Sometimes it's easy. It's your regular poker game. It's at your house or your buddy's house. You know all the players and how they play and where the bathroom is. There are few if any surprises other than the cards. It's a comfortable environment for you because you know what to expect.
But sometimes it's not like that at all. Sometimes your friend from work invites you to her house for a game. Sometimes your neighbor stops you and asks if you'd like to play with his family. Sometimes, after Thanksgiving dinner at your uncle Mortie's, someone suggests a friendly game of poker. Sometimes it's all strange and disconcerting.
I'm focusing on those new, strange and potentially off-putting situations.
How do you approach a new game for the first time without losing any more of an edge than you have to? That's the question I'll briefly answer for you today. Consider this your cheat sheet at the table to help guide you along.
First of all, without appearing to be a pest, learn what you can ahead of time. This is usually as simple as asking some basic questions. Obviously, you have to figure out where the line is between pleasant and reasonable queries and pestering and annoying ones. But let me tell you what I do.
If someone invites me to a game I haven't been to before I thank them profusely. There is nothing greater for a good player than a new place to ply his trade or his favorite hobby. I don't ever ask questions that make it look like I might not find the game to be to my liking. True, I may decide that the game is either over my head or not worth my while. But I don't ever betray my concerns initially. If they're inviting me I'm happy and grateful.
If it is comfortable to do so immediately, I will smile and just ask whoever invited me to "tell me about the game". The smile is important. You want to appear casual, interested and friendly, not stern, suspicious, disapproving, superior, or aggressive. The smile does that. Look happy to be invited and curious more than like a picky shopper trying to figure out whether you really want what is being offered.
This is all important because your chief aim when you arrive is to fit in, get comfortable, and get invited back if it's a good game. If you come off as a suspicious jerk who is only thinking about whether he can make a big score off of some hapless fish you will either not be invited back or, perhaps worse, you'll have a miserable time.
So be (or act if you have to) the pleasantly surprised happy-go-lucky bloke when you ask these questions.
Often, the simple query "tell me about the game" will give you most of the information you need. Other times you'll have to get more specific. Here's a list of what you need to find out:
1. What game is spread?
2. What stakes?
3. What is the typical or requisite buy-in to the game?
4. What is the standard swing - how much money can a player expect to win or lose in the course of a typical night?
5. Is the game table stakes?
6. Do players bring food and drink to the game - and if so how much and how often?
7. Is there a rake/time charge. What is it?
I can't stress enough how important tone is. If you can't keep them at ease while you are asking these questions then stop asking them and smile and thank them for inviting you. Better not to have these answers then to make them uncomfortable. You are a friend who wants to make sure you don't miss anything and screw up. You are not a serious pro looking to figure out whether you can win everyone else's money.
Accordingly, even though you really want the answer to this question, DO NOT EVER ASK HOW STRONG THE OTHER PLAYERS ARE!!!!! Don't do it. No one really knows the answer to that question for you anyway. It's like asking a friend who offers you candy whether the candy tastes good. Don't be a schmuck. Take the offered gift graciously and then taste for yourself. You'll see how strong the players are when you go to the game. If they're too strong you can always decline to go back another time. If they're weak you'll be happy to return - but why broadcast that in advance.
My suggestion is that if you are invited to a game; make every effort to go at least once. I make this suggestion to you so you'll consider games that initially seem beneath your playing level. Obviously, if there's a game that's clearly over your ahead and that you can't afford, well decline the offer. But if you're thinking that a game isn't worth your while I suggest you think again.
It's generally been my experience that any game - even nickel ante poker - is worth the time of a serious poker player. You'll have a poker experience that you can learn from; you'll meet poker players; and you'll also have an opportunity to get invited to a bigger game - or at least find out about a bigger game. You may also meet people who will want to be invited to your game. It's only one evening or afternoon after all. Are you such a professional that you can't waste even a few hours meeting other poker players?
Ed Note: Meet thousands of poker players in a few minutes at Pokerroom.com