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Home Poker Tournament How-To Guide

 

Introduction

Poker tournaments are the ultimate experience in poker competition. They combine the thrill of a sprint with the discipline of a distance race. You can eliminate an opponent quickly, in any single hand, but you must also have the patience and strategy to pick your spots and last until the end.

With the growing popularity of tournaments on television, in casinos, and online, many poker players are looking to change up their weekend cash games with their buddies and hold their own home poker tournaments. A well-run tournament can provide you and your friends an afternoon, evening, or even an entire weekend of fun, and all at a cost that is almost entirely up to you. The following is a guide on how to host your own home poker tournament. Read all of it, read parts of it, take whatever is useful for you. Follow it word-for-word or change every piece. What matters most is that you have fun.

Invitations

First things first. You need to schedule the big event. No date, no players, no tourney.

Who Should I Invite?

I have read suggestions here and there that list different websites where you can find poker players in your area who might be interested in getting a game together. Sort of like the classifieds of home poker. But, just like I wouldn’t want to find a date in the classifieds, I wouldn’t want to find a poker buddy there, either. I highly recommend you invite only friends and family to your poker tournament and if one of your guests wants to include someone not on the list, make sure it is a close friend. While trouble is unlikely, remember that you are hosting an event that involves money, so you want to be sure you can trust everybody involved. Besides, it’s more fun to whoop it up with people you know, anyway.

When Should the Tourney Be?

There’s a fantastic answer to this question: when everybody is available. Generally, a weeknight works well, as people usually have fewer commitments during the week. Keep in mind that a tournament can last several hours, so you’ll want to get started as soon as you can. It is just like scheduling any other event – try to get an idea of your invitees’ schedules and work something out that can satisfy as many people as possible.

How Do I Get the Word Out?

A simple mass email will do just fine. There are fancy poker tournament invitations floating around the internet, listing everything but the brand of playing cards that will be used, but it is really not necessary to go into too much detail, unless you are dealing with a group of true poker nuts. Just be sure to list all the pertinent information, such as time, place (with directions), buy-in, estimated duration, and anything else you feel is important to communicate, just like you would if you were throwing a party.

Similar to a suggestion I made above, I do not recommend publicizing your tournament, whether you would do so on an internet poker forum or on bulletin boards at your local pub. That’s just asking way too many strangers to show up unannounced. Keep it private. If the tournament is successful, word will probably spread, anyway, but you want to keep the participant list under your control.

Structure

Buy-In

Initially, it would be wise to keep the buy-in small, no more than $25. If many of your friends are novices, you may even want to go as low as $5 to encourage people to play. Aside from the obvious advantage of having less money on the line, the other big upside of a low buy-in is that it lends itself to a much friendlier, upbeat game. After all, while everyone wants to increase their bankrolls, in the end, you and your buddies are really just going to want to have a fun time together. Unless you are all hard-core rounders, there is no need to bring any additional pressure or anxiety into the mix.

 

Be sure to collect everybody’s buy-ins up front, before the festivities begin. This will prevent any confusion later as people start to leave. Additionally, be prepared to make change, so have some fives and tens handy.

One important note: do not collect a rake or a fee for the “house”. While I am not a lawyer, I can say with confidence that this will be illegal where you live, so there is no sense in risking trouble. If you would like your guests to help out with the cost of food, beverage, and other costs, just ask them to bring an additional few dollars (exact amount is up to you) to help defray your costs. Since you are not asking for money so you can make a profit, this is perfectly ok. Depending on what is customary amongst you and your friends, you could also make it a BYOB (Bring Your Own Beverage) night.

Rebuys and Add-ons

Just as I recommend a small buy-in to start, it will make your life easier as a first time tournament host to not have any rebuys or add-ons. It just makes things more complicated. If there is enough interest from the group, you might allow a single rebuy in the first hour. This can often work out great when you have some real rookies in the group, as that first poker tournament experience can get them very excited to keep playing, but their skills prevent them from doing so. Plus, a single rebuy keeps everyone at the party longer so you can all keep the fun going.

Payout

A typical prize breakdown for a tournament of ten players or less has the winner taking 50% of the prize pool, the runner-up 30%, and the third place entrant 20%. Below is a chart that shows how you can expand the prize breakdown as you add more players:

Poker Tournament Payout Schedule

Players/Place

1-10

11-20

21-30

1st

50%

50%

40%

2nd

30%

25%

25%

3rd

20%

15%

20%

4th


10%

10%

5th



5%

This is by no means the end-all be-all payout schedule. If you would like more people to take home some cash, go ahead and extend the payout down a few more places. If you want a “winner take all” tournament, that’s fine, too. Just be sure that all of the players understand the payout schedule – it is even a good idea to have it posted where everybody can see it.

In the case of two people getting knocked out at the same time, I recommend simply splitting the prize between the two players. For instance, if there are four people left in a 10 person tournament (using the payout table above) and two get knocked out on the same hand, you can simply award each of them 10% of the prize pool, which is half of what the 3rd place finisher would normally receive. Alternately, in the same situation you could award the entire 3rd place prize to the person who was holding the most chips when he was eliminated, but that can get complicated as it is not always easy to remember the stack sizes once the hand has been played out.

If, at the end of the tournament, players wish to make a side deal in order to split the prize and end sooner, I generally allow it. It is up to the players to decide on who gets what, as it is their money at stake.

Chips

What Kind?

What you use for chips is up to you. You can go the cheap route and use spare change, you can run over to your local dollar store and get some inexpensive plastic chips, or you can go all the way and buy custom, casino-quality poker chips. It all depends on your taste and budget.

I would recommend, however, to at least get your hands on a good set of 11.5 gram composite chips. If you haven’t played with high-quality chips before, you might wonder why the chips matter. Trust me, when you use a chip that feels good, looks good, sounds good, and stacks easily, you and everybody else will have more fun. It will feel like you are playing at a casino. But, again, the choice is up to you.

To read more about different types of poker chips, click here for reviews.

How Many?

As poker chip sets may vary in the colors they contain, I will refer to the chips by denomination, not color. While there are standard colors for each denomination, you might not have those specific colors, so rather than asking you to translate the colors to your own values, I will just list the denominations. That said, there is a chart at the end of this section for the standard chip colors.

For a typical 10-player tournament with each player starting with $1000 in chips (this will be the default tournament in other sections of this article), a set of 500 poker chips should be plenty. You will also want at least four colors. The great thing about this number is that many poker chip sets come with this quantity of chips, divided into four colors. If you want to be sure you get certain quantities of specific colors, you can also purchase chips by the color, generally in 50 or 100 count stacks. For $100 or less, you can quickly have all the chips you will need for your home poker tournament, including a nice carrying case.

It is actually not difficult at all, once you have all your chips together, to figure out how many of each color to give to each player. Personally, I would opt towards giving each person more chips rather than less, for two reasons: 1) it’s more fun to have more chips to play with, and 2) if each person has too few chips, they may play too tight, as they will be afraid to risk such a physically large portion of their stack, even if it is not that large of a portion of their tournament dollars. Additionally, start with many more small denominations than large, as many $100 and $500 chips are not very useful when the blinds are $10 and $20.

Below are some recommended starting stacks for each player:

Poker Tournament Starting Chip Counts


Denomination



$5

$25

$100

Total

Option 1

20

16

5

41

Option 2

20

12

6

38

Option 3

15

13

6

34

Option 4

25

19

4

48

As you can see, with each of these options, a 500 count set will be sufficient for a 10-person tournament. The fourth chip color would be used as a $500 chip when you color-up later in the tournament. If you do not have a fourth color or get to the point where you need a fifth color, you can always change the denomination of the $5 chip, as by the time you need a larger denomination, you will have eliminated the $5 chips from play (and be sure you eliminate all of them – you wouldn’t want someone getting an accidental $495 increase in his stack if his hidden $5 chip turns into a $500 chip!).

If you use a different size starting stack, feel free to adjust the above starting points as needed. You may also feel it necessary to use different starting denominations, particularly if you start everyone with more than $1000.

As promised, here is a list of standard poker chip colors. Again, you might not have these colors (my first set had white, red, green, and black – no blue, no purple), so don’t hesitate to name your own denominations. Just make sure everyone knows which is which. Where two colors are listed, it is common to find denominations in either color.

Standard Chip Colors

Color

Value

White

$1

Red

$5

Blue

$10

Green

$25

Orange

$50

Black

$100

Pink

$250

Purple

$500

Yellow

Burgundy

$1000

Light Blue

$2000

Brown

Grey

$5000

Cards

Just as there are many different types of chips that vary in look, feel, and quality, there are also different types of playing cards you can use for your home poker tournaments. The decks of cards you choose can have a significant effect on the poker experience.

 

I highly, highly recommend purchasing plastic cards for use in your tournaments. “Plastic?” you may ask. Yes, plastic. Most traditional playing cards are made of paper, coated in plastic. As you may have experienced by using your favorite deck over and over, paper cards are prone to tearing, creasing, fraying, and just otherwise deteriorating. There are many companies who manufacture high-quality paper cards, such as the familiar names Bee and Bicycle, but if you plan on hosting poker tournaments, you are going to want to upgrade to plastic.

Plastic cards may be more expensive than paper cards (plastics can typically be found from approximately $8 to $30 per deck), but they will last for years, as opposed to weeks or months for frequently used paper cards, so in the long run, you will save money with plastic. Unless you actually make it a point to ruin them on purpose, plastic cards will not crease, tear, or warp. They will even shed spills and can be washed clean with a little mild soap and cold water. I honestly did not believe the hype until I got my hands on a deck of plastic sweetness. They really do make the game feel better. I am not a very good shuffler, and even I can shuffle these cards – plastics have a fantastic balance of flexibility and slickness.

For a more detailed review of the most popular types of plastic playing cards, click here to learn about KEM cards, and here to read about Copag cards.

In order to keep the tournament moving, you will want at least two decks of cards per table, so that one deck can be shuffled and prepared for play while the other is being used.

Other Equipment and Necessities

Dealer Button

You can get by just fine without a dealer button, but they do help to avoid confusion and keep track of who the current dealer is, as well as making your home poker tournament look more professional. The standard dealer button is simply a white puck, about twice the size of a poker chip, with the word “DEALER” printed on it.  This is placed in front of whoever is sitting in the dealer position. If you don’t have a dealer button, you can really use anything in its place – an actual button, a quarter, a coaster, whatever.

Cut Card

A cut card is a plastic card that is slid into the deck in order to separate it into two sections to be cut. The cut card then remains on the bottom of the deck so nobody can see what card is on the bottom, in the event that the dealer holds the deck in such a manner that makes it easy for others to peek. If you do not have a cut card, you can use a spare card such as a joker, or more preferably, two spare cards taped together in order to make it feel different than the rest of cards.

Timer

You will need some way to time the rounds so you know when to increase the blinds. For lack of a better tool, you can use a kitchen timer or stop watch. If you want to enhance your tournament experience, however, consider buying a specialty timer that not only counts down the rounds, but also keeps track of the blinds and antes for you as well. One such product, Poker Genie, has become popular. The Genie is a portable timer with a large, bright display that is fully customizable so you can enter your blind structure, round times, and antes. The timer can be placed anywhere in the room for all to see.

A less expensive and more versatile option is the DB Dealer digital dealer button, which combines the dealer puck with a basic level timer. It does not show what the blinds are like Poker Genie, but it is smaller and merges two pieces of equipment into one.

There are also programs for your personal computer available to download. Many of these, such as The Tournament Director, offer scores of features other than simply round timing, but the downside to them is that you must have your computer in a convenient location for the software to be useful.

Rules Sheets and Other Charts

Not only should you go over the tournament and house rules before beginning play, but you should also distribute a sheet of these rules to every table, so everyone has a reference. It will make your life as a tournament director easier, as you won’t have to answer tons of questions, and it will keep the game moving.

It is also a good idea, although not mandatory, to create a few large charts for other important pieces of information that can be posted for all to see. Things such as the blind structure, chip values, and payout schedule are helpful reminders for your guests. You be the judge on how much information you want on this “scoreboard” of sorts – the more informed the players are, the more fun they will have.

Food and Beverage

No party is complete without refreshments, and your home poker tournament is no exception. You will know your guests best, so I’m not about to tell you what to serve, but be sure there is enough on hand to take care of everybody. Some people like beer, some like soda, some just like water – know your participants. Keep in mind that the tournament might last several hours, so it might be wise to have more than just chips and pretzels available. Pizzas usually work well, as do subs (just be sure you have an ample supply of napkins – this is where plastic cards come in very handy). You can even take a tournament break and grill some burgers (let people know if you want them to bring their own meat). And like I wrote earlier, it is quite alright if you would like your guests to pitch in a few dollars for refreshments. Just make sure they know ahead of time and make sure it is understood that the donations are to defray costs, not to make you a profit.

Seating

Tournament Start

There is no law set in stone as to how you seat the players. If everyone wants to just choose their own seats and you are fine with that, go right ahead. I would lean against this if you have several people playing whom you do not know, as you never know if they plan on colluding. If you want to seat people randomly, here are a few methods:

Single Table

1. Assign a number to each spot at the table and then deal one card to each player. The player with the highest card is placed in seat #1, and so on down the line. If two people are dealt a card of the same value, you can either re-deal to them to break the tie or rank the cards by suit. Be sure to announce the suit rankings before-hand.

2. Pre-select a quantity of cards from the deck, in numerical order, corresponding to the number of people at the table. For example, if there are to be nine people at the table, one each of the values 2 through 10 from the deck. Next, assign a value to each spot at the table and deal each player one of the pre-selected cards. The players then sit at the seat that corresponds to the number they were dealt.

Multi-Table

1. Assign a value to each seat at each table. Using a different deck (with unique designs on the back) for each table, remove cards from the deck that correspond to the seat values. Place these cards in a box or a hat and have each player draw one without looking. The players then sit at the table and seat corresponding to the value of the card they drew and the deck it came from (leave the decks at the tables so people know where to go).

2. Assign a value to each seat at each table. Remove from a deck the cards with values corresponding to the seat values and have each player select a card without looking. The suit they receive corresponds to a certain table, while the value is their seat assignment. For example, if you have three tables of eight, use the cards 2 through 9 of hearts, clubs, and spades. Hearts go to one table, clubs go to another, spades go to the third table.

Moving Players/Combining Tables

Before the tournament begins, let it be known to all participants at what point you will either move players to fill in empty seats or combine tables. Generally, you will want to fill-in/breakup a table once it gets down to five or six players.

If you choose to combine tables, simply redraw for seats, as detailed above. If you want to fill-in seats at one table, it is easy enough to deal a card to everybody at the larger table(s) and have the high card(s) (or low card(s)) move to the empty seats.

Blinds

Setting the blind structure is probably the most difficult part about organizing a home poker tournament. If the blinds increase too slowly, you will need to cook your guests breakfast. If the blinds increase too rapidly, you might as well flip a coin to determine the winner, as luck of the deal will far outweigh skill. There is no one perfect formula and you will probably need to revise the structure once you see how it works. For starters, however, here are a few of the prevailing methods of determining the blinds:

 

Note: The blind structures listed will be based on a 10-player tournament with $1000 in starting chips. You may need to adjust them for different numbers of players or starting chip amounts.

1. Set your “final” big blind equal to an amount that will cost a player approximately 30% of the chips in play (assuming no raises). So, for the aforementioned 10-person, $1000 starting chip tournament, a big blind of 600 would accomplish this. The betting would be 600+600+1200+1200 = 3600, which is slightly more than 30% of the $10,000 in total chips on the table. You can then work backwards, creating the earlier levels so they build gradually to the final level. Of course, you will want to add a few levels after the target, so the tournament might continue on a little longer.

2. Set the first big blind equal to 1% or 2% of the starting stack (in this case, it would be $10 or $20). For your estimated “final” level, the big blind should be 5% of the average stack. Thus, if you anticipate 2 players in the “final” level, the average stack will be $5,000, so the big blind would be $250. In my opinion, this is the weakest of the three methods as it requires the most guessing as to when the end of the tournament might be (you have to guess before setting the blinds) and it sets the blinds too low for too long.

3. Set your first big blind to 2% of the starting stack (in this case, $20) and your final big blind should equal the starting stack ($1000). Then, simply spread out the levels in between and add a few levels on top.

The other major factor that will go into your calculations will be how long you actually want the tournament to run. Once you determine the blind levels, you will need to divide the number of levels into the total time for the tournament to reach a time limit for each level. In my hypothetical tournament, it had 10 levels (remember, of course, that it will always be an estimate, as the tournament may run shorter or longer on any given day) and wanted a 4 hour tournament, I would have the blinds increase every 26 minutes. For a 3 hour tournament, the levels would be 18 minutes long. Generally, 15-20 minute levels work well – opt for the higher end of that range if you expect a more casual tournament, as game play will tend to be a bit slower. If you use the second method of calculating the blinds above, you may need to use longer levels, as you will probably have fewer of them.

Additionally, increase your first few blind levels slowly, as this will give everybody a chance to get used to the game and have some fun without worrying about putting too many chips at risk too early.

Below is a typical blind structure that should work well for most tournaments you will host. It is derived from both the first and third methods above, although the first method assumes a final level of 10, while the third method assumes a final level of 12.

Tournament Blind Structure Starting Chips = 1000

Level

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

Small

10

15

20

25

50

75

100

150

200

300

400

500

600

800

Big

20

30

40

50

100

150

200

300

400

600

800

1000

1200

1600

If you choose to start with a different number of starting chips, this is an easy structure to modify, if you deem it necessary.

Coloring-Up

When the lowest denominations of chips are no longer necessary to cover the blinds or antes, it is time to color-up, or replace those chips with new values, usually chips of a different color (as stated earlier, if you are short on colors, you can just change the value of the color that is no longer needed).

In the sample starting chips and blind structure described in this article, you would perform your first color-up at Level 4, when the blinds are 25/50. Because every bet must now be a multiple of 25, you no longer need the $5 chips. At Level 9, you can remove the $25 chips, as each bet must be a multiple of 100.

The initial step of a color-up is straight-forward. You, as tournament director, would give each player a new, higher denomination chip in exchange for the ones that are no longer needed. For example, if a player had five $5 chips, you would give him one $25 chip and remove his $5 chips from play. Depending on your supply, you may find it necessary to color-up some of the $25 chips as well, if there are not enough to replace all the $5 chips.

Of course, there may be some leftover chips once the initial color-up step is complete. Someone might have two $5 chips left, which cannot be exchanged evenly for a $25 chip. In this situation, you can leave the remaining $5 chips in play if you would like and just allow players to use them to top off a bet (a player without a $5 chip would only be required to call $100 against a $105 bet). As the odd chips are accumulated by one player, they can be removed from play when they are able to be colored up.

The other method of eliminating odd chips is a chip-race. In a chip-race, each player is dealt one card for each odd chip they are holding. You then collect the odd chips and color them up. The player with the highest card (use your pre-determined suit rankings to break ties) receives the first new color chip, the player with the second highest card receives the next new color chip, and so on until all the new chips are in play. There still may be a few odd chips remaining. In this case, if they add up to more than half of the value of the new chip ($5 to $25 color-up, for example, if there were three or four $5 chips left), they are replaced by one new color chip. If the old chips add up to less than half the value of the new color chip, they are simply eliminated from play.

In the event a player “loses” the chip-race and, as a result, has no chips left, he must be given one chip of the new color from the “bank” (your stash of extra chips). An example of this situation would be if, during a color-up of the $5 chips to $25 chips, one player only has two $5 chips remaining. Because he is dealt low cards, he “loses” the chip-race and is not in line to receive a $25 chip. Standard Tournament Directors Association rules state that a player can not be eliminated as the result of a chip-race, so that player would receive one $25 chip.

Dealers

In most home poker tournaments I have played in, there were no dedicated dealers. Each player took turns dealing. It is easy to do, and while people have different skill levels when it comes to shuffling (I stink), it usually works out perfectly fine. The best way to structure this method is to have the person to the right of the dealer shuffle the second deck to prepare it for the next hand, while the person to the left of the dealer cuts the deck. This way, any possible cheating by the dealer is eliminated, since his only activity will be to deal the cards. As an added bonus, you don’t need a dealer button, since the dealer is easily identified by the deck of cards in his hand.

If one player at each table is the full-time dealer, simply rotate the second deck around the table so somebody different shuffles each hand. The card-cutting duties should be rotated, as well. If the dealer is not actually playing, you can use the same setup, as having the next deck ready before the hand is over speeds up play significantly. In any “fixed” dealer situation, be sure he is positioned in the middle of the table where he can easily deal to each player and reach all the chips.

House Rules

House rules are up to you. If there are certain things you require out of your guests, make sure they are aware of additional rules before play begins. Some examples of my own house rules are:

1. Clean up after yourselves.

2. No smoking in the house. If you must smoke, step outside – if you should be absent when you are in the blinds, your blinds will be forfeited.

3. No straddle bets.

4. No “angle-shooting” – this is a technically legal action, but is generally considered unethical. Some examples of this are faking a call, faking a bet before it is your turn, or mis-announcing your hand. Just quit the shenanigans and play poker.

5. Cards speak – when the players’ hands are shown, it doesn’t matter if someone thought he only had two pair but he really had a straight. If the cards say he has a straight, he has a straight.

6. Tournament Director has final say on everything.

As I said, these are just examples. You may make up whatever house rules you deem necessary.

Etiquette

Everybody has more fun when the players are polite and respectful of each other. That said, many players just don’t care about etiquette and some are simply not aware of proper poker etiquette. Here are some quick and easy guidelines on table etiquette:

1. Be nice – this really applies to everything in life. Nobody wants to play with a jerk.

2. No stalling – it’s ok if you need to think about the hand, but intentionally stalling is both annoying and unfair, since it results in less hands being dealt per level.

3. Play in turn – wait until it is your turn to act before moving your chips, mucking your cards, or announcing your play. Playing out of turn unfairly influences the other players.

4. Don’t splash the pot – when betting, stack your chips neatly in front of your cards. Splashing the pot (throwing your chips into the pot), makes it difficult for the other players to see how much you bet, and a chip might end up rolling off the table.

5. No string bets – make a single bet per turn. Do not place a bet then go back to your stack for more. This often results in a reaction from your opponents, allowing you to get a better read on them. A big no-no.

6. Do not discuss the hand – regardless of whether or not you are still in the hand, never comment on the hand currently being played. Allow each player to make their own decisions and do not give away information that others should not have.

7. Discard into the muck – when you fold or muck your cards, do so in a polite fashion, by lightly tossing them face down into the muck pile. Don’t whip your cards at the dealer. At the same time, don’t just leave your cards out of the dealer’s reach.

8. Play your cards only – don’t touch or look at other players’ cards.

9. Be gentle – don’t scratch, deface, tear, or otherwise ruin the cards, chips, table, or other equipment.

Closing Remarks

Now that you are ready to host your own home poker tournament remember this one important detail: it is supposed to be fun. As much as everybody wants to win money, they will all go home happy if they enjoyed themselves. If some of my suggestions do not suit your tastes, your needs, or your guests, change them. Make up your own rules. This is simply a guide, not a bible. No matter how you run your tournament, be sure it is well organized and everybody is informed about all the rules ahead of time.