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Home Poker

How Much Home Game Strategy Is There?
By Marc

Strategy fascinates me, in theory as well as in practice. Games of chance are fun time-killers, but with extra outs provided to us in the rules of poker, it becomes much more than a game of chance. It becomes a game of skill. And in any game of skill, the winner over the long run is the most skilled player, the player most versed in the game's strategy. But, there's something unique about poker strategy. Oddly enough, I've heard it said that poker strategy is more effective against skilled players than weaker players. And in home games, it's debatable that there is much poker strategy at all.

First of all, we have nothing to discuss before getting out all of the stereotypes about home poker players. First, the home poker player does not play the game often enough to be satisfied with tight play; therefore, he plays a very loose game. Second, because they are playing more for fun than for profit, home poker is nobody's primary interest; no matter how much they enjoy the game, they have other, more pressing interests in their lives. Third, because of the level of stakes, there is less emphasis on minimizing distraction and keeping a sharp eye on the game. While all three stereotypes are important to our discussion, it's this last one that we focus on.

Imagine these two scenarios. You're in a higher-stakes private game playing Seven Card Stud. You're at the end with two other guys in the pot. In first position, you check. The next guy checks, and the third guy bets. You call that bet and then make a big raise on it. Now, imagine you're sitting at your own card table playing with the boys. It's 3 AM, you just got back from the bars, and you're playing some cards with some music on. Again, you're first of three left in a pot. You check, the next guy checks, and the third guy bets. You call that bet, and make a big raise on it. The second guy calls, and has to shout at the third guy to stop talking to somebody else and get his head back in the game. After reminding the third guy what game you're playing, he simply calls your check-raise.

How do these two scenarios differ? Well, in the first one, you've made a bold statement to two players that you are a sandbagger. Having sandbagging (or check-raising) in your arsenal is as good as having slowplaying or bluffing as weapons of the game. The next time you check, these players will have to question whether you are checking a mediocre hand or whether you intend to raise if one of them bets. In the second scenario, the results are not so clear-cut. First of all, everybody has been drinking. Is anybody even watching how you play? Did your sandbagging even get noticed? Depending on how 'un-serious' the game is, will the third player even ask who made the bet and when? Or, even if you have everybody's undivided attention, is it every home player that would even recognize the check-raise as a skilled, deceptive move?

Save me the hate mail. I'm not insulting home poker players. I am exclusively a small stakes home player. Nor am I suggesting that we do not take the game seriously... or don't play it sober. My examples are extreme only to make a point. And here's my point: in the game of poker, you use strategy not just in playing your own hand (like in Cribbage), but also in a psychological game in influencing the decisions of your opponents. And if your opponents don't recognize the strategic value of a move that you've made, then there's no strategy to that move. In the first scenario above, the check-raise dramatically changes the impression that your opponents have of your hand and of you as a player. In the second scenario, you may accumulate a larger pot with your slowplaying, but you've made no impact on the other players' perception of you as a player, because the other players are either not observing your moves or do not understand the value of them. In either case, you've misused strategy.

Check-raising, bluffing, drawing short, and especially advertising are strategic moves whose value depends at least in part on the players seeing you do them and understanding why you did them. If this is missing from your game, then you may be making the wrong moves. More accurately, you may need an entirely different arsenal in playing these games. In our home player stereotypes, if another player plays loose just to see the action, then you might have to drop the prospect of bluffing altogether. If nobody folds, then the bluff is a waste. Even for advertising, what would be the sense of showing a bluff if future bluffs get called? Therefore, the strategy of proper bluffing is replaced by not bluffing. Also, why slowplay if everybody is playing loose? Second, if nobody is as interested in poker strategy as you, then a slowplay or check-raise may win you a bigger pot, but its usefulness is reduced. The next time you check a mediocre hand, another player may just as soon bet into you, without even considering that you may be check-raising.

And finally, as we've discussed, if you don't have everybody's undivided attention, then you may be wasting money with advertising, wasting money trying to bluff, and wasting money with slowplaying. Any strategy that wins you a larger pot is a solid strategy. However, any strategy meant to create an impression for those who miss it completely is a strategy that does you no good. Is this exclusive to home poker? Of course not. But, the lower the stakes, the less 'serious' the game is played, and the more often you would come by this problem.

Adapted from