Brunson: Leaders for home poker games

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in the London Telegraph in 2005.

Doyle Brunson index.

Historical note: The following explanatory note didn’t appear in the series, but was sent with each column as submitted.

Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson stands unchallenged as the most celebrated poker player who ever lived. In 2005, at age 72, he won an unprecedented 10th championship gold bracelet at the World Series of Poker. He is among the few living members of the Poker Hall of Fame, and his books  are the bibles for poker professionals.. Through and, Brunson has teamed with Mike Caro, today’s premiere poker educator, to offer a free learning experience to players worldwide. This column is founded on  those collaborative teachings.

Doyle Brunson

Too much democracy doesn’t work on the battlefield. You need some officer in charge. I believe the same is true about home poker games. Previously I’ve talked about the need to have rules set forth in advance, before the game starts.

There’s nothing uglier than being involved in a poker pot and suddenly quibbling over whether it’s legal to sandbag (check and then come back raising). The heat of poker combat is no time to have a vote on the issue.


You need a leader to establish the rules in advance – someone to take charge. It’s probably going to be the guy that’s hosting the game. That person has to say, “Welcome to my game and these are the rules.” If you do it that way, everyone is likely to be satisfied. It seems reasonable to them that, when they’re invited to someone else’s place, rules of conduct will be pre-established.

This reminds me of an episode that took place when I was just a kid. The event seems humorous looking back, but at the time it was just plain annoying.

In my early college days, a fellow student Carl and I would play heads-up. The stakes were extremely small. In fact, they were almost laughable in terms of big-league poker today. We’d play $20 hold ’em freeze outs, meaning we continued until one of us ran out of chips. These sometimes lasted hours.

Then one day we decided we’d like to have a full-handed poker game and invited another friend, Danny, who recruited another five or six friends. Everyone was looking forward to the game, even though many of those invited had never played poker at such a formal gathering. Games tended to just spring up at a moment’s notice.


Things got strange when Carl decided to start things out by holding a meeting to establish the rules. He used a clinched fish to simulate a gavel, pounding the potential players to order. From his pocket, he extracted a long list of items for discussion. The first was the stakes that we should play for. Now, if you’ve ever seen a group of kids pout and whine over nothing, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Everyone likes to have an opinion – especially college kids. Even this decision was hotly argued and took 15 minutes. We eventually decided to play $1 limit with quarter antes.

By the time we got around to discussing the number of raises allowed, things had truly deteriorated. Someone took the ridiculous position that there should be no raises, while another kid was certain that three wasn’t enough, five was two many, and four was obviously the perfect number. His argument eventually won, but the bickering went on and on.


When we began to debate whether there should be wild cards and how many, the environment had turned hostile. Several players, including myself, wanted no wild cards; others thought the dealer of the hand should decide.

By now, Danny was impatient and kept screaming, “Let’s deal.” But Carl insisted on continuing through the list. Finally, by vote, we decided wild cards would be allowed and it would be dealer’s choice to decide which and how many. One potential player stormed out, asserting, “That’s a sissy game!” Then a couple others left. And one of the remaining kids said five-handed wasn’t enough for a good poker game and left, also.

We ended up playing three-handed: me, Carl, and Danny. But after 10 minutes, Danny lost interest and left. Carl and I were left to play our regular heads-up freeze-out game.

So, my advice for setting up home games is: There’s got to be a leader who sets the rules. Over time, it’s okay to have players discuss those rules away from the table and perhaps modifications can be made from game to game. But, if you want to get the game started, democracy in poker can be a very bad thing. — DB

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