Now that you have your space and everything you need, it comes down to actually running the game.
The first two articles in the series talked about the kind of space you need to host a game, and the things you need to do it well. I can’t stress it enough: playing poker without a good table, quality cards, and real chips isn’t fun or functional. While it’s a bit of an investment to get all of this gear up front, it’s crucial to the success of your game.
The only thing more crucial, is actually knowing how to run a game of poker. The first decision you have to make is what kind of format you are playing.
Tournament versus Cash game
This is the first, and most fundamental, choice you need to make. Most home games operate as a sit-and-go, a single table tournament. But both tournaments and cash games have their own advantages. The difference between the two is simple:
In a tournament all players buy in at the start, are given the same amount of chips (the chips have no monetary relation to the buyin), and play with increasing blinds until only one player is left.
In a cash game players convert cash to chips in any amount they desire (you can set upper limits if you like). Players can buy more chips at any point (not during a hand), and leave at any point, cashing out their chips back to cash. The blinds don’t raise in a cash game, and players can take breaks whenever they please.
- The game will last for a predetermined amount of time (approximately).
- The cost to buy in is clear, and can be any amount you like.
- No need to cash in or out chips.
- A player eliminated quickly is done for the night (could be first hand).
- Tournament structure and blind level timer need to be organised and operated.
- Players coming late either can’t play, or are forced to join the tournament with a stack equal to the lowest stack on the table.
It’s possible to reduce the issue of having players eliminated quickly by allowing re-buys, but that affects the pro of making the buy-in clear to all players. It also changed the dynamic of the tournament as a whole. If you do allow rebuys, I suggest you only allow a single rebuy up to a predetermined cut-off point.
For blind timers, there are dozens out there. I’ve always just used something simple, like:
- Players can come and go as they please.
- No need to plan a tournament structure, or operate a timer.
- You can play other poker variants (dealer’s choice).
- The blinds are consistent, keeping the game from turning into a short-stacked all-in frenzy.
- There is no clear, single, winner.
- Someone must act as banker, making sure all chips in play equal the amount of cash used to buy in.
- There is no set one-time buyin.
I can’t remember the last time my group of friends played a tournament. The cash game format is a more convenient choice for the seasoned poker player. But the main reason is our desire to play a dealer’s choice. Playing just one variant of poker all night can get boring, especially if the variant is Texas Hold’em.
The Different Types of Poker
Just like how Whiskey is the collective term for spirits such as Bourbon, Scotch, and Rye, Poker is a the collective term for a large number of card game variations. The only truly universal aspect across all forms of poker is they all have betting rounds, and they are all individual (as in you don’t play in a team, like in Bridge).
While there are literally hundreds of poker variants, there are really only a few ‘core’ variants. But before I get into those, we first need to talk about the three main types of betting.
The Main Poker Betting Structures
In theory any variant of poker can be played with any betting structure, but some games are better suited to one or the other. I will explain what betting to use with each game later on, but for now here are the three main betting structures:
In limit poker the bets you can make are strictly set. For example, if you’re playing a $1/$2 Limit game, then in the first two betting rounds you can only bet in $1 increments and in the second two betting rounds you can bet in $2 increments.
Example: It’s your turn to act on the first betting round. You can check, or you can bet $1. If you bet $1, the next person can fold, call $1 or raise to $2.
No other bet sizes are allowed, all bets are in the set increments. Also, Limit games have a “cap”, meaning if there is a bet, and then three raises, no more raising is allowed. So in our example, if the second player raises to $2, the third player raises to $3, and the fourth player raises to $4, no more raising is allowed in that betting round. You can only call or fold at this point.
In pot-limit, the minimum bet you can make is equal to the size of the big blind, and the maximum bet you can make is the size of the current pot.
This betting structure is wonderful, but requires a little more work. You have to keep track of the pot size, and do math. The maximum bet (a “pot” bet) is equal to you calling the current bet, then adding up all of the chips in play, and adding that to your bet.
Example: There is $5 in the pot. Fred bets $2, Simon Calls $2, and now you want to make a pot-sized bet. The size of your bet is $13.
$5(pot) + $2 (Fred) + $2 (Simon) + $2 (your call) = $11. Your bet is your $2 call, plus the now total amount of the chips in play ($11) for a total of $13.
The quick way to calculate this is by using the formula: triple the amount of the previous bet, and add everything else to that. ($2 (Simon) * 3 ) + ($5 (pot) + $2 (Fred)) = $13.
The most common type of betting played these days is No-Limit. As the name suggests, there is no limit to the maximum you can bet. Just like in pot-limit, your minimum bet is equal to the size of the big blind. Your maximum bet is equal to the total amount of chips you had in your stack at the start of the hand.
Example: Fred bets $2, Simon calls $2, you go all-in for $100.
No limit is the easiest to understand and play with, but can be the most devastating as well. No-limit poker allows any player to bet, and lose, all of their chips on any hand, as opposed to limit where it is often impossible to put that much into play.
Before we get away from betting structures I want to talk briefly about table stakes. Almost every game of poker you will ever play is table stakes. This simple means that you can only ever bet the amount of chips you had in your stack at the start of that hand.
If you have $20 in your stack, and your opponent bets $60, you choice is to call (all-in) or fold. If you call, you and your opponent put $20 into the pot, and your opponent takes back $40, the remainder of his bet.
This means, unlike just about every poker game in old movies, you don’t have to go get a loan just to call when someone bets more than you have in play. It also means you can’t reach into your pocket and add money to your stack mid hand. In a cash game you can add chips before the hand starts, but not during.
But note, no matter what, you are never allowed to take money from your stack and put it back in your pocket. If you put money in play, that money stays in play until you leave. The only exception is using chips to pay for drinks, or tip waitresses.
Now that you understand the basics of the three betting structures, let’s move on to the core variants of poker.
The Main Poker Variants:
Ever since we watched John Malkovich smash a chip tray full of Oreos against the wall in Rounders, Texas Hold’em has become the defacto poker variant. In fact, most people these days think “poker” is just Hold’em. Go back 15 years and almost no one had even heard of the game.
- Simple to understand.
- Quicker game play than any of the Stud or Draw games.
- Easy to deal.
- Players will start seeing strategy almost immediately.
- It’s a little boring for seasoned players. Hold’em isn’t known as an “action game”.
Betting Structure: Hold’em can be played with any of the three betting structures, but is most commonly played as limit or no-limit.
Note: You’ll find the rules of Hold’em and all other variants linked at the bottom of the page.
Omaha is very similar to Texas Hold’em, the main difference being you get dealt four cards instead of two. Other than that everything is exactly the same, except one rule stating you are required to use exactly two cards from your hand, and three from the board, to make your poker hand.
- More action than Hold’em.
- You play more hands.
- Some fun “super” draws.
- The game can be a bit swingy (you will win and lose money quickly).
- Hold’em players will tend to overvalue their hands as a beginner.
Betting Structure: Omaha is best played as a pot-limit game. Because of the nature of the game, the increased action and drawing, Omaha isn’t well suited as a no-limit game, or limit game.
As you assumed, Omaha High/Low (Also called Omaha Eights or Better) is very similar to Omaha. The difference is this being a split-pot game: half the pot is awarded to the player with the best hand, half the pot is awarded to the player with the worst hand (the low).
- It’s fun to play split pot games.
- Increased strategy.
- Chances for huge pots with a scoop (winning both the high and the low).
- It can be difficult for newer players to play.
- It’s a tighter game than Omaha high.
- It’s a little slower than Omaha, having to split pots often.
Betting Structure: Same as Omaha high, Omaha Eights or Better is best suited to pot-limit betting.
Seven Card Stud
Stud is an old anti game, and not too often played anymore. In it, each player gets seven cards, to make their best five card hand out of. Some of these cards are dealt face up, with the others face down on the table.
- Feels nostalgic.
- Players good at counting cards get an advantage.
- The game play is a little slow.
- With the anti you’re paying for every hand you’re dealt, even if you fold.
Betting Structure: Stud is almost always played as a Limit game.
These are what you will come across most often, but there are countless other variations out there, some of the more common ones include:
- Razz (same as Stud, only you’re playing for the worst hand)
- Chicago (Thanks to Rounders, people will still call this out. Stud, high spade in the hole gets half the pot)
- 2-7 Lowball (A draw game, going for the worst hand)
- Pineapple (hold’em with three cards, discarding one. Most often it’s played as Crazy Pineapple (where you discard after the flop), while regular Pineapple you discard before the flop.
- Badugi (A strange, action filled, fun variant that doesn’t use poker hands)
- Svitten Special (Okay, this game is actually not well known at all, but it’s a favorite of any poker player who plays it. Seriously fun split pot game. I suggest one major change to the rules linked, and since I wrote those rules, you should take it seriously, when someone takes just one card, they are dealt the two cards face down, only they get to see them, and then discard the one they don’t want. Also, they are not allowed to look at their hole cards while making the choice.
Now to spread a game, you need to know the rules of poker. And you need to know more than you think.
The Rules of Poker
I’m going to assume you know the order of the poker hands. Just in case, I’ll leave this here:
And while it’s covered in the rules of each game generally, if you haven’t seen thousands of hands of poker played out, you will want to read this article on how to determine the winning hand.
(If you are in the middle of a game, and can’t figure out what hand wins, use this winning poker hand calculator tool.)
Interesting Footnote: I actually wrote every single rules article linked from this page, back when I worked as a staff writer for PokerListings. If you’re a beginner looking to get better at the game, I highly suggest my wildly popular How to not Suck at Poker series. You can read my articles, or even watch them in video form.
Now as the person running the poker game, it’s going to be on you to have the solutions when odd situations come up. And trust me, they will. For this situations such as a card being boxed in the deck as you’re dealing, and dozens more, I wrote an article covering all of the common ones.
I highly suggest you read the full articles of the rules for the game you want to play below. If you’re running a tournament, be sure to read the tournament rules article, and the odd poker rules one.
That’s it. You now have and know everything you need to run a great home poker game.
Now shuffle up and deal.
Links to Rules:
- Texas Hold’em Rules and Game Play
- Texas Hold’em Tournament Rules
- Omaha High vs. Omaha Hi-Lo
- Seven Card Stud
- 2-7 Triple Draw Lowball
- Svitten Special
Read the other parts of this series: