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Keith 'The Camel' Hawkins

Keith The Camel Hawkins

Keith 'The Camel' Hawkins Older Articles

Why I don't play private games

By Keith 'The Camel' Hawkins / November 2004

It's not that I have anything against a budding poker entrepreneur making a few quid. (Or a lot more than a few quid in some instances). It's just the way some of the guys who run private games operate which leaves a nasty taste in my mouth.

About five years ago, when I was nominally a professional poker player, but only at a pretty low level, I was playing a £20 tournament at Luton and I was bang on tilt. I had already had about 7 rebuys when I went all-in with J2 suited against 4 opponents. When the cards were on their backs the others showed various grade onehands; AA, AK suited etc etc. Before the flop was dealt Murray Brown moved to empty seat on our table. He looked at the various hands and the players who put all their chips in and while I was digging into my pocket for another score proffered his hand to me: "Hello, I'm Murray Brown, do you know I run a private game?"

Now, before I continue (and before some smartarse points it out), I have a confession to make. About five years ago I had a small share of a private game which ran in my house. We set it up to try and pay the exorbitant rent Mr O'Rourke charged us for the privilege of living there. I was not proud of my involvement then, and I'm ashamed to admit it now. What I will say in my defence is: Firstly we "only" charged 3% rake on each pot (the norm seems to be 5%). Secondly, we only invited congenial players. I think anyone who played in the Cricklewood game (North London) would say it was a fun experience and they had a good time while playing. Finally, we gave only very limited credit facilities, which meant players couldn't lose more than they could stand.

Even under these conditions, the host (ie us) was the big winner in the game. The first game we ran lasted nearly 24 hours. The box was full to overflowing. I was absolutely amazed.

A close friend of mine recently gave up playing private games. He did so for two reasons. One night, after playing a number of hours, he was playing in game and was behind about £1,500. He got lucky in a big pot and afterwards counted his stack; he found he was exactly £10 up! He then looked around the table. Every single player was losing! Admittedly a guy had left earlier winning about a monkey, but of the seven players remaining he was the only player who was winning! He cashed out immediately.

Then a couple of weeks later, he was sound asleep in bed when his mobile rang at 5am. "Hi Xxx, it's Yyy here. Zzz is playing in my game right now and he's doing £7 grand. He's still got £3,000 in front of him and is totally on tilt. Get over here right now before he loses the rest!". My friend jumped out of bed and had one leg in his trousers when a thought struck him. "Do I really want to drive 40 miles across country just to take Zzz's last money? What sort of person would that make me? Is Yyy telling me this for my benefit, or because he wants the game to keep going so he makes even more money?". With that thought, he put his pj's back on and retired to bed. And he hasn't played a private game since.

And that's one of the reasons I don't want to play private games. They organisers are interested in mugs who will attract other players. I had never met Brown before, but he clearly had me down as an ice cream (he's not a bad judge) and if he could get me to come to his game, he could tell all and sundry that a new mug would be in the game and they should hurry along while this maniac still had money, to try to relieve him of it.

The organisers sometimes go to great lengths to get the mugs to their game. They wine and dine them. They butter them up. They give them tips about how to improve their poker. Anything to get them into their game.

Years ago a guy turned up at the casino to play in a small tournament. He was a terrible player. His wife had just died and he was looking for some entertainment to take his mind away from his misery. The local private game entrepreneur took him under his wing . A couple of years later, by conservative estimates, the terrible player had lost a six figure fortune. When the player had lost virtually everything, the entreprenuer dropped him like a hot potato. And all the guy was looking for when he entered the cardroom was a bit of company and friendship.

Perhaps the biggest difference between playing poker in private games and in casinos is the proliferation of credit in home games. It's simple really, a player goes to a casino, if he does his dough he goes home. At a private game, after he loses his money he can ask the host for a loan. The host will usually oblige because he wants the game to keep going as long as possible. This obviously leads to problems. Sick gamblers can lose fortunes. You could argue that it is their fault for having no self control. However, gambling addiction is almost certainly an illness and if the option of credit is not available the sickos can't get into so much financial trouble.

I heard of a case recently, up here in the north, where one of these gamblers got into a huge debt in a private game. He was slow returning the money. So, the game host did the old fashioned thing to urge him to pay back. He got someone to give him a slap.

The other difference, of course, is how you pay for the experience of playing. In cash games at casinos you pay an hourly fee to the casino to play. In many private games each pot is raked by the house for a percentage of the pot. Let's say there is a pot of £200. The house might take 5% (£10). I would guess 5% (with a cap of £25 per pot) is the norm, but I have heard of games with a rake of up to 10%! Also, the player who wins a pot is obliged to tip the dealer a small amount. It all adds up to a much more expensive deal for the player.

In addition to this you have the very real worry of being cheated in some of these games. The dealers in these games rely on being tipped to make a wage out of the game. A guy I knew dealt in a game once (this game stopped running years ago and the dealers involved are no longer on the scene) and after dealing shifts for over 12 hours had made about £400 in tokes. He was quite pleased until he found out the other two dealers had made 3 times that! He couldn't be sure, but the conclusion he came to was that the other dealers were stealing from pots.

Now, I don't want to tar all private games with the same brush. There are some totally harmless games which are run more as social events than cash cows for the people who run them. Indeed, some games are probably run at a loss because there is no rake/charge for the players and food and drink is provided free. Also, the poker clubs which have recently been set up charge a time fee rather than rake pots, so the fee to play is probably about the same as playing in a casino.

And even the highly raked games probably have a place in the poker society. They are less formal and stuffy than playing in casinos and certainly less intimidating for newcomers to the poker scene. They allow you to play outside casino hours. And, of course, getting credit isn't always a bad thing. If you are in control of yourself it gives you the chance to win back your money without a long trip home.

But, all things considered, you probably won't catch me at a private game. If you outplay me, you are welcome to my money. If you get lucky against me, take the cash.
I am not prepared, however, to pay someone up to 3 times the rate I would pay to play a cash game in a casino for the privelige of doing my dough.

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