Before I delve into the final part of this saga, I want to make some things clear. Home games, for the most part, are a great way to meet friends and play poker in a more casual setting than the casino. Home games allow for certain things casinos don’t, such as running the board multiple times, changing the game, making deals, and sending electronic payments. I’ve made some great friends at home games, and the games are a built-in way to stay in touch.
Despite the many pros of home games, certain unsavory people can use the unregulated atmosphere to their advantage. While you are unlikely to come across an expert mechanic base dealing poker heads up to their partner to a huge victory, there are people out there who look to cheat in these games. This unfortunate fact played a part in why I ultimately left the home game scene.
It was New Year’s Eve 2020. My girlfriend (now wife) and I met some friends at a restaurant owned by one of their parents. They had a huge New Year’s Eve celebration each year and it looked as though we were creating a new yearly tradition. While my girlfriend and our friends drank and enjoyed the evening, I couldn’t help but worry. The holiday season is a killer for home games. I had been consistently working four to five nights a week dealing and hosting games, but the month of December was not very fruitful. The Friday night $5/$5 game only ran one week that month, the $1/$2 game dropped to once a week, and my rotating cast of extra games was all on a holiday break. Players have families and college students went home for break, so there just wasn’t much poker to be played. My bank account was feeling the stress and I turned to playing more as a way to make money, which didn’t always work out in my favor. There was a reason I dealt more than I played; I was slightly better than break-even, which leaves little profit to make a living on.
Over the next few weeks, I spent a lot of time worrying and applying to jobs. At this point, I saw the writing on the wall. I either needed to find new games or find a “real” job. Between the job applications, I was dealing as much as I could. I was the main dealer at all my games, and I started asking the hosts to not bring in any backups. I would deal the entire night and take a couple of bathroom breaks. I needed the money. During this tumultuous time in my dealing career, a regular player asked me to help host a game.
Ari’s Home Game
You might remember Dean from the first part of this series, he was one of the first people I met in Los Angeles. He had a family friend, Ari, who wanted to host a game with him. Ari supposedly knew a lot of wealthy players. The game was planned to be a $5/$10 game, but when Dean had trouble finding players for those stakes, they made it $5/$5 and capped the buy-in at $2,500 so there was the opportunity to be big. I was thrilled to deal a game with no $1 chips on the table, as tips are always bigger without them. We set our date and I waited in anticipation.
When the day finally arrived, somewhere around mid-February, I was ecstatic. I had just recently found out that my girlfriend was pregnant, so my money worries were now greater. At this point, I was applying to jobs on both coasts and had just returned from a quick trip to Connecticut for an interview. In anticipation of the baby, we were contemplating moving closer to our families.
None of my applications turned into anything, and the home game situation got bleaker and bleaker. At this point, I was lucky to deal twice a week, and they were both $1/$2 games. So I was delighted to count out $20,000 chips for the eight players on their way to my new gig. I met with Dean and Ari to discuss the drop and operations for the night. I would log all buy-ins and count the drop hourly as I did for most of my games, as well as split time dealing with Ari.
I found it odd that the host wanted half the box time, but the game was big enough that it didn’t matter to me. Looking back, this was probably a red flag, but I shrugged it off at the time.
Then came the first real red flag: Ari was to be a silent partner. Both Dean and Ari made it very clear not to mention his involvement in running the game. This didn’t make sense to me, as most hosts love to be the face of the game. I realized it was odd, but again I was fixated on the possibility of making three times more than usual for a night.
As the players filed in, I recorded the buy-ins and distributed chips. Ari sat waiting in the box. Ari’s players showed first, just in time for red flag #2: they didn’t pay up front. Ari said they were longtime friends of his and they would settle after the game. So, three of eight players were on credit, and they bought in for the max. This wasn’t entirely out of the ordinary, especially for larger games, but I still found it odd that only his players were offered credit.
Before the cards were dealt, one of Ari’s players proposed we make it a $5/$10 game, as all but one player had $1,500 or more. The one player that did not was LJ, a nice kid who usually played $1/$2. He was taking a shot in this game, trying to balloon his modest bankroll. He was opposed to the blind increase, so we stayed at $5/$5. Unfortunately for LJ, about 20 minutes into the game his QQ lost to 56o on a 56J board. He was fuming since he had 3-bet to $100 pre-flop and 56o still found the call. With LJ gone we had our first blind increase, and you could match the largest stack for any rebuys.
A few hours went by, and the chips were flying. We had seen quite a few rebuys at this point and there was almost $35k on the table. Considering we started with less than $20k, the night was going well. I had never seen so much money at stake. There was one whale who was running the action, his name was Pete. Pete had endless bullets and was in the game for $15k. Pete was not a good poker player. He wanted a fighting chance, so he lobbied to switch between NLH and PLO each round. All players agreed.
I was making far more than I had expected. Ari and I were switching every half hour and after only four hours I made more than my typical $1/$2 night dealing alone. Ari’s players were winning and tipping big. One of the players was controlling the music and seemed to be obsessed with the same few songs, but I didn’t mind hearing repetitive bad music since he tipped a minimum of $10 for each pot he dragged. With PLO in the mix, the game played even bigger.
After a few more players busted or left with a small profit, the night seemed to be winding down. Pete was in for $20k and only had about $5k in front of him, all of Dean’s players called it quits, and Ari’s guys were swimming in profit. I was afraid the game would die after only six hours. Usually, the smaller games would go 10-12, and I expected the bigger players to have more money to risk. Just as I thought I’d be getting a good night’s sleep, I heard something magical come out of Pete’s mouth.
“Why don’t we bump it up to $10/$25 and get rid of the Hold’em?”
I couldn’t believe it. I felt like I was on the set of Molly’s Game. Of course, there are bigger games than $10/$25 PLO, but none that I had ever been part of. Ari’s players were thrilled to hear this too. They obliged, and Pete added on for another $20k. Pete had only brought $15k with him, five in cash and ten in casino chips (that the hosts happily accepted), so at this point, he owed $25k. Dean was concerned, as this was a huge amount of money, but Ari didn’t seem to mind, and his players had all the profit. There was so much money on the table that we had to bust out the $1 chips to use as $1,000.
What happened over the next two hours was nothing short of a massacre. Pete proceeded to lose every significant pot while maintaining a 100% VPIP. It was astounding. He managed to bust one of Ari’s players during this bloodbath, but it didn’t matter. Somewhere in that time, he added a Hail Mary $10k on top of his dwindling stack, but at the end of the night, he had less than $6k left. The game ended around 4 am. After about 8 hours of play, Pete was down over $44k, and Ari’s two remaining players combined for roughly $35k profit.
Pete tried to negotiate a break, but Dean wasn’t having it. Dean is a businessman. He is going to get every dollar owed, and he was not used to dealing with this much money. Dean and Ari ended up cutting Pete a break for a little over $1,000 so he could round down to a $43k loss. One of Ari’s players volunteered to take it out of his profit, which was another red flag. I thought maybe he was just a nice guy, but it didn’t make much sense to me. Either way, I again ignored the sign, as I was happy to have earned a very nice payday for myself. I packed up, laid out the numbers for Ari and Dean, and then went home to get some sleep.
Pete paid back what he owed the next morning in cash. He was very involved in the gambling world, so he had plenty of money at home ready to pay off. The next few weeks word got out about how big the game was. It was the favored topic at the $1/$2 games since they all ran in the same apartment, owned by Jamal. Jamal was a smart guy and used his apartment for a few different things. The two of us had a great working relationship, and he trusted me to keep things running smoothly as he and the host of the regular small game didn’t get along.
One night about 3 weeks after the big game, Jamal pulled me aside. He asked if I noticed anything suspicious about Ari and his gang. Jamal knew that Ari was a silent partner, as he was there for the pregame setup. I told him the things I found odd, but nothing about him dealing, remaining a silent partner, or extending credit meant much. Then Jamal asked me something that put the pieces together.
“Did you notice that they played the same three songs all night?”
I couldn’t believe it. I had missed a massive red flag. Jamal grew up in Vegas and knew all the typical scams people run, so he noticed that it was happening. Instead of outright accusing anyone, he put his ear to the street to see what he could learn. It turned out that Ari wanted to be a silent partner since he had been caught cheating at another game. Jamal then reviewed his security camera footage and noticed that one song would play whenever the DJ had a strong hand. When that song played, Ari’s other players folded to allow the DJ to play against the field. Another song was a signal to bet everyone out of the hand, and Ari’s partners made a few massive over-bets or pot-sized raises when they heard that tune.
Jamal cracked the code that I was too naïve to see. Here I was, hoping that Ari would come back around so we could run another big game, but when I learned what he was doing I wanted no part of it. This was the final straw for me. I was already struggling to make ends meet dealing home games, and now that my reputation was at risk I wanted out.
I want to be very clear. Most of you will never experience cheaters at a home game. Card mechanics are extremely rare, hosts don’t want the reputation of cheating, and most players are just looking for a fun night out. While all of this is true, always be mindful of your surroundings. Watch for players signaling one another, or possibly texting back and forth, as this is the most common form of cheating. Be mindful of players soft-playing each other or trying to squeeze others out of multi-way pots regularly. And always chastise someone for playing the same few songs over and over. If nothing else, the rest of the players will thank you for taking control away from a repetitive DJ.
A New Life
I wasn’t around for much of the fallout after Jamal’s discovery. Just a few days later businesses started shutting down due to COVID-19. My girlfriend’s semester at grad school moved online, the show she was working on at the Geffen Playhouse was canceled, and I was only dealing once a week. We packed up our belongings and headed for the east coast after only a year in sunny California. The day we left was the day Los Angeles County went on lockdown. We drove across an empty country back to my hometown on the East Coast. During the drive home I secured a job in Connecticut, we made living arrangements, and my time as a home game dealer officially ended.
I spoke with Jamal a few times about the big game. As it was his establishment, he took the lead on investigating the cheaters. He confronted Ari who admitted to everything. Last I heard they paid Pete back about $30k and were planning on coming up with the rest. I’m not sure if they ended up paying the rest back, or what methods Jamal used to collect, but I didn’t want to know. To this day I don’t know If Dean was involved or not. He claims he had nothing to do with the scheme and didn’t benefit whatsoever, but I don’t know for sure. We stopped talking after an unrelated dispute in which he attempted to short a friend of mine $2,000. After that stunt, I was pretty sure he at least knew about Ari and his cheats.
None of that concerned me anymore. At this point I was domesticated. I lived in a rural Connecticut town and commuted an hour to a good job in finance, as financial institutions were exempt from the stay-at-home orders. My girlfriend became my fiancé in Los Angeles and then my wife in Massachusetts. We welcomed our daughter into this world in September 2020. Life continued.
Who doesn’t love a home poker game?
Here George Chao of @BBOPokerTables disusses some great home game traditions.
Do you have your own home game traditions? Let us know!
— Cardplayer Lifestyle (@PokerLifeMedia) October 7, 2021
I couldn’t help but feel like Henry Hill at the end of Goodfellas. Just another schmuck. I certainly wasn’t a gangster, and I wasn’t swimming in money. But I was at a card table 6 nights a week, either dealing, playing, or both. I had stayed up all hours of the night and couldn’t remember the last time I fell asleep without the sun shining. I dealt only in cash and was immersed in a world of risk-takers. It was a wonderful experience.
Now I work a stable 9-5, I eat dinner with my wife and daughter every night, and I don’t stress about whether my job will be there next month. My former colleagues at the home games might call me a schmuck, but I couldn’t be happier. The home game life was great when I was void of any real responsibility, but today I’ll take the 9-5 over home games every time.
I’m still obsessed with poker. I play as much as I can (about 2-3 times a month) and consume poker content like my life depends on it. Poker will always be a major part of my life, but I am perfectly content being in seats 1-9 rather than in the box. However, when my old friends and I get together for a casual game I take over dealing for the night. Partly because they’re awful at it, but really, I’m just reliving my LA adventure.