When Doyle Brunson made his living as a Texas rounder in the 1960s, it was common for him to play in private games with crooked and shady players, “outlaw games,” he often called them, where players were in constant fear of being cheated, robbed or even murdered.
How unsafe was it back then? “Once, we were playing one of those outlaw games, (when) all of the sudden the door was busted down and a guy stormed in with a gun and shot a guy sitting right next to me at the table,” Brunson told a journalist in 2003. “I remember the guy’s head falling off and splattering against the wall!”
Think about that beat next time some fish two-outs you for 600 big blinds on fifth street.
Fifty years later poker players have more (and often safer) options available when they’re looking for a game.
In most states, for example, casinos have sprouted up like weeds. All across the country poker players can find games at charity events, licensed establishments and there are still a few Internet sites operating.
But for players who choose to play in private games, times haven’t changed since Brunson’s early rounding days. Private games still are dangerous, and deadly. On July 25 two masked men stormed into a private home game in Raleigh, N.C., and tried to rob a handful of recreational players. A struggle ensued, and after it was over, both robbers were shot. One died from his wounds, and the other will likely spend the next 20 years playing hearts for cigarettes and gum.
Whether you play recreationally, like me, or full time, choosing the right private game can be just as important as knowing what “implied odds” means. Here are a few things to consider:
KNOW THE HOST: If you’re unfamiliar with the person who’s hosting the game in which you’re playing, ask around about his or her reputation, line of work, whom they associate with, and whether they play poker. The more information you have about them, the more likely you’ll know if the game is legitimate.
From the smallest cities in the country to the largest, people within local poker communities know most of the regulars and people who host games, and every regular has a reputation. If nobody has heard of the person whose game you’re playing in, or if he or she has a bad reputation, you should probably think twice about playing in it.
KNOW STATE LAWS: The state laws that define what constitutes gambling at an unlicensed establishment, as well as maintaining one, are complicated and differ. In nearly every state it’s illegal to maintain a gambling establishment where the house profits. In Florida, for instance, “keeping a gambling house” is a third-degree felony. Playing in a private game where the house profits in Florida is a second-degree misdemeanor. To learn what the laws are in your state, search the Internet. A good place to start is gambling-law-us.com.
IF THERE’S A RAKE, MAKE SURE IT’S FAIR: First off, a rake in a private game is illegal and not condoned by Ante Up. If there is a rake and you choose to play in that game, a standard $1-$2 NLHE game should never be raked more than $1 for every $10 that goes into the pot up to $50 (so, never more than $5 per pot). It’s also tacky to rake pots preflop if there’s no flop. At higher stakes, the house will often charge an hourly amount and, ideally, that amount should be similar to what your local casinos charge ($10-$12 an hour is quite common.)
DON’T PLAY IN GAMES THAT AREN’T SECURE: There’s simply no reason to play in a private game that isn’t hosted in a secure location. These games will be in decent, well-lit and well-populated neighborhoods and in secure households or commercial spaces that are hard to get in and out of (i.e., behind multiple-locked doors). If the host has taken the time to hire a guard or two, that’s also a good indication that the game is safe.
KNOW THE PLAYERS: When a private game is robbed, there’s a good chance it was an inside job. Let’s be frank: Poker attracts some shady customers. Sometimes they’re easy to spot; sometimes they aren’t. Strike up conversations with the people around the table, and try to avoid private games that have people who you feel are untrustworthy.
KNOW THE DEALERS: If you’re playing in a private game where the dealer isn’t the host, or where the players aren’t taking turns dealing, learn all you can about the dealer. How does he or she know the host? Are they a professional dealer? If not, what do they do for a living? How many different games can they deal? Do they play the game? The answers to these questions will contribute to your overall knowledge about how well the game is run, and playing in private games in which the dealers are trustworthy significantly decreases the likelihood of being cheated.
Lastly, observe the dealer when you’re not in a hand. Are they cutting the deck properly after they shuffle? Are they covering the bottom card of the deck? If there’s a rake, are they pulling out the correct amount each time?
As poker players, we look for games that seem the most profitable, games in which our edge is clear. In the end, though, the legitimacy and security of the games we play in, as well as our safety, supersedes any dollar amount we’re likely to win. In the end, it’s just money.
— Brent White is a journalist, writer, editor and poker player who lives in Chicago. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @brentwhite.
Even friendly games are subject to unsafe environments.