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Sad to say, “friendly” poker games have broken up longstanding friendships because someone broke the rules, or the host failed to set up some rules to which everyone agreed. To keep from losing your best poker buddy, have a brief get-acquainted meeting so that everyone can have a say in the “house rules.” Get someone to write them down so you don’t have to rely on memories that get confused if emotions run high.
Here are a few suggestions to get you started.
Select a “poker referee.” Every game needs someone to resolve disputes and poker at home is no different. Choose a ref from among the players before the game starts. If the ref also plays, let the players vote on how to proceed.
Set a time limit. Otherwise, the players may go on indefinitely, especially the losers who want to recoup their money.
What beats what. There’s no substitute for making sure that everyone knows the hand rankings of what beats what in poker. Furthermore, ties should split the pot.
Pick a banker. The host typically serves as the banker in charge of taking cash and distributing chips. If there are more chips at cash than were distributed, and you can’t tell who padded their bankroll, the banker should be in charge of taking cash and distributing chips. If there are more chips at cash out, and the offending player can’t be reasonably determined, the banker has to pay up. Even among friends, this ugly situation happens more often than people expect.
The host rules. Players are guests in a person’s home, and ought to respect his or her rules whether it’s about smoking, talking, drinking alcohol or other behaviors. However, hosts that are obnoxious about kicking people out soon find they have no poker buddies left.
Don’t rake a home game. Have everyone agree in advance to chip in for pizza, beer, the hired dealer or whatever. Don’t charge the participants as part of the game.
Make rules on dealing. Whatever the rules are, make sure each player follows them when it’s his or her turn to deal.
Cut the deck. It’s good poker etiquette to offer a cut to the player to your right when dealing. This is another courtesy that helps players have confidence that a fair game is being played.
No cheating. Even when playing just for fun without any money on a game, cheating is an insult. In a money game, it’s robbery, pure and simple. The same goes for players who team up to beat one or more other players; that’s also cheating. Cheating players should be physically ejected from a home game and their chips divided among the remaining players. So long, Charlie.
Allow check-raising (sandbagging). Some poker mavens say that check-raising, also known as sandbagging, is bad manners. Others say it’s a good strategy, depending on the players’ skill. Let the group decide.
No topping up when a hand is in play. What you buy-in for is what you play, folks. In other words, don’t let any player reach for his wallet or her handbag to add to their stack while a hand is still being played. If the bet goes beyond them for that hand, they should fold. Rebuys are OK, but in between hands, not during.
No string bets. A string bet is the typical Hollywood line, “I’ll see your diamond ring and raise you my platinum cufflinks.” This is hype. No respectable poker player ever makes more than one action at a time, and it’s specifically banned at casinos. Don’t do it at home, either.
Cap raises. Unless playing heads-up, a cap of three raises per betting round is common in the kind of fixed-limit games most often played at home. When two players are head to head, let them battle through the raises while the rest enjoy the show.
Call it quits. Any player should be allowed to leave the game once a hand is done, whether they’re winning or losing. Lots of people demand that winners stay and allow losers to try to recoup their money, but that’s just plain dumb. Making someone a prisoner is a sure sign of a dishonest poker game. You play, you lose, that’s why they call is gambling, folks.
Pay up or shut up. This puts the lie to Kenny Rogers’ “never count your money at the table” lyric. Don’t call a bet unless you’ve got the chips to make good. A player is only as good as his or her word.
Keep your hands to yourself. Never touch another player’s cards or chips, even if they’ve gone to the restroom when they’re up to bet a blind. Rudest of rude.
Don’t hide cards or chips. This isn’t allowed in licensed card rooms, so why should people have to guess in home games? It only leads to confusion and slows the action.
Don’t be a jerk. What would your mother likely do if she saw you breaking a glass without apologizing, or cursing in front of the host’s family, or disrespecting the host’s property? Yeah, ours would slap us upside the head, too. Be courteous, for heaven’s sake.
Don’t splash the pot. Nobody wants to have to pick up your chips when they fly off the table and into other people’s stacks, drinks, laps or anything else. Be especially aware that pets can snag a flying chip before it lands on the floor. Unless you want to wait around until Fido poops out a chip, don’t get splashy with it.
Don’t act out of turn. A responsible play doesn’t jump the gun on his or her play. Not only is it rude, but it actually puts a player at a disadvantage. If someone does it once out of excitement, give ’em a pass and observe that poker is a dish best served with a side of “chilly.”
Go first at the showdown. When a player’s bet is called, he or she must show the cards first. Then other players have the option to reveal their hands or fold.