Last October, I was in the midst of planning a bachelor party for a good friend. I was trying to think of classy and fun activities for a group of 8 or so guys. Even though I’d not really ever played myself, a friendly game of poker seemed like just the ticket for a couple hours of entertainment to start the evening off.
So I haphazardly pulled together a poker game at my house. I had an old poker table that I acquired from the previous owner of my home, and I had just got some chips from a friend as well. So I was all set on that front. What more could I need, right?
Turns out little bit of know-how would have gone a long way. While we still had plenty of fun, the actual game of poker was a bit of a bumpy ride. Most of us knew the basic gameplay, but not really any of the rules for betting or flow of play. It was slow going, and the luckiest man of the evening — which happened to be myself — ended up taking home the prize rather than the best player (of which there may not have been one!).
I decided that night was so much fun — even though I didn’t know anything — that I would start a monthly poker night. I also decided I would learn some more about the game, and about how to set it up so that everyone has a blast, but also knows and enjoys the game itself rather than it just being a crapshoot. After all, men thrive on healthy competition, and in that first evening of poker, there really was none. Since then, our games have become much better, albeit a little more boisterous.
If you’ve thought about starting and hosting your own poker night, today I’ll share the tips and advice I’ve learned through nearly a year of trial and error. I’ll cover everything from the nuts and bolts of making a regular get-together happen, to the importance of balancing competitive, by-the-book play, with ensuring everyone has a good time. So ante up, and let’s dive in!
There’s more that goes into a successful poker night than meets the eye. You need to make sure you have all the tools needed to play poker — cards, chips, a table, etc. You also need snacks and drinks. A nice jazzy playlist adds to the environment. If you really go big, you might want some cigars once the game itself has concluded (or during if you’re in a smoking-friendly environment). And most importantly, you need people! While you can certainly play with fewer, starting out with around 8 participants is the best way to go. That’s also how many slots you’ll find on most poker tables.
So do a mental walkthrough of how you’d like the evening to go. Imagine opening the door and letting people in. Will you serve drinks and snacks right away? How long will you wait for latecomers? What will you do if a number of people don’t show? If you run out of drinks, do you have a backup plan? As the host, you’re the one folks will look to for troubleshooting, so make sure you run through all the scenarios.
You also want to communicate liberally. While I tend to email reminders about the shindig only about a week in advance, I’ve discovered that it actually needs to be a bit more than that. Once you decide on a date, let everyone know to put it on their calendar, and send a couple emails (or texts) out beforehand as well.
Now, it’s not like guys are going to harshly criticize you for not having things well-planned, but the night is smoother and more enjoyable if it is. The tips below will ensure that your evening is well-thought-out, and that everyone has a good time because of it.
Know the Game
When I hosted that first poker night last November, I was darn lucky that there was one guy in the group who knew some of the ins and outs of poker. Without him, we would have had to Google hand rankings, we wouldn’t have known betting rules, and the whole group would’ve been lost and on our smartphones trying to figure the thing out.
Be well-versed in hand rankings, the rules and flow of betting, and even game etiquette (like keeping your cards in full view of the table at all times). As the host, you’ll be setting the tone for the evening, so the more you know and the more confident you are, the better you can lead the players through the game.
Determine the Intensity of Your Poker Group
One of the main hurdles with gathering men for a poker night is setting expectations for the intensity of the game. You might have some guys who are real sticklers — they raise the blinds every 15 minutes — not 16 and not 14, but exactly 15. And you’ll probably have dudes who don’t know what they’re doing. This is where you really have to know the group of guys you intend on playing with. If you have a feeling they’re all beginners, be a little more lax with gameplay and time-keeping, and be lenient if a “rule” is broken, such as someone betting out of turn. If your main group of friends, however, consists of World Series of Poker aficionados who play online and in casinos, you might want to ratchet up the intensity, and forewarn any newcomers that it’s a serious game. Most groups fall somewhere in the middle. Ours was certainly a newbie group at the beginning, but we’ve morphed into somewhat respectable players. We’re always sure to remind newcomers, though, that we’re a friendly bunch who don’t take things too seriously.
Playing the Game: A Table and Chips
While you don’t necessarily need a poker table — really any dining table would do the trick — it sure adds to the ambiance and enjoyment of the evening. It really makes you feel like you’re in the back room of a club, playing outside the law. While actual tables can be expensive and take up a lot of room, table toppers are cheaper and take up far less real estate. You could even split the cost among your regulars to make it more cost effective.
You’ll also want a nice set of poker chips. A 500-chip set should be plenty, but it’s always good to have another set on hand, especially if you allow folks to buy back in after they’ve gone out. Most sets come with four colors of chips — you’ll need to decide what to value the chips at. There’s no set rule here; in our games, we do the following:
- White: $5
- Blue: $10
- Red: $20
- Green: $40
Remember, with a buy-in game — by far the most common for home games — those numbers don’t actually mean anything. The only actual money exchanged is at the end of the night when you have a winner. So your chips can be any value you’d like — $5 or $5,000.
It’s also good to have at least two decks of cards, which is standard with most poker sets. While you’ll only use one deck at a time, it’s nice to have the next hand’s dealer shuffle and get the second deck ready to keep the flow and pace of play movin’. Then, when players start to go out, they can act as designated shufflers and dealers.
Establish House Rules Beforehand
There are a number of house rules that can and should be established before hosting a poker night. House rules can govern anything from game play, to player etiquette, to the environment you’re in. For instance, your house poker rules can include how many chips to give each player to start the game, penalties for playing or betting out of turn, if and how much a player can buy back in if they go out, when to raise blinds, etc. When it comes to player etiquette and environment, you can make rules as to whether or not cell phones are allowed on the table, players can wear sunglasses, you’re allowed to touch another player’s cards/chips, you’re permitted to use the bathroom after you’ve folded a hand, and so on. Click here to check out a good (and sometimes humorous) list of possible house rules.
Make It Regular and Consistent
For any group — be it social or charitable or fraternal — consistency is a key component. With a less formal group — like a monthly poker night — this isn’t as crucial, but still important to ensure its lasting success. (Unless of course your poker night is just a one-time special occasion!)
If you’ve set a date, don’t change it. It’s a common temptation when a few folks cancel on you, but the reality of life is that you won’t have everyone present all the time.
With a recent poker night, only three of the eight guys I invited could make it. I was strongly tempted to just change the date last minute and move it back a week. But, I held to the original plan, and simply invited some different guys from a wider circle of friends and acquaintances, and I encouraged the regulars who were coming to invite some new blood as well. It ended up being a great evening, and we had plenty of guys to make it worthwhile.
It’s also best to have a regular interval for your game night, and to have it on the same day of that cycle. So maybe you get together monthly, and it’s the third Friday of the month. Or for the busy family man you go with a quarterly game, and it’s a Saturday afternoon. This makes it easy for people to put it on their calendar early, and you don’t have to go coordinating a bunch of schedules. You just have a set time, and whoever can make it, does, and whoever can’t, doesn’t.
You’ll also want to consider if you’ll host each game, or if you’ll rotate among friends. For the first 7 months or so, I hosted poker night, but now with a newborn in the house, I’m handing it off to some other friends, and I imagine we’ll be regularly rotating. It can be fluid, and determined by the guys you’re playing with.
Snacks and Beverages
Beyond just what’s needed for playing poker itself, you’ll want a hefty supply of snacks and beverages. It’s an easy task — just ask everyone to bring a drink or snack to pass around. For snacks, you’ll want to stick with one-syllable eats: chips, dips, nuts, wings, etc. The simpler, the better.
In my experience of hosting, it’s best to have snacks at a designated table, away from the poker. We didn’t start this way, initially allowing snacks on the table of play, but that ended after a few too many spills on the green felt.
For drinks, too much choice can be overwhelming. Tell everyone to bring a sixer of their favorite craft brew, or have folks bring one ingredient of a classic cocktail you’ll be featuring for the evening. It just depends on how classy you want things to be.
Be sure to have some non-alcoholic beverages available too. It’s not just for the teetotalers and designated drivers, either; if your game runs a few hours (or more), it’s likely you’ll want a beverage other than alcohol in order to keep a clear head about the game!
Set the Tone With Classy Music
Rather than just relying on the chit-chat of the evening to act as background noise, turn on some music to really up your ambiance game. While it can be anything you want, I always prefer classy jazz music. It really makes you feel like you’re back in the roaring 20s in an old nightclub. Pandora and Spotify have plenty of free jazzy playlists, and big band is better than smooth. This is a guys’ night, not a romantic soirée.
Pick an End Time
This may not seem an important step, but it’s crucial to the success of your evening. Some players are slow-playing chip-hoarders, and could stay in the game for days if allowed to. Setting a pre-determined ending time will up the competitiveness of everybody. It will also determine when you’ll raise the blinds (generally every 30-60 minutes of play). Be sure the ending time is pre-approved by any roommates and/or spouses whose space you’re taking over for an evening.
Parting Thoughts on the Pleasures of Poker Night
I’ve been at this for coming up on a year, and I can happily say that more than just my poker game has improved. My friendships have too. Modern life is harried — folks commute to and from long hours on the job, spend time with their kids, and labor at side hustles. Without some intention, times with friends would be few and far between. A regular poker night gives us a chance to hang out and bond as men. We tell stories, we laugh, we complain, and of course, we rib whoever has the good cards that night. Beyond improving existing friendships, I’ve come to make new friends as well. When one of the regulars can’t make it, we expand our invitation circle, and invariably get to know someone new a little better. Poker night may subtract a bit from your wallet, but it’ll add a lot to your life.
What tips do you have for successfully hosting and starting a poker night?