How to host a family poker night

Lee Jones
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Posted on: December 24, 2023 9:30 am EST

It is the season of gathering. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Eid al-Fitr, or a good old pagan Festivus, it’s likely that you’ll be among friends and family over the coming weeks. What I can say about that is: “Revel in it.” Having just celebrated a Thanksgiving dinner that included our son’s best friend of 20 years nursing her 15-month-old daughter on our living room sofa, I can tell you that these are wonderful times.

Look at each other, not something else

Here’s the deal: your phone will always be with you. Netflix and Tik-Tok, for better or worse, will always be here. But Aunt Sally, who was in college when Woodstock happened – time with her is precious.

“I mean, what are we supposed to do if we’re not watching Netflix or scrolling through YouTube shorts?”

Just ask Aunt Sally. For most of her life, Tik-Tok, Netflix, and indeed, mobile phones didn’t exist. After the dishes were cleared, people sat around and “visited.” Now, I’m the first to say that sitting around “visiting” makes me want to run screaming from the room. But there were plenty of things that could engage everybody, with no electronics in sight.

Shuffle up and deal

In the United States, poker was definitely one of those things.

Everybody would gather around the recently cleared dining room table. Aunt Sally, then 14 years old, was sent to the kitchen to find the jar of change that many households had, and coins were distributed to everybody. Somebody would paw through drawers until a deck of cards was located. That it only had 51 cards wasn’t important because, by gum, there was the joker for the deck. Cousin Mike (who we lost in 2003) found a magic marker and wrote “4❤️” on the face of the joker – thus a full deck was procured.

Grandma Deb, she was never much for playing cards, so she volunteered to make the coffee and slice the pies.

Pretty soon, a poker game full of laughter and noise was in full swing. The kids, they stood next to somebody or sat in a lap, and learned which hands beat which. Between hands, the stories (both true and tall as the Empire State Building) flowed across the table, and into hearts and minds forever.

I’ll make no academic arguments about why playing a game around a table is better for everybody than staring at a 72″ TV screen (or individual 5″ screens). I hope it’s patently obvious.

Australian poker player George Psarros gives another player a staredown
It’s great to look at each other and not the TV, but – unlike George Psarros, pictured – there’s no need to give Aunt Sally the staredown

The mechanics of a family poker game

My editorial assignment was talk about how to host a family poker night, so I’ll give you a few pointers, but trust your instincts. Whatever you do that involves everybody at the table together is a success.

Logistics

Bring out the big mixing bowl that Cousin Bruce used to make the dough for the dinner rolls. Put everybody’s mobile phone in it. Take the bowl out of the room and hide it until the poker is over. Detaching the 9-year-olds from their tablets is up to you. But trust me, they’ll be healthier, happier kids if they’re invited to participate in the game.

Having real poker chips will make the game more fun, and engaging. That, and nobody has giant jars of change in their kitchen anymore. The chips don’t have to be fancy at all, and you can get them from your favorite online mercantile. Consider getting chips with denominations on them – that will help the oldest and youngest players keep track.

Plastic cards will survive better, and you can wipe the apple pie filling right off them. Also, if you’re a serious casino poker player, put your biases aside – a “poker” sized deck (2.5″ x 3.5″) will work better for many people than bridge size (2.25″ x 3.5″). On that same theme, get yourself some jumbo index cards. You want Aunt Sally, who’s 73 now, and 8-year-old Mark to be able to see the cards, even if he’s sitting in her lap and they’re sharing.

What kind of poker should we play?

You’re going to be surprised at the answer to this. If you turn on the TV, watch the movies, or listen to water cooler conversations, it’s all no-limit hold’em, all the time. So certainly there will be some call for that, particularly from the 15-40 age group. However, there are three important reasons why NLHE might not be the best choice for a dining table poker game:

  1. Your starting hand is just two cards. Particularly for those unfamiliar with hold’em, it’s hard to get a sense of what’s a good hand. Remember, we want everybody, from 8 to 78, to have fun, and feel included. Even if they’ve never played a hand of poker before. Especially if they’ve never played a hand of poker before.
  2. Having a wide range of bet sizing options is confusing. In fact, it’s probably the single most difficult aspect of no-limit hold’em. When teaching the newbies, eliminating this complexity will increase everybody’s enjoyment.
  3. Assuming you’re not playing for real money, the ability to jam your stack at any time creates a fatal flaw in a no-money game. I well remember one vacation with friends where they asked me to teach them poker on the first evening. I did so (using no-limit hold’em) and pretty soon we had a great game, even though no real money was involved. On the second night, one of our party realized that he could bluff everybody out of virtually any pot by simply pushing his stack in. If he was called and beaten, oh well, he got another fresh stack of chips.

    The game was suddenly not the least bit fun or interesting.

Thus I highly recommend fixed limit five-card draw.

Stop clutching your pearls, and listen.

  1. When you pick up your cards, you are looking at a five-card poker hand. You intuitively learn how frequently you get various kinds of hands (teach the little ones to say, “It’s hard to make a pair!”). Even the newbies can start to recognize the patterns – “If we can get one more club we have a flush!”
  2. Two betting rounds simplify the game. Beginners will understand that they have a five-card hand, and that they get one shot to improve it.
  3. Fixed limit betting solves the “I’m all-in for the ninth straight time” problem, and removes one complexity from a game that’s already complex enough. I suggest having two blinds, perhaps 2¥ and 5¥. Then bets and raises of 5¥ before the draw, and 10¥ after the draw.
  4. The older folks in the crowd, if they played poker 30+ years ago, will remember five-card draw. It’s hard to imagine, but the popularity of Texas hold’em really dates from the early 1990’s.

By playing any form of poker, the novices will learn the rules, betting sequences, and etiquette (“No, you don’t splash the pot like you see on Star Trek TNG“). You’re getting them into the poker pool in the shallow end, where they’ll be more comfortable and receptive to the game. Furthermore, note that for a hundred years (starting around the Civil War), five-card draw kept Americans of every station glued into chairs around tables in saloons, VFW halls, military bases, and kitchens. It’s a fine poker game.

I promise that after a while, somebody will bring up Texas hold’em again. By then, maybe even Aunt Sally will be ready to try it. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you when weird Ned from across the street starts shoving his stack in preflop on every hand.

As an aside, there may be some calls for “dealer’s choice.” Call me a stick-in-the-mud (I’ve been called that, and worse), but I don’t think it’s your best bet if there are newbies in the group. They’re going to be struggling as it is. If it’s a sequence of “Low spade in the hole,” “Badugi,” “no-limit hold’em,” and “five-card draw, deuces and suicide king wild,” they’ll be completely lost and quickly quit the game.

Conversely, if you pick one game and deal it consistently for a while, the novices can develop some comfort with both that variant, and the game of poker itself.

Tournament or “cash” game?

I’ve got a crystal clear answer on this one: “cash” game. Again, you’re fighting the TV monster, in that everybody sees the tournaments on TV. But your goal isn’t to create a dramatic narrative for an audience – it’s to keep everybody around the table for an extended period, marinating in the communal experience. The only thing worse than watching a no-money sit-and-go from which you already busted is being in the living room hearing the status of Grandpa Dan’s hernia. So then everybody disappears into the TV room to watch Die Hard 47.

A big stack of Canadian dollar bills
Playing for real money makes a difference, even if it’s just tiny stakes (or Canadian dollars)

Also, cash games can be turned off and on like a water tap. If everybody decides to go caroling after 90 minutes, great – you’re not in the “middle” of something. People can come and go. The cash game is a more polite guest than a sit-and-go at your family gathering.

Definitely play “cash.” If you want to assign actual dollar values, and play $.05/$.10 fixed limit five-card draw, that’s probably fine. Nobody will win or lose more than a 7-11 cup of coffee, but somehow the “real money” aspect will increase the excitement and thrills.

Turn off your “real poker player” switch, and enjoy

If you’re a serious poker player, suspend your desire to win money, outmaneuver your opponents, or any of the other reasons that make us go to the casino. You want to keep your family and friends engaged with each other as human beings, laughing and being in community, rather than lost in electronic devices. Poker is the perfect vehicle to do that, but the GTO discussion can wait.

If you do this right, you could be starting a family tradition that goes on for decades – it wouldn’t be the first family gathering poker game that transcended generations. In fact, poker media star Nikki Limo got her start playing around kitchen tables for candy.

Finally, be sure to ask Aunt Sally what it was like being part of the Woodstock generation. Or if she watched Neil Armstrong land on the moon. You won’t get many more opportunities to hear those stories, and now you’ll have 2-3 hours to take it all in.

All because you broke out the cards and chips, and said, “Hey, let’s all play some poker.”

I wish you, and all those gathered around you, a glorious and peaceful holiday season.

Images courtesy of the WPT