House rules for card games
One of the most beautiful things about the standard 52-card deck of cards is its flexibility. Not the physical flexibility the cards have when you bend them—though it comes in handy when you try to shuffle, of course! Rather, what makes playing cards so great is their flexibility to be used for many different sets of rules. We tend to think of card games as discrete entities, saying we’re playing “Whist” or “Poker” or “Cash” or “Canasta“. In reality, these are just names given to a certain set of rules dictating the course of game play. When you look closer, however, you discover each of these labels covers a fair bit of ground, and there are a few different versions of each game in circulation.
Unfortunately, card games’ flexibility can also be their downfall. A lack of clarity regarding the rules can cause chaos at game night. Disagreement over rules and accusations of cheating can cause hard feelings between old friends. If not handled properly, this can break up a long-standing game group!
Fortunately, avoiding such a scene is easy with a little forethought. All you need to do is establish a set of house rules to make sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to the game.
Why are card game rules so tricky to get right?
When a new board game is created, an inventor or team of designers usually sits down and creates a brand new game from scratch. Often, this is done under the supervision of a company planning to sell it. While some traditional card games are created this way, like Contract Bridge or Triple Play, most evolve incrementally over time. A player learns the game somehow, then introduces it to their group of friends. Over time, they might make a few changes to the rules to suit their tastes. Then, someone from that group teaches their version of the game to another group, and the process repeats.
Over time, this creates a few different versions of the game under the same name. After the changed version of the game has drifted far enough away from the original game, it might receive a new name to distinguish it from the original.
Of course, this drifting will, over time, result in the library of card games expanding and giving players new games and new variations in the rules to try out. As it’s going on, though, we’re left with a problem. What people call “Whist” might be played under different rules in Chicago than it is in Charlotte. While this wouldn’t matter if everyone always played with the same group of people, inevitably someone who learned the game one way is going to play with someone who learned another. That sets the stage for conflict.
Choosing your house rules
A few games, like Contract Bridge, have governing bodies enforcing a single set of rules for professionally-organized play. Casinos also have a specific set of rules they train their dealers to follow, backed up by surveillance officers who ensure the dealers are following them to the letter. But the vast majority of games aren’t played in an organized fashion; they’re played in homes, between friends and family members. As the host, you are the one who is responsible for choosing the rules that govern. These rules are your house rules.
The easiest course of action is to bless an existing set of rules as the official rules for your game group. The game rules on our website are a good place to start. The descriptions on this site are designed, as much as possible, to provide a straightforward and easy-to-teach rules set. That makes them a good base for your house rules. There are, of course, hundreds of card game books with other, possibly more complex, rules sets you can choose from. After all, that’s where the phrase “according to Hoyle” came from.
Don’t be afraid to include your players in the discussion. Getting input from everyone goes over a lot better than “my house, my rules”. You may find some players prefer a different set of rules you hadn’t considered.
Using your house rules
Once you have chosen a set of rules, it’s time to play. Before you deal the first hand, make sure everyone knows which set of rules are your official house rules. (Be sure to inform new players of this when they join the group, as well. You may need to give them time to familiarize themselves with the rules.)
It’s crucial the rules are on hand all throughout game play. If the rules are in a book, have the book in the room. If they’re online, give everyone a link to the page they’re on. A printed copy of the webpage might be nice to have on hand as well. Some people read faster on paper than on a screen, and it’s nice to have a copy if the wifi (or the website!) goes down.
Any time there is a question as to the rules, stop and consult the rules you have made official. Not only will this prevent arguments about what the rules are, it will mean the rules stay consistent from game to game.
Customizing and updating your house rules
The great thing about card games is there is no wrong way to play them! The only thing that matters is everyone having fun. If you want to change up your game, all you have to do is update your official house rules.
As you become more comfortable with a game, you may seek out more information about it and come across a variation you want to try out. You may even come up with an idea for something you want to add, and write a new rule yourself.
Another reason you might want to edit your house rules is because the way they’re written is ambiguous. If the rules don’t make it clear how a particular situation should be handled, let the group come to a conclusion about the fairest way to resolve the situation. Then, document the group’s decision in your house rules. Next time it arises, you’ll know what to do, and the rules will be consistent with what you did last time.
Whenever you update the rules, again, be sure to get the group’s buy-in. Make sure everyone is aware of the changes, especially members of the group who may not have been there when it was discussed. Keeping everyone informed will keep your players happy and your game fair.
Setting up a partnership card game
Not every card game makes you go it alone. Many of the world’s great games are designed around partnership or team play. Working together with a partner toward a shared victory can be extremely satisfying. Succeeding in such a game often involves not only attention to the game itself and its strategy, but learning how to determine the strengths and weaknesses of your partner’s hand, and adjusting your play to accommodate them.
However, there are a few important considerations that you need to be aware of before you can start playing any partnership game. These aren’t difficult to resolve, but a little bit of thought put into them will ensure that your game goes smoothly and everyone has fun.
The first thing that needs to be established when playing a partnership game is who will be partners with who. There are two ways of handling this: by leaving it up to chance, or intentionally pairing players with one another. Which works better will depend on your players and the type of game you’re wanting to play.
One method of establishing teams is to do so by a random draw. If you’re doing a normal two-teams-of-two arrangement, take two red cards and two black cards out of the deck. Shuffle those four cards and let everyone pick one. The two players drawing red cards will play against the two who drew black cards.
For other numbers and sizes of teams, adapt accordingly. For example, for three teams of two, use three different suits with two cards each.
The benefit of the random-draw method is that it is unlikely to cause hurt feelings regarding who is playing with who. If you don’t like your partner, well, it’s the deck’s fault, not yours.
However, choosing randomly may result in unbalanced teams if there is a big disparity in skill or experience between players. If the draw pairs two highly-skilled players against two that have never played the game before, nobody’s going to have fun. Another downside is that it may pit close friends or significant others against each other, which may not sit well with some people.
Another option for choosing teams is to simply work out through discussion who will be with who. Sometimes, this is easy to decide. If two pairs of spouses get together to play a friendly game, it’s natural for the couples to play against each other. A group may choose to pair an inexperienced player with a strong player to help them learn the game. In Contract Bridge, some partners work together so well that they never play the game unless it’s with their established partner.
However, there are some pitfalls to this approach. Remember the kid in gym class that was last to get picked for a team? Nobody wants anyone at their game night to feel that way. Also, losses or disagreements over play can spark tensions between partners. Such escalations can lead to hard feelings, or even worse, as happened in the famous Kansas City Bridge Murder in 1929.
Once the teams have been decided, you need to determine where everyone will be sitting. For most games, players should sit so that there is an opponent to the left and to the right of them. As the turn of play goes around the table, players of opposing partnerships will alternate in taking their turns. For four-player games, this also means that players will be sitting across from their partner.
For six-player games using two teams of three, players should sit A-B-A-B-A-B. When playing with three teams of two, they should sit A-B-C-A-B-C.
A practice especially common in Contract Bridge that has spread to other partnership games is to have one scorekeeper on each partnership. This promotes fairness by not allowing one team to have total control over the score. It also permits the two scorekeepers to check their scores against each other, preventing errors.
5 score-keeping apps, reviewed
Some card games are simple affairs of winning by playing the best on a single hand. Most games, however, minimize the luck of the draw by making the winner demonstrate effective play across a series of hands. To do this, players must keep a running tally of how well each player has done: the score.
Keeping score has been a part of card games for centuries. Some games lend themselves to a “hard score” method whereby money or tokens are exchanged between the players. Cribbage notably utilizes a board where pegs track the players’ scores. However, the majority of games keep score through a simple numerical total. For most of the history of card games, this was done through simple pencil-and-paper arithmetic. By the 1980s, electronic calculators made it easier, but the actual scores were still done on paper.
Pencil-and-paper scoring leaves a lot to be desired. Unless the scorekeeper is notably quick at mental math, calculating the new score after each hand takes time out of the game. It’s easy to make a math error when computing scores. Worse, a cheater could “accidentally” fudge the score to shave points off their opponent’s scores, or add points to their own, and probably get away with it. Nobody’s perfect, after all!
In the 21st century, of course, just about everyone has a portable computer in their pocket. Putting your phone or tablet to work as your scorekeeper helps to speed up the game and keep the scores more accurate. A well-designed scorekeeping app can free you of the pencil-and-paper approach for good. We took a look at five of them to give you a preview of what to expect from each of them, should you decide to give them a try.
We don’t have anything to do with the developers of these apps and haven’t even been in contact with them. Prices below are as of January 2020, and are quoted in United States dollars.
ScoreKeeper Free by Imagenuity is the only scorekeeping app we reviewed that works on both Android and iOS. It comes in a free version that supports up to four players and 20 “rows”. Each player has one score in each row, representing a single hand or scoring event.
The nice thing about ScoreKeeper Free is that the row interface is pretty intuitive. You can either enter scores by typing them in digit-by-digit, or using a quick-entry interface that allows you enter ±1, 5, 10, 50, and 100 point scores at the touch of a button. It does mean that you have to either have the rows misaligned or else leave zeroes in games where players are not guaranteed to score at the same time. Having 20 rows to work with is probably plenty enough for most games, but the limitation could be easily worked around by recording the totals after 20 rows as the first row on a new game.
ScoreKeeper Free has a number of fonts and background colors you can use to customize it to your liking. I find the default Komika handwriting font charming, but you can also set it to be Helvetica, Times, Courier, or a narrow sans-serif font if you prefer.
The bad thing about ScoreKeeper Free is that it comes with ads. The banner ad at the bottom isn’t too intrusive, especially since you’ll probably be looking at the game more than you will your device anyway. Unfortunately, it does have pop-up ads too. It wasn’t immediately clear what triggers them, so it’s easy to accidentally touch an ad while trying to enter a score.
Imagenuity does offer a premium version called ScoreKeeper Bacon, which is 99¢. It removes the ads and allows up to 99 players and 99 rows. If you play a game for which the row interface works well, it’s very reasonably priced.
Score Counter by Martin Váňa is a free scorekeeping app for Android. It has no ads and no premium version as far as I could find.
Like ScoreKeeper Free, Score Counter also uses a simple, row-based interface. However, Score Counter is a lot more strict about it. You have to enter each player’s score in turn order, and you cannot skip over a player; you have to enter a zero if they didn’t score. This is no big deal for games where players only score at the end of a hand, but it would be pretty frustrating to use in games where only one player scores on each hand, or players score at different times throughout the hand.
One nice feature about Score Counter is that it allows you to run multiple games concurrently, and name them. Once a game is finished, you can review the scoresheet from the list of games. Starting a new game allows you to quickly re-use players that were part of previous games. Each player can be color-coded, which is a nice touch.
Keep Score GameKeeper
Keep Score GameKeeper by Aaron Orr is a full-featured scorekeeping app for iOS. This app uses an interface where each player’s total score is shown. You touch each player’s name to add a new scoring event. Each prior scoring event is still stored, and the user can edit these as well.
Keep Score GameKeeper has some interesting extra features. One that may be of use to card players is the “Player Picker” feature, which simply chooses one of the players at random. This could be used for selecting first dealer or randomizing partnerships. Other features that could be useful for other games but aren’t likely to be needed in card games are a countdown timer and a buzzer button. It reminded me a lot of the buzzer from Whose Line Is It Anyway?
The nice thing about Keep Score GameKeeper is that it’s ad-free. It also has no limit on players or scoring events as far as I could tell. Unfortunately, you can only start a new game (zero out the scores) once. Then, it’ll cost you 99¢ for ten new games or $3.99 for infinite new games. It’s a nice app, and $3.99 might be worth it if you like the interface or the extra features, but its competition on iOS is pretty strong, so you can get a lot of the same stuff for less money with other apps.
Score!! Crowd by Hedgehog Digital was the the first scorekeeping app I downloaded years ago. It used to be called Score+ Free. It is available for iOS only.
Score!! Crowd allows you to have an unlimited number of players and scoring events. One useful feature is that the scores are shown in turn order on the left side of the screen, and on the right is a “Standings” list that shows the players in order by score. (There is a “Low Score Wins Game” option for games like Hearts that makes the standings sort from low to high.) Like Score Counter, it allows you to run multiple named games at once. There is also a timer function.
You can score by touching each player’s name, or by using the “Prev” and “Next” buttons to cycle through players in turn order. However, this is the only app we reviewed that doesn’t keep track of each score event individually for later review or editing. Only the total scores are tracked, which may be a deal-breaker for some players. The techie aesthetic of the interface does come on a little strong. While I don’t mind it, it may be a bit much for some people’s taste.
Score!! Crowd does contain ads. There is both a banner across the bottom of the screen, and pop-ups. However, I only encountered the pop-up while creating a new game, so you can at least anticipate it to avoid touching any undesirable ad.
There is a premium version, just called Score!! It’s a bit of a pain to find on the App Store, because searching for it brings up tons of credit score and sports apps. (I found it by bringing up Score!! Crowd and touching the developer’s name to show their other apps.) Score!! is 99¢ and removes the ads, but otherwise is identical to Score!! Crowd.
Score Keeper 2020
Score Keeper 2020 by Tanner Morse is another full-featured scorekeeping app only available on iOS. It’s very similar to Keep Score GameKeeper in terms of the features it includes.
Score Keeper 2020 lets you run multiple named games with unlimited players. It allows you to add new score events, and review and edit past score events by touching a player’s name. The app has a “Rounds” counter by each player’s score that shows the number of scoring events. This is helpful to make sure everyone’s had their score input for a hand, but is out of the way enough to be ignored if it’s not relevant to the game you’re playing.
Score Keeper 2020 includes a random player selector like Keep Score GameKeeper, that could be used for the same purposes. It also includes a timer. One handy feature is that the player overview screen can be sorted, cycling through high-to-low, low-to-high, and turn order.
The best thing about Score Keeper 2020 is that it’s free and contains no ads. Since it’s got all of the features the other apps do, that’s hard to beat, unless you really like the row interface that ScoreKeeper Bacon offers, or you’re using an Android device. If you’re on iOS, though, this is probably the one to get.
5 great games to enjoy this Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving is this Thursday! Lots of folks are excitedly preparing for a Thanksgiving feast with their family, but in the back of their minds, they’re thinking, “what else are we going to do?” After the turkey is picked clean and all the pumpkin pie is gone, your family is still all together, and you’re searching for a way to keep everyone together and engaged to stave off that food coma. It’s a perfect time for a game of cards!
Not sure what you want to play this year? Try these games. They’re the five most popular games on our website over the last year:
- Cash (aka Kemps): Not only do you have to be first to get four of a kind, you have to send a secret signal to your partner telling them, too. When you get the hang of it, check out our companion guide to Cash signals to help throw your opponents off.
- Pitty Pat: A simple game of discarding your hand as quickly as possible by matching cards with the with the top card of the discard pile.
- Jack Change It: Like Crazy Eights, but need to kick it up a notch? Jack Change It has you covered by adding special powers to certain cards.
- Mexican Sweat: This poker variant will leave your players sweating as they slowly reveal their hands—to the rest of the table and themselves!
- Crash (13-Card Brag): A more laid-back, social variant of Brag that does away with the betting in favor of a point-scoring system. Players get 13 cards and divide them into four three-card Brag hands.
But of course, that’s just scratching the surface—there are over 230 games on our website. Whatever you decide to play this Thanksgiving, have fun and good luck!
Designing a poker tournament blinds schedule
After choosing a poker tournament structure, setting up the blinds schedule is the most meaningful decision a would-be tournament director has to make. The blinds schedule is one of many factors that will determine how long the tournament lasts. It can also affect the luck/skill balance required to be crowned the tournament’s champion.
If you’ve never played a poker tournament before, you might be wondering what a blinds schedule even is. When a poker tournament begins, the tournament director starts a clock. At a regularly scheduled interval, the value of the blinds go up. That’s all there is to it. The purpose of this is to make it necessary to actually win pots fairly regularly to stay in the game. Otherwise, a tournament could go on for an eternity with players trading chips back and forth, winning enough to cover the blinds, but never enough to bust each other out. Escalating the blinds as the night goes on forces a confrontation eventually, when a player simply cannot afford to bide their time any longer.
In this post, we’ll discuss a few simple methods for making a basic blinds schedule. For something that’s so critical to a tournament’s success, it doesn’t have to be complicated!
More of an art than a science
The first key point to remember when creating a blinds schedule is that every group of players is different. What works well for one group may not work for another. If you host an aggressive group of players, the tournament will go much faster than it would for a more laid-back group that plays very tightly. How long players take to act on their hands will also influence the speed of the tournament. Once you have your first blinds schedule created, you can use your experience from your first tournament to make adjustments for your second time hosting.
Another thing to keep in mind is that, though poker is a game of skill, it is still based on a randomness generator in the form of a deck of cards. No amount of adjustment will ever be able to totally account for the plain variance that the cards will produce. If the cards feel like causing a bunch of big-money pots that become bad-beat stories, you’re going to have a quick tournament. If everyone is card dead, the tournament is going to drag. That is something nobody has control over, so don’t sweat it.
The first and the last blind
The first step to designing a blinds schedule is to calculate the first blind level and the projected last blind level. This ending level is when the tournament should theoretically end. Remember, though, you cannot guarantee when a tournament is going to end. This is just for planning purposes.
For the sake of simplicity, it’s easiest to set the blinds by taking into account only the big blind. The small blind is usually set at half the amount of the big blind.
The first blind level is easy to set. In most tournaments, the big blind will be 1–2% of the starting stack. The higher you set this level, the shorter the tournament will be. For example, in a T1000 tournament (a tournament where a player starts with 1,000 tournament chips), the first blind level will usually be T5-T10 (1%) or T10-T20 (2%).
Next, you need to determine the projected last blind level. A good rule of thumb is that it should be 5% of the chips in play. To determine this, multiply the number of players by the starting chip stack and take 5% of the total. So for a T1000 tournament with fifteen players, there will be T15,000 in circulation, meaning the the final big blind level should be around T750 or so.
Tournaments with rebuys and add-ons
If you plan to offer rebuys and add-ons, these need to be accounted for in your blinds schedule. To do this, you will have to estimate how many rebuys or add-ons you will sell and add these into your total amount of chips in circulation.
Using the previous example of a fifteen-player T1000 tournament, if you offer rebuys and estimate that three players will rebuy (a total of T3,000 in rebuys), then T18,000 will be in play, and the last big blind level should be around T900.
Note that this is a place where past experience will guide you. If you offer rebuys at all, you will not know for sure how many people will want to take you up on the offer. You could have some big pots early on that bust out many players, and they’re raring to get back in the thick of it and they all rebuy. Or the players that bust out may opt to cut their losses and go home. All you can do is make an educated guess based on previous tournaments.
Timing and intermediate levels
Now that you have your start and end points, you just need to find the parts in-between. This is what will ultimately determine the length of your tournament, and also the skill level needed to win it.
The first thing to account for is your time budget for the tournament. By talking to your players, you should have a good idea for how long they would want to be stuck with you playing poker. Most home tournaments last for four to six hours, so this is a realistic goal to shoot for.
Next, you’ll need to decide how often the blinds should increase. This can be anywhere between fifteen minutes and an hour. The more frequently the blinds increase, the more frenzied the pace of the tournament. However, a slow schedule can make the tournament feel like it’s going much slower than it actually is. The 20 to 30 minute range seems to be a happy medium for most players.
Now, take your time budget and divide it by the blind interval. This is how many blind levels you need. Now you can set each blind level. Each blind level should be no more than double the preceding one. Keep the progression as even as possible. A sudden spike in the blinds places undue weight on the hands after them, thereby increasing the role of luck in the tournament.
After you have created your blinds schedule, you’ll need to make some adjustments to it. Check to make sure that each blinds level is compatible with the chips that will be available. For example, you don’t want to have a blinds level of 600-1200 if the smallest chip available is a T500.
You should also avoid making blind levels that will require chips that are very small relative to the size of the blinds. A blind of, say, 2250 would be a bad idea, for example, since it would require using two T25 chips to post blinds. Having to deal with T25 chips when thousands of chips are being won or lost each hand is just a nuisance. Making them unnecessary allows you to color them up and remove them from circulation.
You should also add three to five more blinds levels after the “final” level. This gives you some wiggle room just in case the tournament runs longer than forecast.
You can also use your blinds schedule to designate when breaks will occur. How many breaks, how long they should last, and when they should be, will depend on the particulars of your tournament. For an evening tournament, for example, you may want to schedule a thirty-minute dinner break midway through. On the other hand, a tournament that starts later may expect players to eat before the tournament starts, and only have fifteen-minute breaks for players to stretch their legs. Shorter tournaments might not need breaks at all.
Whatever you decide, be sure to clearly mark the breaks on the blind schedule, between blind levels. Be sure everyone is clear on how long each break is. The tournament should resume promptly after the break ends. It’s not fair to the players if some tables start on time and others wait for straggling players. Be clear what will happen if a player does not return on time (e.g. they will still be required to post blinds in their absence without getting the chance to play their hand).
Ending the tournament
Your tournament should end organically about the same time that you had planned on when you created your blinds schedule. However, keep in mind that any number of things can occur that cause your tournament to end early or late.
If it looks like a tournament is going to run late, you can adjust the blinds schedule while the tournament is in progress. Raising the blinds should help bring the tournament to an end quicker. However, this opens you up to accusations that you only edited the schedule to benefit so-and-so who was chip leader when you made the change. It’s best to avoid doing this if at all possible.
Another thing you can do to hasten the end of a tournament is to add antes at a certain level. At this point, each player will be required to post an ante on each hand, in addition to the big blind and small blind being posted as normal. This is only really useful if there are still several players on each table. In heads-up play, it is functionally the same as increasing the blinds.
If all else fails, you can set a time that the tournament will end, no matter if people are still playing or not. This is particularly useful if there’s some external restriction on how long the tournament can go, like the venue’s closing time, the host’s bedtime, etc. The best way to do this is to choose the time before the tournament and include it in the schedule. If that’s not possible, be sure to give ample warning before the appointed time arrives so players can adjust their play strategies accordingly. When the time ends, the player with the most chips takes first place, the player holding the second-most chips takes second, and so on.
Poker tournament buy-ins and the chips you need to run the game
After you’ve chosen the poker tournament structure you want to run, the next step is to select the buy-in. You’ll also want to decide how many chips, and in what denominations, to issue to starting players. Both of these will dictate how many chips you need to have on hand for the tournament. Handling the buy-in process itself can also be a source of stress for new tournament directors.
Fortunately, addressing these concerns is fairly straightforward. A little thought and planning here greatly increases the chances of your tournament being a success.
How much is the buy-in?
The most important question to your players is probably how much the initial buy-in will cost them. Some players are happy to potentially lose a lot of money to participate in the excitement of a big tournament. Others would be just fine buying in for $0 and playing for bragging rights. Set the buy-in too high, and some players won’t be able to afford to join in. Set it too low, and some players might feel that the several hours the tournament will take won’t be worth their time.
The simplest thing to do is to ask the people you want to invite how much they’d like to spend. If you can find a sweet spot that attracts the most players to your tournament, you’re golden. Otherwise, you may need to split your guest list into two, and run a separate tournament later for the folks that aren’t interested in the first one.
Starting stack sizes
One of the things that dictates the length of your tournament is the proportion between the starting stack size and the blinds level. The larger the blinds are in proportion to the starting stack, the faster players will bust out of the tournament.
Tournament starting stack sizes are often expressed with a “T” followed by the amount of chips given at the beginning. This “T” (for “tournament”) represents a fictitious currency that the chips are denominated in, which has no relation to the real-life currency the buy-ins and payouts take place in. Thus, a T100 tournament issues 100 units worth of chips to its starting players, and a T1,000 tournament issues ten times as much. Both of these tournaments could have a $5 buy-in, or $25, or whatever the tournament director decides.
Again, starting stack sizes’ relation to the blind levels dictate the length of the tournament. A T100 tournament should theoretically play exactly the same as a T1,000 tournament with blinds set at ten times those of the T100 tournament. Of course, some players may be susceptible to a psychological difference—a T1,000 tournament might feel like a “bigger deal”, and a T5,000 or T10,000 tourney might feel even bigger than that! Larger starting stack sizes can also give you more flexibility in customizing your blind sizes. The one drawback to a bigger starting stack is that you may need more chips to cover all of your players.
Starting stack chip breakdowns
Naturally, the most important thing to keep in mind when determining your starting chip stack is that the denominations issued are compatible with the blinds schedule. If the first round of blinds is T20-T40, and the smallest chip you issue is a T25, your tournament is not off to a great start.
A good starting point in coming up with a starting stack is to follow the ratio 1:2:3:4, where for every chip you have of the highest denomination, there is two of the next-highest denomination, and so on. Using more than three or four chip colors is generally not very effective; it is more expensive, and you’ll need to do more chip color-ups throughout the tournament.
Just like the tournament size, there’s a psychological aspect to choosing a chip breakdown. You could theoretically run a T1,000 tournament by simply giving everyone 40 T25 chips. But 40 chips may not feel like very much to some players, leading them to play much more tightly than they otherwise would, lengthening the tournament. Instead, you can use some T5 chips to give each player a hoard of chips to start with. If you start each player with 28 × T25 and 60 × T5, for instance, they now start with 88 chips. Despite both adding up to T1000, the second stack starts them with more than double what they would have with just T25 chips.
With the starting stack sizes decided, it’s simple to determine how many chips you need. Just multiply the number of chips of each denomination in each stack by how many players you expect to have. It’s probably a good idea to have enough extra chips for a few extra players. That way, you’ll be covered if something unforeseen happens and you need them.
If you plan to allow rebuys, be sure to account for those in your inventory as well. It’s generally fine to simply issue a few large-denomination chips (like ten T100 chips or two T500 chips for a T1000 rebuy). When a player has to rebuy, all of their low-denomination chips have ended up with the other players. A rebuying player can simply break their large chips down by making change from those players or the pot. This keeps a rebuy from flooding the table with low-value chips.
Now that you know how many chips to buy, it’s time to actually get your hands on some. It’s a good idea to choose chips of a unique style from an online vendor. If you go with one of the sets of chips readily available at your local big-box store, like the ubiquitous dice chips, you run the risk of one of your players owning the same chip set. Unscrupulous players may notice this and sneak in chips from home to give themselves an advantage. If you plan to host regular poker tournaments, it may be worthwhile to invest in a customized chip set. You can have the chips printed with a unique logo or text inlay. This can be expensive—expect to pay $1 or more per chip. However, it neutralizes any threat of foreign chips, and lends a much more professional image to your game.
What chip colors should you choose? The standard ones, of course! Any players that have participated in a casino poker game will instantly understand your chip values. That way, those players can be the ones to explain the chips to the newbies. That saves you from having to run from table to table to remind everyone, no, the purple chips are actually T20 in this tournament… Besides, if any of your new players later go on to play in casino poker games, they’ll appreciate not having to learn new chip colors.
Chip colors are not as standardized above the 500 level. You may need to improvise a bit if you need chips valued that high. Chips valued 1,000 are often orange and 5,000 chips are often grey. You may also be able to get away with repurposing yellow and white chips for higher values if necessary; there’s not much call for a T½ or T1 chip in a T10,000 tournament.
Blue chips have no standard value, but are often readily available. They are often seen as $1, $2, or $10 chips in casinos. You can use them for any of these values, or for higher denominations.
Nothing will ruin a poker tournament more than, when it’s time to pay the winners out, having nothing to pay them with because it’s been stolen. It’s also important to remember that chips represent a monetary value, just like cash does. So be sure to treat them like cash. A busy tournament director is going to be running from table to table, settling rules disputes, settling seating arrangements, managing color-ups, ensuring the blinds schedule is being followed, and more. You simply aren’t going to be able to devote your attention to keeping an eye on the prize pool and extra chips. Both cash and chips need to be secured at all times.
Before players arrive, set up some kind of way to secure your cash and chips. A simple option is to use a basic cash box. For your chips, you may need something like a locking briefcase or a larger lockbox. If you use a birdcage-style chip carrier, it can be secured by placing a large-hasp padlock onto the handle, so the cover can’t be removed. If possible, the best option is to place cash and chips into a safe or locking drawer in a large piece of furniture like a dresser or desk. After all, while someone could theoretically slip your cash box out of the room for later enjoyment, it’s a lot more obvious if someone tries to steal a chest of drawers.
Collecting the buy-ins
There are a couple of preparations to make before the day of the tournament arrives in order to ensure the buy-in process goes smoothly. You will greatly speed things up the day of the tournament if you’ve already portioned your chips into pre-made starting stacks. Putting each starting stack into a rack looks quite professional. You can hand the whole rack to the player as they pay for the buy-in. However, depending on the size of the tournament, it may get expensive to have enough chip racks on hand. Fortunately, there’s a number of alternatives; you can use plastic zipper bags, Tupperware-style bowls, or small boxes. Another interesting option is to put the chips in foam can koozies. Not only does this keep the chips contained, it gives the player something to keep their drink cold with.
Before the tournament, be sure to go to the bank and get change. Some players may arrive at the tournament having just hit the ATM and needing change back from their buy-in. You will also probably be dividing the prize pool between a number of players, so be prepared for the possibility of having to pay out odd amounts. Of course, whatever change you don’t use can be brought back to the bank afterward, so don’t skimp out.
Everything’s set up and the players are starting to arrive. What now? Have each player come up one by one to a cashier station set up in a convenient location. As they give you their buy-in cash, return any change necessary. Before you give them their chips, splash them out and have the player agree that the correct amount is there. This will eliminate any accusations of shortages later. (Having a chip count board as part of your cashier station makes this process smoother.) Send the player to their designated seat and you’re good to go!
Poker tournament structures
Some poker players find the pace of a typical cash game to be too slow-paced for their liking. Hand after hand is played, money changes hands back and forth. A group of players equally matched in skill may end a night of play more or less where they started out.
Players that want a more exciting night of poker may prefer to stage a poker tournament instead of a typical cash game. In a poker tournament, either you win big—usually only the top three or four players win anything—or you go home with nothing.
However, not all poker tournaments are the same. There are a couple different ways to structure a poker tournament, meaning it’s important to choose the type that fits your game best. As a tournament director, it’s also important to run a tournament you feel comfortable hosting. In this post, we explore the most common poker tournament structures, as well as some optional additions that players may enjoy.
Which game to play?
The first decision to be made when setting up a poker tournament is, of course, what kind of poker you’ll be playing. The simple answer to this question is to spread whatever your players want to play. The vast majority of poker tournaments, however, are Texas hold’em games, with Omaha making up most of the rest. Mixed games are also popular, where a different game is played each hand, cycling through a list.
Tournament poker is almost universally no-limit (see “Betting in poker“). Limit poker is simply too drawn-out for a tournament setting. No-limit poker allows a player to go all in, risking all of their tournament chips on one pot. That allows them to build up a big chip stack in a hurry, at the risk of busting out of the tournament entirely. A limit tournament would go on and on as the weaker players’ chip stacks are slowly whittled down.
A freeze-out tournament is the type most people think of when they hear the words “poker tournament”, because it’s the type most frequently used in professional settings like casino poker rooms and the WSOP. It’s also the simplest type of tournament.
How it works is that each player is issued a set of chips when they buy in to the tournament. These are all of the chips they’ll ever have. Once a player runs out of chips, that’s it—they’re out of the tournament for good. If the tournament is big enough to have multiple tables of players, as players drop out, tables are combined from time to time. This ensures that each game has a sufficient number of players.
Simple, but not always the best for home games
Freeze-out tournaments are simple to run, making them a good fit for an inexperienced tournament director, but they can be problematic in social situations. What do the eliminated players do? It’s a bit gauche to ask them to leave, but they can’t participate in the tournament anymore. They can watch the rest of the tournament from the sidelines, but not everyone finds this fun, and some players may get nervous with spectators watching them.
One way to handle this is to hold several short tournaments (perhaps one to two hours each) in quick succession. This means that eliminated players won’t have long to wait before they’re back in the game. It also allows players to “get revenge” on the players that busted them out in an earlier tournament.
Another option is to set up a cash game, or another non-poker game, alongside the tournament. Those who busted out can play in this game while they wait for the tournament to end. If you choose to do this, though, be sure to use chips and cards of a different design than those being used for the tournament. Otherwise, players may be tempted to smuggle tournament chips to the cash game and redeem them for real money.
A shootout tournament is a tournament structure for large numbers of players. In a shootout tournament, each table is played down to a single remaining player. After a winner has been determined for each table, they all play against each other in a final table.
While this structure is useful for managing a large tournament because the tournament director does not have to worry about rebalancing the tables, it does have some drawbacks for the players. All of the problems of a freeze-out tournament are there, of course. A table winner may also find themselves with a large chunk of time to kill while they’re waiting for the other tables to be resolved.
Rebuys and add-ons
One way to make a tournament more fun for the players is to allow rebuys. When a player runs out of chips, they can pay into the tournament pool to receive another stack of chips. They then continue playing with their replenished funds. Rebuys benefit all of the players in the tournament. The less-skilled players get to keep playing even when they’ve busted out. Meanwhile, the better players get to enjoy a larger prize pool every time a player rebuys.
Some tournaments offer add-ons, which is similar to a rebuy, except that the player has not busted out. In some tournaments, an add-on can be purchased with the initial buy-in. This gives the player a bigger starting stack. Players can also purchase an add-on between hands, when they feel low on chips.
Allowing rebuys and add-ons does require a bit more thought and attention from the tournament director. The director has to determine what the amounts of the rebuys and/or add-ons will be. A cutoff on rebuys and also needs to be established, so as to ensure that the tournament doesn’t go on forever. The director will, of course, also have to collect the money from the players and add it to the prize pool. This could potentially divert their attention from other aspects of managing the tournament.
Therefore, it may be a good idea for an inexperienced tournament director to leave out rebuys and add-ons. Later, when they become more experienced and comfortable with their role, they can be added in.
Irregularities and how to handle them in your card games
In any card game, mistakes sometimes happen in dealing or the course of play. Cards get dropped, decks sometimes have the wrong number of cards, and hands sometimes get discarded by accident. All mistakes like this are, as a general group, called irregularities.
As the host, it’s your job to decide how to handle any irregularities that occur in your game. It’s important, especially in games like poker with money involved, to know how to handle them in a fair and consistent way. Ruling one way in one situation and a different way when it happens again engenders distrust from your players. That means some of them may not come back the next time you host a game. If you stick to the same rules, your players will play confident in the knowledge that they will be treated fairly in such a situation.
The resolutions recommended here are based on Bob Ciaffone’s “Robert’s Rules of Poker”, the governing document of modern poker. If your players have played in a casino poker game, they’ll appreciate having the situation resolved the same way it would be in the casino. Even if you’re not playing poker, these general rules will be helpful in a wide range of situations.
Any time that irregularities cause a hand to be abandoned and re-dealt, it is called a misdeal. When a misdeal occurs, the dealer gathers up the entire deck, including the players’ hands. The same dealer then shuffles and deals a new hand.
In most cases, a misdeal can only be declared at the beginning of a hand. After two players have acted on their hands, the opportunity to declare a misdeal ends. Regardless of what may have happened on the deal, the hand is played as usual from that point.
Any of the following errors will result in a misdeal:
- Dealing the first card to the wrong position.
- Not dealing a hand to a player who is in the game.
- Dealing a hand to someone who isn’t in the game (or an empty seat).
- Dealing cards in the wrong order.
- Giving a player too many or too few cards, unless the players missing cards would simply get the next card(s) of the deck if the proper sequence were followed.
If the dealer accidentally exposes the first or second card of the deal, this causes a misdeal. Should the dealer expose a card after this, and the game is one where the entire deck is not dealt out, the dealer completes the deal as usual, then replaces the exposed card with the top card of the stub. The exposed card is then placed in the discard pile, or as the bottom card of the stub, if the game doesn’t use a discard pile. (If the game starts each hand with one card in the discard pile, the exposed card will count as that card. In Texas Hold’em and Omaha, the exposed card is usually placed on top of the deck and is used as the first burn card.) In games that deal out the whole deck, or if the dealer exposes a second card, it causes a misdeal.
Players never have the option to accept an exposed card. Doing so is unfair to the players that did not have their cards exposed. It also encourages collusion between the dealer and the player.
If a player flashes one of their own cards after the deal is completed, they do not get a replacement. The card is still live. The player assumes all consequences of the other players’ knowledge of their card.
If a player intentionally shows cards to another active player, these cards must be shown to the entire table. This is to prevent that player from having an advantage. If the player shows cards to a player who is not currently in the game or to someone who isn’t playing, those cards must be shown to the other players at the end of the hand (or identified when they would be shown otherwise).
A card that is turned opposite to the rest of the deck (i.e. it is face up when the rest of the deck is face down) is called a boxed card. If only one boxed card is found, it should simply be set aside. Boxed cards that get mistakenly dealt in error should be replaced at the end of the deal as if it were an exposed card. If the game requires that the entire deck be dealt, or a second boxed card is found, it causes a misdeal.
Incorrect and imperfect decks
We’ve discussed these before in “Incorrect and imperfect decks“, but here’s a refresher. Decks with damaged cards or cards identifiable from the back are called imperfect decks. Decks that have the wrong cards for the game being played are called incorrect decks. Every player has an obligation to point out that the deck has something wrong with it if it comes to their attention.
After the hand ends, the deck should be corrected, if possible. If not, a new deck should be substituted. Imperfect decks should always be replaced at the end of the hand.
If a card with a contrasting back design is discovered in the deck, the hand is void. The only exception is if the foreign card is found in the stub after dealing is complete, and is not part of the stock or any other place where it could potentially be put in play.
If a too many copies of a card (i.e. with the same rank and suit) are found in the deck, the deal is void. The scores are reset to what they were at the beginning of the hand, or any money placed in the pot is refunded.
In most cases, the deck having too few cards is not cause for concern. The deal is simply finished out as usual. However, if the game requires all cards to be present (because they are all dealt out initially or because every card is used at some point), when the number of cards is discovered to be inadequate, the hand is void, as if it had a foreign card or too many cards.
Extra cards (and jokers)
If a player discovers a joker or other card that simply doesn’t belong in the deck (like, say, a 2 in Pinochle), it is treated the same as if it were a boxed card. That is, the player should call attention to it and set it aside. The dealer should give the player a replacement card after the other cards have been dealt.
If the dealer accidentally slides a card off the table, it should be treated the same as an exposed card. If a player drops their own card on the floor, the card is still live. In either case, the card should be recovered as quickly as possible.
Any dropped cards should be inspected for damage prior to being returned to play. It’s easy for cards on the floor to get stepped on and bent!
Glossary now available!
We’ve just posted an invaluable resource to our website—a glossary of card terms! This list has 139 terms from card games such as poker, Pinochle, Hearts, Canasta, and more, including casino jargon. Check it out and let us know what you think! We’re adding a link to it in the sidebar, too, so it’s always just a click away when you’re reading our blog.