I was traveling through Virginia a few weeks back – there for a business trip. I found myself on a lake about thirty miles south of Lynchburg. Lynchburg is the home of Liberty University – the fundamentalist Christian school founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell. I arrived the day he died.
Though I was surely in the middle of the Bible Belt, I made it my mission to find a poker game. There were no casinos or public rooms around, so I used my best searching skills to find a home game. And find one I did.
Networking for poker games is a finely tuned art more than anything else. You need to think through all of your private contacts and then exploit them until eventually you get a lead to a game. You can't be choosy; you need to be willing to play in whatever game you find. If the game isn't to your liking, use it to find another game where you're more comfortable.
I managed to network through my Jewish connections, eventually having the president of a local synagogue lead me to a great home game, far off the beaten track, in the most beautiful part of the state I had seen – on the edge of the Appalachian Mountains overlooking a verdant river valley. The game was perfect for my bankroll: a $10/20 limit dealer's choice game.
Finding a game is only part of the battle of the itinerant poker player. The other part of the fight is exploiting your usually unique status as a stranger in a home game. Usually, all of the other players know each other from having played with them regularly over the years. You, on the other hand, are an unknown – for better or for worse. They don't know your style of play and you don't know theirs. This is something that you can take advantage of. My home game in Lynchburg provided an excellent example of exactly how this can be done.
The games were a mixture of standard casino fare and typical home-game varieties. We played 5-card Omaha high-low with and without a declare. We played hold'em with a 'shuck' at the end, where players could replace one of their hole cards. And we played a few variants of stud – with five cards, six cards, shucks, and declares.
The players were a delightful and interesting mix of small-business owners, tradesmen, professionals and retirees. Though some were surely more interested in winning than losing, none were professionals nor even semi-professionals. A couple of the players seemed fairly skilled, but they were all there more to have a good time than to make money.
I find it useful, in games such as these, to concern myself more with the very big picture than with the finer points of the game. Specifically, my first mission is to separate the loose from the tight players. Generally speaking, this is easy if you pay attention during the first 15 minutes or so of play. The loose players tend to call nearly every hand on the first and second betting round. The tighter players are more selective. In home games, unlike in casinos, players tend to play according to form, with little variance to their style. I've rarely noticed a home-game player deliberately affecting a loose and wild style to set people up for moves later on. If he calls on third, fourth, and fifth street three of the first four hands, he's probably a poor, loose, calling station. If he folds three of four hands, and raises on the one in four hands he's in, chances are he tends to be fairly tight and aggressive. It's normally that simple. (The only slight variation is that all players tend to play more tightly when they first sit down in a game. But this tends to go away by the second or third hand of play).
Such was the case here. There were three gentlemen, one to my right and two to my left, who would be characterized in anyone's book as loose players. The guy to my right, Moe, seemed to be in every stud or Omaha hand. He didn't like hold'em. But in stud or Omaha, he initiated the betting if the action started with him, or called with every hand, just about, until the river. The other players all seemed to know this about him as well, kidding him once or twice. "In again, Moe," they'd chuckle.
A hand came up in a game of 7-card stud. This version was high-only.
We had played about one and a half rounds and I had made my very basic reads. I was also sure that, as a new player, those who noticed such things as playing style viewed me cautiously. I had played few hands as I was observing the play of others. This was unusual. Most players, even the fairly tight ones, tended to call at least the first round of betting.
Moe, two players to my right, was the high hand with a Queen.
The game was structured with no forced bet. The high hand had the option of betting $10 or checking. I was dealt () . Moe, with his Queen exposed, began the betting with $10. The player after him, one of the tight guys, folded.
Normally, in a typical casino game, I would not play this hand, especially not from early position. The two-flush adds little value (as it was, two hearts were exposed elsewhere). The high cards alone, though completely live, normally wouldn't justify my entry into a hand that, in a casino at least, would be likely to be played heads up. Plus, since Moe might have started with any three cards, a sharp casino player might well raise after I called – making it doubly expensive for me to see if fourth street brought me one of the six cards (one of the three Aces or three Kings) that would justify continuing with the hand.
But in this game it surely made sense to call. Few if any of the players were apt to raise – unless they had a pair of Kings or Aces – something I viewed as unlikely given my holding. And even then, they might just call along as well – trying to 'suck people in' as home-game players frequently try to do.
So, knowing that Moe might have anything, figuring to get good odds for a draw, and believing that I was unlikely to face a raise, I called – hoping that my 7:1 shot King or Ace would come in. Three other players in this seven-handed game called as well. Five of us saw fourth street.
I hit a great card, the , giving me ( ) . Moe hit a low card, the . No Kings or Aces were out (save mine, of course). No one else seemed to improve. Everyone checked to Moe with his Queen high.
Moe came out firing again, betting $10. This was no surprise to me. In fact, I had counted on it. I had asked when I arrived if they had any local rules I should know about. The game organizer mentioned a few, two of which were significant. In high-low games, straights and flushes killed a low hand, so 6432A was the best low. He also added that they allowed check-raising.
When I paired my King I thought about simply betting $10. That's what I probably would have done in a casino with such a hand. But then, in a typically tight casino game I probably would have been heads up on fourth street, not up against six players. Here, the correct play was the check-raise. I wanted to isolate Moe by knocking out all remaining players after he bet. Had I just called along or even just initiated the betting myself, at least a couple of the other players would have been likely to call along as well – since this was their habit. A double bet was another story. That got their attention – especially from me, the new guy who didn't seem to play many hands.
As planned, they all folded. Moe, having initiated the betting, wasn't about to back down. I'm not even sure he considered it an option at this point. He was in the hand. Perhaps he felt duty-bound to see it through. Winners never quit – and all that. Obligingly, he called.
In fact, though his hand did not improve noticeably, he called each of the remaining streets, including sixth street when I paired my six – my door card. This too was predictable. As I said, I hadn't seen him lay down a hand for the first eight to ten hands or so.
He called me on the river. I showed my Kings up. He nodded and tossed his hand in face down. I won a pot of $225 or so for my troubles.
Of course I got lucky by hitting my pair of Kings on fourth street. But had I been less observant or more reliant on my typically tight style of poker, without making adjustments for the special circumstances of this home game, I would probably have passed on the hand entirely – or bet the hand on fourth in a way that would have made it much less likely that I would have won the pot. The key was in noticing quickly the general style of play of my opponents, recognizing an opportunity, and making the necessary adjustments to exploit it. That, for me, is the key ingredient to successful home-game play when you're the visitor.