Being the host of a poker night can be daunting. Whether you are starting a new poker game in your neighborhood or have been doing it for years, my goal is to provide you with all the setup info you need to make your poker nights a success. I have been playing poker for over 10 years, and here are a few keys I have learned along the way that will help you become a respected and gracious host.

1. Plan, Plan, Plan!

If I had to sum up this guide in two words, I would say, “be prepared.” Take the time and go over all of the factors involved in a successful poker night. Make a checklist and be as organized as possible. Take my advice and do not just wing it. There are several things that must be planned & setup including food, who and how many to invite, what game to play, & essentials to buy in advance. Careful planning is the key to success. One important thing to consider is whether any of your guests have special needs. I’m not talking about a wheelchair ramp here. Some examples would include having alternative snacks for players who might have allergies or digestive issues.   Perhaps one or more of your friends are heavy or overweight? If so, consider investing in some heavy duty chairs, like these found on Amazon, to accommodate them. Imagine the embarrassment of having the heavy player show up last and finding that the only chair left is one of those cheaper folding chairs that would collapse under the weight of a small poodle. It’s the little things that can be the difference between an amazing experience for your friends, or the last time they ever RSVP for one of your events.

2. What Is Your Carrying Capacity?

The first thing you need to do is determine how many people your “venue” can comfortably entertain. There is nothing worse than having 7 people show up and your poker table only holds six. OOPS, talk about awkward! “Sorry Joe, you will have to sit out, since we like you the least.”

Most pressingly, you need to make sure you have adequate seating, snacks, and drinks to sustain a group of people over several hours. Many poker games can go into the wee hours of the morning. No one wants to be relegated to lukewarm tap water 4 hours into the game.

3. Make Sure You Have All The Essentials.

Invest in quality poker accessories. A sturdy and aesthetically appealing poker table will impress everyone and make them want to come back. Read my comprehensive poker table guide to find out all you will ever need to know about them. Or just use my favorite inexpensive poker table cover (click for Amazon price). Also, get some nice decent composite chips, not those flimsy kind found at the dollar store. Amazon has very nice high-quality chipsets that won’t break the bank.   Lastly, we need to talk about playing cards. I recommend that you choose one of the three top brands, the same kinds used in many professional events. My personal favorite is Copag. Casual playing cards like Bicycle cards, while great for family play, are liable to be damaged and do not have the same feel and appeal as Copags. There simply is no comparison. You know the old saying, once you go Copag, you never go ba…. err never mind, that was lame.

Being the host of a poker night can be daunting. Whether you are starting a new poker game in your neighborhood or have been doing it for years, my goal is to provide you with all the setup info you need to make your poker nights a success. I have been playing poker for over 10 years, and here are a few keys I have learned along the way that will help you become a respected and gracious host.

A picture that includes a deck of playing cards, poker chips, and a dealer button
Quality Poker Accessories Are Important

4. Establish The Game Format In Advance

Be sure to let everyone know exactly what game you will be playing well before the date of the event. Will you be playing Texas Hold’em only? Will it be a mixed game or dealer’s choice? Will it strictly be a cash game or a tournament?   No matter what game you play, make sure that you are adequately prepared. Know exactly what the buy-in level is and how much each chip is worth. Provide a list of this info and display it near the table. Here is an *amazing tournament structure sheet for download.  

Lastly, when everyone arrives, you want to be ready to play right now, not scrambling to get everything ready. For tournament play, you will want to already have several stacks of chips already counted out and ready to go. The more organized you are, the better.

5. Keep It Friendly

Whether your friends are “serious” players or just playing for recreation, make sure that you get a feel for their comfort level when it comes to the buy-in amount. You need to have a good idea for their tolerance in losing money beforehand. Remember, you are doing this to strengthen your bond with your friends, not create a rift among them. Setting it up so that someone could lose an excessive and painful amount of money is a recipe for disaster. Make sure the worst case scenario is tolerable and set the buy-in just high enough to make it interesting. And, for heaven’s sakes, do not charge rake or fees to play in your games. Besides being illegal in many areas, it’s just a cruddy thing to do. Instead, you might ask everyone to bring a snack or a beverage. There’s nothing wrong with mitigating your expenses by making it a “potluck.” Speaking of which, let’s talk about snacks.

6. Best Poker Night Foods

The food you choose, or lack thereof, can make or break an otherwise successful poker night. One tip to really wow your poker buddies is to set out a buffet server. Make some meatballs and a couple of other warm dishes. Well fed guests are happy guests! Beverages can vary, just make sure you pick something appropriate for your guests. If people from your church are in your poker group, you probably don’t want to offer anything but a cooler of beer. On the other hand, if it’s your bowling buddies, bottled water simply won’t suffice. Use common sense and you will be fine. Here are a few additional food ideas:

  • A Finger Food Tray
    This can be anything offered at your local grocery. You can generally get a huge tray of food for under $50. I like to get a tray that is a mix of fruits, meats, and cheeses. Don’t forget to cater to possible vegetarians!
  • Any Crock Pot Food
    Think weenies or meatballs. You may want to have your wife or husband help you throw something together.
  • Grill Out
    Cooking some burgers, hot dogs, or ribs on the grill during the warm months of the year is a sure way to make your guests happy. Just remember to ask if they want cheese or no cheese on their burger!
  • Brownies
    Brownies, cookies, or any other dessert that isn’t too messy work really well. How about that bowl of leftover Halloween candy? Perfect!
  • Chips & Dip or Salsa
    Simple, delicious, and easy to eat while playing, nachos are a mainstay at many home games. I’m not a huge fan due to the mess factor, but I leave that to your discretion.
  • Order Pizza
    Don’t feel like cooking? There’s nothing wrong with just ordering a few pies from the local pizzeria. Just make sure you get a variety, and always include at least one veggie! Trust me on this.
  • Get Creative
    The only thing I would remind you of is to not get too crazy. And remember, try to avoid overly messy foods. Nothing will ruin a poker game (or your decks of cards) faster than some greasy chicken wings! Definitely not finger-lickin’ good.

To make eating food more convenient at the table, as a nice touch I also recommend getting mobile tray tables to put in between the players to help with space management. This high-end one found on Amazon is sturdy and has cup holders. For the budget conscious, here is a lesser priced one that will still do the trick nicely. Or, you can just go with old-fashioned TV trays

A picture of a food tray with fruits, cheeses, and meats
Variety Is The Key To Happy Guests

7. Speed Things Up

There are a few things I do to speed up the games and make the night flow faster. The first is to either have two decks or an automatic card shuffler. If you prefer to shuffle, I suggest that the big blind is always shuffling while the dealer is dealing. By the time all of the cards are dealt, the deck is shuffled and passed to the small blind, who will be dealing on the next hand. The alternative is to buy a sturdy automatic card shuffler, which can do the job in just a few seconds after each hand, while the winner is scooping his or her chips.

Another way to make the night proceed faster is to use a poker tournament clock and set each tournament to turbo speed. I recommend doing no more than 15-minute blind level changes throughout the night. In my experience, it’s much better to play several games and increase the chance that there are multiple winners.

8. Consistency Is Best

This key applies universally to all home games, no matter the groups level of seriousness. I recommend choosing a specific day of the week with specific intervals. For example, you could do every Saturday night, or the 2nd Friday of every month. It matters less when you do it than how consistent the event is.

Humans are creatures of habit in everything, and poker is no different. Just make sure that your scheduling fits best with the players in your group. Additionally, make sure everyone is aware of both the starting time and ending times, even if the latter is a bit loose occasionally. It’s important that your players can let their friends or loved ones know what the expectations are.

9. Choose Appropriate Entertainment

The range is wide on this one. I have heard stories of a wide spectrum of entertainment choices, from home games that include light classical music playing in the background and poker nights that have strippers in the mix.

You know your group; make sure they are on board with whatever form of background entertainment you choose (if any). My advice is to avoid visual entertainment, as it typically distracts from the game too much. A popular movie playing in the background makes for some distracted playing. Of course, if your group is okay with things coming to a grinding halt occasionally while you watch the finale of your favorite TV show together, more power to you.

10. Be A Good Host

Forget the poker part of the night, the game is actually less important than making sure everyone has a good time and is treated with respect. Don’t forget that manners matter in any social event. Always remember to occasionally ask if someone needs something, more food, another beer, whatever.

And, remember to take scheduled breaks to allow people the time to stretch their legs, light one up, or go to the bathroom. Of course, at the end of the night, make sure no one drives away after drinking too much. Take responsibility for your guests and respect will be returned equally to you.

Bonus Tip!

If you want to have a poker night everyone will remember, give a prize to the overall nightly winner. This makes playing “for fun” an attractive option, especially if your friends aren’t really into gambling. By far my favorite “trophy” to give is a commemorative poker weight guard. They act as a card protector that the winner can show off by using it on future poker nights! Just awesome.

an cartoon picture of a trophy

Another idea is to come up with a points system that is tallied throughout a designated “season.” At the end of the season, award the one with the most points a special bragging rights jacket or trophy they can put on the mantle. A neighbor of mine does something similar in his fantasy football league, and I think it would work well for a home poker “league.”

Summary

The overriding key to success in hosting a successful poker event lies in thorough and proper planning. By obtaining essential accessories, organizing food and beverages, setting ground rules, and mastering consistent scheduling, you will be on your way to becoming the host of the home game that everyone wants to play in.

*Tournament structure sheet courtesy of homemtt.com.