that eliminates players once they bust, in our experience a rebuy structure is better for home games. Giving players the option to buy back in when they lose all their chips makes things more exciting and more appealing. You'll also find that players take bigger risks when they know rebuys are allowed.
Add-ons – extra buy-ins available to all players at the end of the rebuy period – can also be a great way to help short stacks gain a foothold back in the game, as well as to boost the prize pool.
Consider the payout structure too. Will one player take the entire prize pool, or will you have first, second and third place prizes? The more players you have, the more spots you should pay out. As you may not know the final number of players until the tournament is ready to begin, this may be something to discuss with your fellow players before starting play.
Setting the Blinds
Just like in a high stakes casino, you should establish your blind structure well in advance and, once the tournament has begun, stick to it. Blinds structures like the examples we provide here are fairly standard and unlikely to surprise many players.
If you want a tournament to play out faster, you can always make the levels shorter. This will speed the pace along, but not at a blind rate that feels too intimidating. Skipping blind levels is not something you should generally consider, as it will usually disadvantage some players in an unfair way.
When you reach heads-up play you may want to make the levels a little faster – especially if you're planning on playing a second tournament and other players are hanging around and waiting – but it's essential that both players agree to this.
When it comes to blind structures, there isn't a one-size-fits-all formula. Use your instincts and remember that the structure you choose influences how long your tournament lasts. If you're not sure about setting your own blinds, or just want a bit of guidance, here are three starting structures we suggest.
A game that is played for large sums of money.
Blinds Structure Table
|Small Blind||Big Blind||Ante|
Poker Chip Distribution
How many chips you start with in a poker tournament depends on a few things, but mainly the size of the blinds in level one. As a general rule of thumb, starting stacks should comprise between 50-100 big blinds for the first blind level.
A 500-chip set will usually provide all the chips you need for a home tournament – certainly for a single table tourney. If you want each player to have a bigger stack of chips (which has the upside of needing to make change less frequently) then deal out a larger number of smaller value chips. Otherwise, you can get away with using fewer chips per player, if you add in some higher denomination ones to each buy-in stack.
We go into more specifics about the science behind chip distribution in our ultimate guide to poker chips.
So you've got your card room set up and your chips shared out…now comes the action! But, with every home poker tournament (no matter how relaxed the crowd) it still pays to make sure everyone is aware of appropriate tournament etiquette, and any poker house rules, before kicking things off.
When we use the word etiquette in poker terms, we're not talking about being prim and proper. By poker etiquette, we mean things that are generally acceptable (and not acceptable) in a Texas Hold'em hand or tournament.
Most players will probably be up to speed with appropriate tableside etiquette, but it never hurts to lay down a few ground rules.
Talking On Your Cellphone
This wouldn't fly in a land-based casino so don't stand for it during a home tournament either. Make it clear that when you're in a hand all cells should be switched off. And if you do need to take a call, wait until the round's finished then exit to another room.
Acting Out of Turn
While acting when it's not your turn is usually an honest mistake (especially for new players), unethical players may use it as a deliberate ploy to influence another player's thought process. Either way, it's bad form, so make it clear that any out of turn action will be made to stand.
Poker etiquette extends to how you discard your cards at a hand's end, or whenever you fold. Generally speaking, it's considered poor behavior to discard cards away from the muck (the group of other discarded cards), or by throwing them towards the dealer. As with all other aspects of the game, try to be polite and considerate (and never look at another player’s discards).
You should keep your chips in neatly organized stacks in front of you. It helps to keep the rounds of betting fast, especially when it's your turn to act, and makes it easier to see how many chips each player has from a quick glance across the table.
Don’t deliberately use big stacks of chips to obstruct another player's line of view and don’t ‘splash the pot’ by sprinkling chips all over the pot, instead making clearly identifiable bets that other players can see for themselves. Stacks should generally comprise a single chip color only, and your highest denomination chips must be visible to all other players at all times.
With poker etiquette, it's more a case of checking your behavior to make sure you don't do anything to rub a fellow player up the wrong way. But practicing proper poker etiquette comes down to good sportsmanship too, so make the night easier for everyone and be a good sport. It will make the night more fun, and increase the chances of people coming back in future for another game.
As well as making sure every player is up to speed with etiquette, establishing any tournament rules is another thing to get out of the way early on. Make sure the rules, structure and payouts are clear, and confirm that all players understand them all before the action begins. That way no one can claim ignorance if something doesn't go their way, or they act out of turn.
Here are some rules you might want to consider introducing the next time you hold a Texas Hold'em tournament at home.
The tournament's prize structure, including the payouts for each winning spot, should be laid out in plain view for all to see. A good payout structure for a full single-table tourney awards something like 50% to first place, 30% to second and 20% to third. This obviously changes with more or fewer players.
Buy-ins, Rebuys & Add-ons
The tournament buy-in amount should also be clearly advertised and players should be aware of the buy-in before signing up. If you're allowing rebuys (we recommend this) make sure you specify up to what point in the tournament rebuys are accepted, as well as the size and cost of any add-ons.
Timings & Breaks
Make it clear that when the blinds timer sounds, the next blind level kicks in and the timer resets again. Also, make sure you allow for scheduled breaks in the action so all players know when they can next take a break.
These are just some basic rules to get you started and give your tournament structure. If you want to get even more advanced you can also add in rules around late entry, random seating and moving players between tables (if necessary), all of which will help give your home game a more professional tournament feel.
Want to raise your game even further? If you really want to turn your home tournament into a legendary poker event to remember, here are a few more tips and tricks for a winning formula.
Play Tight to Begin With
The key to tournaments is to sit tight and try and get through to the later hands with as many chips in your stack as possible. Playing tight during the first few rounds, and upping to a more aggressive style, further along, is a great strategy to keep you strong into the later tournament levels.
Deal or No Deal
If you're one of the few remaining players to make it to the final hurdle you may be approached by another player looking to strike a deal to split the prize money. Deals are all well and good but just make sure it's you that's in the driving seat. Remember that nine times out of 10 it's the player who's behind who wants to strike a deal. If you're not interested, just say no.
Don’t Burst the Bubble
Towards the late stages of a tournament you'll find yourself on what's called ‘the bubble' – the last finishing position before players are in the money. It's this close proximity to victory that can cause some players to slip up as the stress piles on. So, keep calm, hold your nerve, and make sure you're not one of the unlucky players to burst your bubble and go bust just before you're in the money!
Home games are a great way to hone your skills among friendly faces, without putting too much on the line or feeling the stress of playing in an unfamiliar casino. So enjoy the experience, and if you bust out, don't beat yourself up. In tourneys, there are always winners and losers; just think of every hand as helping to shape you into a savvier player.
Apps & Software
You might be interested to know there are some online software and apps that can also help you to organise your home poker tournaments.
Of course, these aren't the only software providers offering a way to keep tabs on home poker tourneys and help with the admin side of things. The internet is crawling with loads of packages, as well as apps for mobile phones and tablets, all perfect for helping you organise and run a home poker tournament with a professional approach. So read some reviews, work out what it is you need, and make use of free trails before purchasing.
Now You’re Ready
We've set you up with all the tools you need to get a successful home poker tournament off the ground. Now, it's over to you. Get the kit, find the players, and set a date.
And when you do host your first home tournament don't forget to tell our forum members all about it. As much as we know poker, our forum is packed with poker lovers who live, breathe and sleep the game. In fact, you might even pick up some willing players out of it.
So don't hold back! Sign up, jump in and share your poker experience with us online.