Poker on the home front

Updated: April 14, 2009, 4:56 PM ET
By BLUFF | Michael Friedman

The world is going through major financial changes these days and the poker community is not immune to the economic decline. Both brick-and-mortar casinos and the online sites continue to feel pinched by the downturn and some people think the golden days of poker are gone forever. From the biggest cash game players to the average Joe who saves his or her money to play poker in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and elsewhere, people across the country are holding on to what used to be poker money because they need it to pay bills.

The economic change will once again cause many poker players to revisit the style of poker that got them involved in the first place -- the home game. The home game is the original playing field for the majority of the world's elite players and is once again becoming the place to play these days. Somewhat forgotten by players looking to make names for themselves and to make millions in big buy-in tournaments, the home game has always been the original proving ground for many of today's top professional players.

Before many of these players made the transition to the pro ranks, they all took their lumps playing in home games, so it seems only fitting that players affected by the cash crunch are once again returning to the roots of their sport. Although home games don't provide the glory or the stakes that a player can find on a casino floor, home games do provide the social connection that many of us crave, and they offer a competitive environment that players with all types of bankrolls can afford to play in.

Playing the Game of the Stars

While home games may not appear glamorous, many of today's poker playing celebrities participate in at least one home game a week. From big-time movie directors such as "Alpha Dog's" Nick Cassavetes and "Old School's" Todd Phillips to actors like Mekhi Phifer, Yancey Arias, and Morris Chesnut, Hollywood's elite frequently play in home games. According to Phifer, he plays when he has downtime and he enjoys the different cast of characters that rotate in his weekly games.

"I actually participate in a couple of home games," he said. "We have a lot of good people come through. The games usually have other actors and entertainment people, but sometimes pros will stop in. There is almost always someone interesting stopping by to play."

The home-game bug has also bitten many professional athletes such as Philadelphia Flyers right winger Scottie Upshall who plays with his teammates while traveling on the road.

"We usually play one hour to three and a half hours on the plane rides out West," said Upshall. "We're constantly on the plane and on the road, so we always get a chance to play poker. It's what we choose to do when we get a day off and want to relax after a hard couple of games," says the talented goal scorer.

Despite their celebrity status, these stars have no reservations about playing in a home game, regardless of the stakes involved. Many say they play home games because the games allow them to get away from the pressures of work and because they enjoy the camaraderie found at the table. Like many non-celebrity poker players, these stars consider playing in a home game as refuge from everyday life, providing sanctuary from their daily chaos.

In addition to Hollywood's elite and professional athletes who play in home games, many professional poker players also sit down at the home game tables as well. Top pros Jamie Gold, Antonio Esfandiari and Phil Laak are some of the more well-known players that are notorious for frequenting high-end home games around the greater Los Angeles area.

The Home Game Variable

Playing poker in a home game is an affordable way to seek recreational entertainment. Relatively cheap to start up, a home game often costs less than $30 for the playing materials. All you need is a deck of cards, poker chips, some friends, and a place to play, and you have all the makings of countless nights of entertainment.

When compared to other forms of entertainment, the home game's bang for its buck can't be beat. It usually costs over $20 for two people to go to the movies, and it is almost impossible to get a good meal for two for under $40 at a nice restaurant. If you ate out or went to the movies once a week instead of playing in a home game, you would be averaging $80 and $160 a month respectively, which is well above the $10 buy-in you might find at a 5 cent/10 cent weekly home game.

Some people might initially laugh at the low stakes in some home games, but their egos are getting in the way of the true love of the sport. Home games are supposed to be about human contact, friendly competition, and the challenge of the game, not the amount of money you win at the table. The home game is poker at its purest and one of the few venues that truly allows players to develop their games without fear of losing their shirts.

In addition to being a relatively inexpensive way to pass the time, the home game provides players with an uncensored arena to discuss strategy. According to pro Daniel Negreanu, this is crucial for players who can't afford to lose a lot of money when they are trying to improve their game.

"I think that when you are starting out, you don't necessarily have to have a mentor, but you have to have a core group -- a group of friends whom you can bounce ideas off with each other," said Negreanu.

The Different Facets of the Home Game

Part of the fun of a home game is that players can choose to play numerous forms of the game and they can choose between cash game play and tournament-style action. These options keep poker night exciting and increase the evening's intensity by forcing players to step outside of their playing comfort zone. Although some players may be stronger in one style of the game than in others, the changing game ensures a level playing field so that everyone has a chance to win at his or her best type of game.

In addition to providing a level playing field for competitors, a home game helps promote the importance of improving one's game. It is easy to go to a casino and fool a table of strangers for a couple of hours if you have the basics down pat, but it is much tougher to fool a table of your close friends who are familiar with your play. This challenge of playing with familiar players is a great thing for most players because it forces them to switch their styles and do things differently on a regular basis in order to be successful. Many professional players, including Negreanu, Doyle Brunson, and Phil Ivey, have cited their ability to adjust playing style as being crucial to their games, so it makes sense that average players should learn the nuances of various styles.

Even though a home game is not played in a casino, playing will still let you feel the rush of victory and pain of defeat. In the end, it doesn't matter where you are when your opponent hits a runner-runner hand for a two-outer to crush your pocket aces because you will still feel the emotions of the moment. The big difference between doing this at a casino and doing it in a home game is that in an inexpensive home game you don't lose your rent money in a single hand and if you do lose your rent money, you can always borrow it from your friends because friends don't put friends out on the street.

How to Keep the Home Game Exciting

A group of players can do plenty to ensure an exciting home game, such as offering noncash prizes or rotating games. Try any of the following to add a twist to your weekly game.

Switch between tournaments and cash game play. This keeps players from getting too comfortable with one style of play and changes the pace each week. This forces players to experiment with different styles of play and gives everyone a shot at taking home some cash.

Rotate games frequently. By playing a mix of games, the action always stays fresh and the mix levels the playing field because players who frequently have an advantage in one game often find themselves vulnerable in others. In addition to leveling the playing field, the game rotation keeps the action moving at a fast pace.

Offer noncash prizes. Consider collecting your home game's buy-ins and purchasing useful prizes to give away. If you have eight players and each of you pays a $5 buy-in, you can play an affordable winner-take-all tournament with a $40 dinner-for-two restaurant voucher or buy a gift card to an electronics store. Sometimes winning a cool prize is more fun than winning cash because of the bragging rights that come with it.

Keep stats and reward consistent players. Create a point system for tournament play and take $20 from each night total buy-in and create the "Top Dog" prize. Award this prize every three months ($240) based on a player's performance. This gives players a reason to do their best at all times, and by changing every three months, everyone has a chance to win.

Add nontraditional poker games to the mix. Throw a game into the mix that would never find its way onto casino felt. Games such as Jacks or Better, a five-card draw game in which players must ante until one can open with a pair of jacks, or Guts, where opponents reveal three down cards and hope to have the highest hand and take the pot.

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