The live poker scene has ground to a screeching halt. Images of a barren Las Vegas Strip are just one manifestation of seeing zero (ZERO!) active poker tables worldwide on the Bravo Poker Live or Poker Atlas apps. In a time where isolation, social distancing, and quarantine are some of the most oft-used words in our vocabularies, even home poker games – arguably poker’s most important breeding ground – have temporarily ceased. As the late, great Kenny Rogers might’ve said, “you gotta know when to fold’em” and in this unprecedented era of the COVID-19 pandemic, the idea of live poker taking a hard break seems (sadly) GTO. That leaves us with online poker.

The good news is that online poker is understandably in the midst of a sudden surge. With people confined to their homes and looking for activities and entertainment, more people are playing online poker than have done so in years. In terms of legal, regulated online poker, we’re seeing tournament guarantees being crushed and numbers of cash game tables in progress 24/7 that are certainly making all online poker operators swoon.

People living in jurisdictions without legal online poker who haven’t been following the developments in regulation over the years are finding themselves Googling phrases like best place to play online poker USA, where can you play legally in NZ and Australia, and (at least where I live) how to play poker online from Israel. Then comes the sad realization that we’re basically out of luck, unless we want to risk playing on unregulated sites. Thanks, global lawmakers.

All is not lost, though. As chronicled recently by our contributing writer Ivan Potocki, home poker games the world over are transitioning to online play and anyone, anywhere can participate. With just a few tweaks and adjustments, you and your home game group can make it happen.

Online Home Games Are A Mixed Bag

Though playing in private online poker home games is not the same as playing with my home game buddies in person, it’s a decent enough substitute for “the real thing.” It’s still poker, and using Zoom enables us to still have the social interaction aspect that makes the games so much fun in the first place.

Having said that, whereas there are some plusses to having online poker home games, there are some minuses, too. Here, then, is a short list of the things that I appreciate about online home games in the Coronavirus era as well as a longer list of some of the things that I miss about real, in-person home games.

The Advantages

  • There’s no such thing as a misdeal, or any other sort of dealer error, for that matter.
  • There’s an exact accounting of how much each player buys in for, no mistakes made or accidental “missing money”
  • Everyone stacks their chips neatly (this one’s for you, Dad 🙂 )
  • There are no rule disagreements or social miscues (e.g., who has to show their hand first, who may or may not have declared something verbally or via a possibly questionable physical action like moving chips forward)

In summary, then, the advantages are that online poker home games are much neater and tidier. It’s the GTO way to run a home game; technically sound, with no “mistakes”. Poker players like it when things go right, and online poker is as “tight and clean” as it gets.

The Disadvantages

  • It’s impossible to play cash games (at least for those of us stuck using play money online)
  • You’re limited to the poker variants offered by the online site (e.g., even an 8-game mix tournament doesn’t offer badugi, badeucey, or “wild, crazy, or ‘declare'” games like follow the queen, deuces wild, drawmaha, double board omaha high, ‘Joe-maha’ [hi again, Dad 🙂  ] etc.)
  • You’ve got to play a full level/orbit of each game at a time; my home game group likes switching it up each hand – certainly a tougher test of poker skill if you ask me…
  • There’s no pizza, beer, snacks, etc. Raising your glasses simultaneously on Zoom isn’t the same as hearing the glasses clinking together or arguing over who gets (or has to pay for) the final slice of pizza
  • The absence of hugs, fist bumps, chip shuffling, slamming chips or cards down in disgust, reaching out to scoop a pot full of chips, or anything else physical
  • You don’t actually get out of the house (obviously a game’s host doesn’t, but nobody else does either); there’s no “night out with your pals” feeling
  • You just don’t make the same memories. While software might be able to precisely record a hand, there’s just not that same shared memory of how a particular hand went down, the trickery, the chicanery, the Hollywooding… it might look the same, but it’s a facade.

To sum up, then, what I miss most from the in-person home games is frankly the physicality of it all. I miss watching one of my buddies steam about losing a pot. I miss the group groan when a misdeal happens. I miss the sloppiness. I miss the pushing, tossing, and stacking of chips. I miss getting impatient when someone’s left the table and it’s his turn to deal. I miss my people, my friends.

home game
From left to right, me, my Dad, Maurice, Moe, and Kenny – the longtime core of Dad’s home game group

What About You?

Of course, I can’t speak for all home game players. How has the transition to private online home games been for you? Do you feel these will continue after the pandemic subsides? If so, will you move your home game online permanently or will the online component supplement and be in addition to in-person gatherings? Perhaps this is a topic I will discuss further with my co-host Bruce Briggs on an upcoming episode of the Top Pair Home Game Poker Podcast.

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